Samantha Bee Doesn’t Understand the Left’s Objection to Identity Politics

by Benjamin Studebaker

I ran across a Samantha Bee clip in which Bee attacks Bernie Sanders and others members of the left who believe the Democratic Party needs to get away from “identity politics”:

In the clip, Bee explains left-wing opposition to identity politics by having a right-wing Fox news presenter misexplain the term. She then asserts that identity politics is synonymous with civil rights, claims that “white men” are an identity, and accuses the left of abandoning its principles. This is a reductive straw man argument. It collapses important distinctions in the way the left and the right criticize identity politics.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Bee makes its equating the civil rights movement and identity politics. The civil rights movement was about a set of political objectives while identity politics is a set of tactics. Political movements can push for civil rights without framing their message in terms of identity politics, and identity politics can be used to pursue many different objectives aside from civil rights.

Identity politics talks about civil rights in terms of what specific groups of people are due, and it places those groups in opposition to one another in a zero-sum game. In identity politics we divide races, genders, religions, or ethnicities up into different groups. Some of these groups are identified as “oppressing” and others are identified as “the oppressed”. The oppressing groups are accused of enjoying privileges which they must give up to the oppressed. This means there is must be some fundamental transfer of status, wealth, or opportunity from privileged groups to oppressed groups. Consequently, people who are part of privileged groups are held in suspicion–these people are accused of defending and reproducing the systems of oppression which benefit them. When they express views that we don’t like, we can cast aspersions on those views by pointing out that they come from a member of a privileged group which has some stake in maintaining oppression. Those who participate in systems of oppression are said to be aggressive and practitioners of identity politics tend to morally condemn them, often by blaming and shaming them for their views and group identity.

It’s entirely possible to attempt to demand civil rights through identity politics. We can make these distinctions between oppressor and oppressed and use this as a basis to demand concessions from privileged groups. But this is not the only way to pursue a civil rights agenda.

We used to talk about civil rights in an entirely different way, from the perspective of citizenship. When we criticized racism, we criticized it on the grounds that it denied citizens rights and opportunities to which they ought to be entitled as citizens. Importantly, when we talked about what people are due as citizens, this cut across sub-national group identities. If all citizens are entitled to the vote, or to healthcare, or to education, or to some minimal living standard, we are committed to defending the rights and opportunities of everyone in our society regardless of what other groups they might identify with. Citizenship transcends narrow sectional identities.

When the left opposes identity politics, it does so not because it doesn’t care about civil rights, but because it wants to pursue those rights by appealing to what we are all owed as citizens rather than to what some groups are owed because of oppressed status. The language of citizenship transforms civil rights from a zero sum game into a positive sum game, in which we are expanding the benefits of citizenship for all of our people rather than transferring benefits from some privileged group to some oppressed group. This makes it easier to create broad, solidaristic coalitions in which civil rights are pursued concurrently with other kinds of benefits for groups identity politics regards as privileged. This spirit is embodied in the left wing politics of the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, in which civil rights were pursued alongside workers’ rights and the war on poverty. Much was accomplished during that period for all of our citizens, though there is still much left to do. It’s a lot easier to get white guys to buy-in when we encourage them to think of themselves as fellow citizens rather than as members of a privileged identity group which is being challenged, especially when we ensure that they benefit from our policies alongside everyone else.

In contrast, when the right opposes identity politics it is often practicing it, albeit in a different way. Many on the right believe that the civil rights movement largely eliminated group oppression, and they think the contemporary civil rights movement is engaged in what they call “reverse racism”, seeking to oppress and expropriate formerly privileged groups to reverse the relationship of privilege and oppression that has prevailed historically. Bee confuses this right wing politics, which denies the legitimacy of the grievances of disadvantaged groups, with the left wing effort to ground civil rights in a broader narrative of what it means to be a citizen.

The sad thing today is that identity politics has become so ubiquitous as a way of thinking about and pursuing social justice that it now appears many people, including Bee, are no longer capable of conceptualizing alternative frameworks for understanding political groupings. Indeed, Vox’s Matthew Ygelias went so far as to claim that “there is no other kind of politics” aside from identity politics. This is only plausible if identity politics is defined so broadly as to render the term useless. It’s possible to regard appealing to people as citizens as a form of identity politics if we regard citizenship itself as a form of identity, but this overly broad way of thinking encourages us to collapse an important distinction. In domestic politics, appealing to citizenship is a means by which lesser identities are transcended, and this makes it fundamentally different from other forms of group appeal.

This distinction becomes especially obvious when we compare left wing citizenship politics to right wing white identity politics.  These things are clearly not identical. Yet if we say that all politics is identity politics, we are effectively saying that because left wing citizenship politics appeals to white people, it’s synonymous with white identity politics. That kind of argument draws a deeply misleading false equivalency between the politics of Bernie Sanders and the politics of Richard Spencer. There is no good reason to define “identity” in a way that void that distinction. There is, however a bad reason. People defining identity in a way which encourages us to see left egalitarians as identical to right nationalists may be attempting to defend neoliberalism from both. They may want a Democratic Party which isn’t interested in building a broad solidaristic coalition because they are not interested in helping workers and poor people if those people are white. This is the core of why we don’t talk about citizenship much anymore–it requires us to care about all of our people, not just the groups that are regarded as historically oppressed. Many people have become far too accustomed to vilifying white guys who need and deserve our help. Because they’re so used to thinking in identity politics’ zero sum terms, they are not capable of reading that statement without thinking that the help white guys receive must necessarily come at the expense of the groups they defend. It’s not just that they don’t want a coalition with poor and working class whites–in many cases they can’t even conceive of how such a coalition could help them because they view it as intrinsically value compromising. Nothing could be further from the truth, but to see this we have to think of ourselves less as members of subgroups and more as fellow citizens engaged in a common political project which can potentially benefit all of us, if we work together.