I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the first things America’s political left would do during the 2016 election post-mortem is to attack minority groups like trans* people, and “identity politics.” That narrative says Americans decided a potential fascist (when you consider his policy proposals, unilateral rhetoric, media manipulation and stoking of hatred) was a better choice than a continuation of (stalemated) progressive politics, because the latter went too far by, for example, letting trans* folks in.
But it is worth digging down to see what is meant by “identity politics.” Like “political correctness,” it’s a conveniently vague term that can be used to complain about the politics of almost anyone whose struggles one hasn’t experienced firsthand. “Identity politics” is a code for all civil rights — for people of colour, for women, for LGBTQ folks, for immigrants, for Muslims struggling against the continual conflation with terrorists, and more. Beyond Colin Jost’s barbed joke on Saturday Night Live and a columnist in the New York Times, the most-cited instance of blowback was a statement by Bernie Sanders, that “It is not good enough for someone to say, I’m a woman, vote for me.” While perhaps true on the surface (though it seems intended with more nuance than it has been given by those who cite it), the inevitable inverse suggestion that minority groups were too greedy and / or impatient in trying to acquire equal rights risks being, in its way, yet another roundabout step toward white supremacy, whether conscious or not.
It is also looking at the situation entirely backwards. Do not fault people for wanting an equal chance. Fault the chances being sucked away from everyone. Equality is not an unreasonable demand, and nor is wanting it now.
On the contrary, a civil rights perspective is what has been needed. There have been significant flaws in how it has been implemented so far, however. Between the weakness of compromised politicians, the fears of ticking off corporate funders of the organizations and institutions that have taken the issue on, and the subjectivity of corporate-controlled media which either provide or squelch voices on the issue, civil rights only progress toward — but never reach — the point at which they address economic injustice. Meanwhile, privileged people within social movements have too often been satisfied with equality on paper, almost like a placebo, and willing to leave behind their poor and disenfranchised in order to get it.
This is against a backdrop in which economic disparity has stratified wealth — and it is only helped if everyone fights each other over the scraps rather than wondering where it has all gone. Four decades of “trickle down economics” have been more than enough to prove that wealth, instead, has only been bleeding upward.
Civil rights movements have been the right direction. But between opponents and the lack of will (or corporate indebtedness) of proponents, they have been sold out, left standing only partway to justice, among a population that has been allowed to believe that equality has already been accomplished… or is at least so inevitable that it does not require any further effort. Equality has only been permitted to the point where it has not been seen to jeopardize the wealth of the richest, at a time when the greed of the latter has been simultaneously sucking society dry universally.
At this moment, the worst thing the political left can do is to fracture and feed the impulse to blame each other for wanting “too much.” It is time to recognize that political and institutional powers have instead been only willing to offer too little, and to take it only from the less affluent (and in ways that were perfectly designed to sow resentment).
The left is weak because it has been fragmented, atomized, divided into pocket communities with single-issue visions. If it chooses to continue to do so in the face of possible looming fascism, then it is well along the path to self-defeat.
At one time, the left was galvanized by the ideas of unions, collective effort, and sharing the load / sharing the benefit. It is well past time for a call to question individualism and revisit an “everyone together” vision of progress.