A new playing field: the rise of identity politics

Nicole Leonard

The rise of identity politics after the 1960s changed the landscape of political discourse. Identity politics describes the trend wherein groups gather around shared experiences of injustice, marginalization, race and ethnicity or other perceived disparity. These groups call on personalistic appeals rather than a structured political ideology.

The country is obsessed with the construction of individualism that does not really contain the elements of individuality, but rather it requires assimilation to a group that is perceived as distinct. Radical devolution of the United States’ melting pot identity results in a neediness for labeled differences, imagined or real, to be recognized in all facets of society. 

News, entertainment, social media and politics are at the heart of this debate to deliberately draw distinction between groups. Social media gives people the liberty to generate an identity intentionally formulated to purport a desired personality to followers. That personality is then legitimized and reaffirmed by likes, retweets and comments. Entertainment has undergone a movement dedicated to increasing representation and recognition for the stories of marginalized peoples and revolutionaries of their times. Talking heads on cable news fuss about politically correct language on a regular basis.

The serious ramification of a fixation on labeled differences in society is the domination of identity politics in the national arena. In such a landscape, affiliation to a political party denotes a person’s moral compass. It designates bigotry, religious intolerance or support for the death of the unborn, and it denies the validity of a person’s concerns on the basis of their inherent qualities. Assumption in the place of understanding creates the foundation for hate and disunity.

Identity groups are exclusive and uncooperative.

To detest the celebration of cultural differences in America is a mistake, but to shift focus explicitly to the interests of small factions is also a recipe for disaster. Marginalized groups rally around the sentiment that they have been treated with indifference or discrimination and that reparation is the logical next step.

Identity politics is an over-simplification of a vastly complex process that will lose ground after a resolution to perceived issues has been reached. A political platform determined to target the needs of a specific constituency as opposed to a legal framework by which legislators may rationally consider policy options will crumble on top of a cracking infrastructure of factionalism. 

The most recent election cycle is a prime example of identity politics on display. Policy coverage in town halls was dominated by the personal attacks from Clinton and Trump about their opponent’s fitness to serve. During the elections, Trump’s name-calling received far more attention than did his proposal to uproot Obama’s health care insurance program.

It is understandable that voters were more interested in Trump’s sex scandals than his tax code, but the impact of his personal life on citizens of America is far less than that of a tax code overhaul. Simplicity and entertainment make leaders relatable. When politicians are vague and boast about their flourishing personal relationships and attractive attributes, voters can attach themselves to the person rather than the policy.

It is easier to understand the narrative of a hard-working man and successful business entrepreneur than it is to break down the connection between Russian oligarchs and the president’s lawyer. 

Identity politics are divisive and attain popularity for people whose agendas are shallow. They force labels and establish imagined community personality that requires conformity to a group that paradoxically desires to stand out. The party system is barely reflective of ideology anymore, as rationality has been replaced by appeasement to the whims of the loudest faction available.