Vox: Identity politics is saving liberalism

Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has written a lengthy piece arguing that, contrary to critics on the right and left, identity politics is the salvation of liberal politics. Because of the length of this piece I won’t have time to fully do justice to a response, but I wanted to at least get the ball rolling on what I would agree is a significant debate. To be fair to his argument you should read the whole piece but here’s a sampling of it:


To understand why this kind of identity politics is so controversial — and what its critics often get wrong about it — we need to turn to the work of the late University of Chicago philosopher Iris Marion Young.

In 1990, Young published a classic book titled Justice and the Politics of Difference. At the time, political philosophy was dominated by internal debates among liberals who focused heavily on the question of wealth distribution. Young, both a philosopher and a left activist, found this narrow discourse unsatisfying.

In her view, mainstream American liberalism had assumed a particular account of what social equality means: “that equal social status for all persons requires treating everyone according to the same principles, rules, and standards.” Securing “equality” on this view means things like desegregation and passing nondiscrimination laws, efforts to end overt discrimination against marginalized groups.

This is an important start, Young argues, but not nearly enough. The push for formally equal treatment can’t eliminate all sources of structural inequality; in fact, it can serve to mask and even deepen them. Judging a poor black kid and a rich white one by the same allegedly meritocratic college admissions standards, for example, will likely lead to the rich white one’s admission — perpetuating a punishing form of inequality that started at birth.

Young sees an antidote in a political vision she developed out of experiences in social movements, which she calls “the politics of difference.” Sometimes, Young argues, achieving true equality demands treating groups differently rather than the same. “The specificity of each group requires a specific set of rights for each, and for some a more comprehensive system than for others,” Young writes. The goal is identity consciousness rather than identity blindness: “Black Lives Matter” over “All Lives Matter.”


Again, we’re just scratching the surface but already you can probably see where this is going. Beauchamp is taking up the argument that neutrality under the law isn’t producing equality so what’s need is to step away from “allegedly meritocratic” standards. In lieu of that, we need to come up with “a specific set of rights” for each identity group. He describes this as if it’s all new but if you’ve listened to many identity politics lectures, the word that is often used is “equity.” Equity doesn’t mean neutrality under the law or equality of opportunity, it means reworking the system to produce an equitable outcome even if doing so means favoring one group at the expense of another.

Beauchamp doesn’t mention Martin Luther King Jr. which seems odd because he is probably the best known historical figure associated with “identity blindness.” “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” King said. But I guess we’re leaving that behind now. Are we going “beyond” King’s message or are we undercutting it completely by saying sexual and racial group identity should be made the most important part of our politics?

A bit later, Beauchamp feels the need to brush aside some of the more negative outcomes which are already associated with identity politics:


It is of course true that one can point to illiberal behavior by activists in the name of identity politics: Think of the student group at the City University of New York that attempted to shout down a relatively mainstream conservative legal scholar’s lecture out of hostility to his views on immigration law. But instances of campus intolerance are actually quite uncommon, despite their omnipresence in the media, and the idea that a handful of student excesses represent the core of “identity politics” is a mistake.

Here I would completely disagree. Evergreen State College alumnus Benjamin Boyce has spent more than two years documenting the meltdown which took place at his school in 2017. In his ongoing series of videos, most of which I’ve written about here, Boyce makes an iron-clad case that the students who took over the campus, demanded a teacher be fired, told white students they shouldn’t speak, roamed the campus with sticks and bats, demanded the police be disarmed or disbanded, told the school’s president not to raise his arms, etc., etc. —all of it was explicitly motivated by identity politics training the students received from their professors as well as visiting speakers like Robin DiAngelo. In short, Evergreen is what happens when a group of students absorb a metric ton of identity politics (including a heavy dose of Black Lives Matter) and act on it. The same could be said for what took place at Mizzou, Oberlin, Yale, and many other campuses.


It’s no accident that these outbreaks of illiberal and sometimes violent behavior keep happening on the most left-wing campuses. It’s on these campuses where identity politics are being transmitted most uniformly and where students are probably most willing to accept the message. It’s true that these incidents are relatively rare compared to the sheer number of college campuses in the U.S. but this entire project is brand new. Black Lives Matter is only 6-7 years old. The illiberal behavior we’re seeing now has spread incredibly quickly.

Finally, I have to point out that even one of Beauchamp’s success stories doesn’t seem terribly successful:

The 2017 Women’s March is a concrete example of how identity politics can help in this struggle.

The march was billed, at the time, as both an expression of feminist rage and the major anti-Trump action the weekend of the inauguration. Some liberal identity skeptics fretted that these goals were antithetical; that the particularism of the event’s feminist rhetoric would end up dividing the anti-Trump coalition…

The experience of attending Women’s Marches seems to have galvanized a significant number of people — overwhelmingly women — to engage in sustained activism for both gender equality and the defense of liberalism more broadly…

The Women’s March itself seems to have largely petered out, succumbing to fatigue and leadership infighting. But its true legacy will be the activist networks it helped create, ones that contributed to sustained and impactful challenges to an illiberal presidency.


The Women’s March collapsed specifically because of identity politics infighting and concerns over anti-Semitism in the leadership. Perhaps the lesson here is that identity politics is good at getting people worked up at other groups of people. On that I’d agree.  But the idea that this is going to be a net positive for liberalism doesn’t seem to be proven by this chaotic, failed movement which millions of people no longer associate themselves with.

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