The problem – and the proud promise – of identity politics

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 1, 2018

The other day I read about @CarlosLozadaWP Carlos Lozada’s multi-layered identity: Catholic; immigrant US citizen; husband; father; Hispanic; registered independent voter; journalist.

Golly, I thought, Mr Lozada sounds a lot like me though I’m not Catholic, Hispanic, or a man. I am British and American and of Indian ethnicity. I’m a wife and mother. I’m a journalist.

Mr Lozada could’ve added other aspects of his identity – those that come from his work. Mr Lozada is nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post and was formerly the paper’s economics editor, national security editor and Outlook editor.

Golly, that too is a bit like me, I thought, though I didn’t work for The Washington Post. I’ve been The Times of India’s Europe editor, editor of the Sunday Times of India, presenter of the BBC World Service’s flagship news and current affairs programme. I’ve written for many fabulous outlets in different countries. Just as for Mr Lozada everything goes into forming my identity.

And just as he says, it wouldn’t feel right to assert any one of them. “There is always someone with a stronger claim, always a reason I don’t entirely belong,” Mr Lozada writes. “Identity is ‘negotiated’, scholars assure us, but who really ever closes the deal?”

So what does one do about identity politics?

As Mr Lozada writes, it’s fine for groups united around race, gender, ethnicity or other assorted identities to come together and seek recognition. However, “in its more dogmatic iterations, identity politics can stifle free speech, demonize opponents, infantilize proponents and blow past proportion.”

He quotes Stanford University political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s latest book ‘Identity’: identity politics is one of the “chief threats” facing liberal democracies, diverting energy and thinking away from bigger problems, such as increasing economic inequality.

And he records Columbia University historian Mark Lilla’s denunciation in his 2017 book ‘The Once and Future Liberal’ of the way left-wing identity movements have embraced the “pseudo-politics of self-regard”. Marginal, often minuscule groups make it harder to articulate a comprehensive liberal project, Mr Lilla suggests.

Mr Lozada seems to agree. He points out Professor Fukuyama’s further concern and writes as follows: “How can we come together on anything big when we keep slicing ourselves into smaller factions?” The Professor warned: “Down this road lies, ultimately, state breakdown and failure”.

But Mr Lozada then takes the politics of one – the smallest indivisible group! – to its logical conclusion. “…the only way to protect and uphold the individual — each individual — is through broad-based rights and principles. So, yes, we must move toward a politics of solidarity, as Fukuyama and Lilla contend. But for that solidarity to endure, it must grapple with the politics of identity.”

He goes on to point out that “the margins are never marginal to those who inhabit them” and identity politics is not really “opposed to an encompassing national vision. It is a step toward its fulfillment.”

Sounds about right. That said, there is much good sense in Mr Lilla, the historian’s contention that “there can be no liberal politics without a sense of we — of what we are as citizens and what we owe each other.” Rather than banging the drum for diversity, we should plead for what’s common among us.

That’s not to say marginalized groups should not endeavor to broaden the “we”. In the US, writes Mr Lozada, the “’we’ must become more capacious, more inviting”.

That’s generally the case in most countries, actually.