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Accepting My Political Identity

Sarah Roberts ’20 Managing Editor
When we started to debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my 21st Century Democracy class, I was surprised by my initial and somewhat emotionally-charged response.
I have always prided myself on my ability to focus on the facts when making logical judgments, but, in this case, my religious and cultural identity colored my vision.

In today’s political climate, we hear a great deal about identity politics, whether it’s the right’s ‘unwarranted hostility’ towards identity politics or the left’s ‘excessive focus on niche concerns.’ Very generally, identity politics is the adoption of positions and views based on one’s race, sexuality, religion, gender, or ethnicity instead of a broader engagement in party-politics.

Despite the typical antagonism from the right towards identity politics during and around the 2016 election, many leftist politicians now make parallel claims. They argue that identity politics seems to miss part of the complexity of a person. They assert that this way of viewing politics often assumes that groups such as African-Americans, Hispanics, and the LGBTQIA+ community don’t have interests apart from their group and that they don’t have worries beyond identity.

Though many claim American identity politics originated on the left, recent events show an even more potent display of this in Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Many opponents of identity politics blame this on the Democratic Party and a universal inability to recognize how the party’s obsession with heterogeneity encourages white, rural, working-class Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being ignored.

However, this class of Americans consistently characterizes itself as a disadvantaged group, even when history shows it wasn’t, regardless of the presence of the left’s doctrine of diversity. This cynicism from America’s working class directed at perceived political elites has been at the crux of every populist movement in American history, from Andrew Jackson up to Donald Trump. These movements tend to take shape around the identity of white working-class men, who become a symbol for the “common man.” Yet, this in itself is a paradox. The unique and representative common man who embodies American exceptionalism is neither unique nor representative. Epitomized as a white working man of rural origins, he becomes the synecdoche for America itself, a reductive analog of universality.

Regardless of where one stands on the current issue, the United States was undeniably founded on identity politics. There simply was not a time before identity politics in a country in which full-citizenship and political rights were only ever granted to specific groups, such as white land-holding men, and not to the whole. It is not an exaggeration to say that every major event in the history of the United States was a direct consequence of identity politics.

Wherever one chooses to start examining the events of American history, power struggles based on identity will inevitably emerge as a central force. Whether it be the forced resettlement of indigenous peoples by European settlers, or the English Separatists of the Mayflower who started a new society based on their religious beliefs in which church membership would be a requirement of representation, there is identity politics. Next, consider the centuries-long legalized, systemic enslavement of black people while white people remained free, an institution grounded in identity politics. Or, consider the patriarchal systems that prevented women from voting until 1920, and still perpetuate wage inequality as well as government-led attempts to assert control over their bodies. Again, identity politics.

This much is clear: nothing about our current political situation is new — not identity politics, not white resentment, not even hatred as a kind of ideological tenet. There are only two new changes to the ubiquitous American rhetoric of identity: the modern voices that reshape it in ways that unnerve and perturb those who used to be its primary contributors, and the rising influence of identities that aren’t white and male. Movements such as Civil Rights, second wave feminism, and LGBTQIA+ rights bring a perceived sustained threat to the ‘true American identity.’

Throughout American history, different identity groups fought over what and who would define the American people. Although identity politics from the left may likely prove an insufficient tool against identity politics from the right, it is not true that identity politics is inescapably divisive. Difference is a part of life, to which division is only one response. Inclusion is another: not just condoning but embracing difference, fighting for the rights of all, not just the few.

With regard to my own political dilemma, I still am unsure of how to continue. I know it would be implausible for me to completely ignore my personal instincts and biases, but to accept them blindly would be doing myself a disservice. Rather, it seems best to move forward consciously recognizing and respecting all aspects of my identity and others’ (political or otherwise).
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The Razor's Edge reflects the opinion of 4/5 of the editorial board and will not be signed. The Razor welcomes letters to the editor but reserves the right to decide which letters to publish, and to edit letters for space reasons. Unsigned letters will not be published, but names may be withheld on request. Letters are subject to the same libel laws as articles. The views expressed in letters are not necessarily those of the editorial board.
     
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