Identity Politics: For Good or Evil?

Here are two interesting articles, both from thinkers on the political, social, and economic left, who have very different ideas about identity politics. Sean McElwee, writer and researcher in New York City, believes firmly that any promising future for the Democratic Party lies in strong ties with identity politics. Anis Shivani, publisher and editor of Futurist Press, is convinced that identity politics is at the root of Democratic Party woes and doesn’t have much hope for the future of the party if identity politics remains at its core.

I confess to having not much in common politically, socially, or economically with either writer. Still, it’s an interesting debate within the political, social, and economic left and it will be interesting to see where it leads.

In my mind, identity politics, like so many other things, has the potential to bring about great progress. But, it also has the potential to inflict great harm.

What is the great potential progress of identity politics? It’s been demonstrated throughout history. People, joined together by a common identity, either racial, ethnic, economic, or otherwise, can be a strong force for positive change. Two examples come to mind: the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the Solidarity Movement in Poland.

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States saw a rise in consciousness in the black community, and that consciousness drove them to action. The Civil Rights Movement was a movement of those who shared the identity of being black and the identity of being oppressed by unjust laws and systemic racism. These identities coalesced into a movement that would not be denied. The result was the obliteration of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as a general consciousness among all Americans that denying anyone’s human and Constitutional rights on the basis of the color of their skin was immoral and intolerable.

The Solidarity Movement in 1980s Poland was similar. The movement brought together men and women who shared the identities of being Polish, Catholic, and under the thumb of an oppressive Communist regime. Just as in the Civil Rights Movement in America, these identities coalesced into a movement. Pope St. John Paul II exploited all three identities in his historic and groundbreaking visit to Poland in June of 1979, when he called the people of his homeland to God and to freedom. The result, ultimately, was nothing less than the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe and, eventually, the breakup of the Soviet Union.

But, identity politics also possesses the potential for great harm. Again, two examples come to mind: the rise of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s, and the horrors of the killing fields of Khmer Rhouge Cambodia in the 1970s.

I hardly need to summarize here the tragic history of Germany and Europe during the Nazi regime of the mid-twentieth century. Adolf Hitler’s entire political and social philosophy rested on the assumed superiority of the Aryan race and the extermination of any who did not possess that identity, whether Jew, Catholic, gypsy, homosexual or political opponant. The Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975 and began the systematic murder of not only political opponants, but those who belonged to certain economic or academic classes, as well as ethnic and religious minorities.

So, what makes the difference? How can political movements so entwined with racial, national, or religious identities succeed in making such profound changes for the good on the one hand, but be the cause of such catastrophic horrors on the other?

I believe the key is at the root of each movement. At the root of the Civil Rights Movement was not simply one’s racial identity. At the root of the movement was the universal good of equality and freedom for all. The same is true for the Solidarity Movement. Yes, the movement was strongly identified and rooted in the Polish Catholicism of the people. But, at the root of Solidarity was not the belief that Polish Catholicism was superior or set apart from all other identities. At the root was the universal claim that all people have a right to be treated with the dignity accorded a human being. When these two movements succeeded, it necessarily raised all people up, even those who were not black or Polish Catholics, because the roots of each movement were not in the racial, national, or religious identities of those struggling for their freedom, but in the universal, God-given right of all to be free.

The root of Nazism, however, was the superiority of the Aryan race. The root of the Khmer Rouge regime was the superiority of a racial/political identity. In the minds of their advocates, raising up these identities necessarily required the trampling and degredation of others or, at least, their being set apart.

When people in the United States desire to be organized around a particular identity, whether by race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or what have you, the question comes to mind: What is the root of this movement? Is it the superiority of one identity over another? Is it the desire to raise up all, or to separate one’s own group from others?

My concern over identity politics as it is currently manifested in the United States is that it demands that people be seen first as members of a particular group, a particular identity, and only second as persons made in the image and likeness of God, if at all. This root is poisen, and it will bring toxic results to our political health and our shared culture.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

 

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