The Trouble With Identity Politics

Critical Race Theory has become a political football. The right is using it as a culture wars wedge issue while the left wants to dismiss it as just an obscure grad school discussion topic.

So, let’s give CRT a rest for now and avoid all that. Instead, let’s consider identity politics, a concept that both sides employ and one with a definition that is pretty clear in common usage. I think a fair definition of identity politics is: Appealing to voters (or consumers) primarily on the basis of their race or gender identity. Pretty straightforward. Also, more even-handed than CRT, which is a school of thought that comes from the left.

The right appeals to white, Christian identity, whereas the left appeals to the identity of pretty much anybody who isn’t a straight, white male, very wealthy or a political conservative. Both sides see themselves as the victims of an oppressive majority.

Whether practiced by left or right, identity politics is a cancer on the culture and on our political life. Here’s a short inventory of what’s wrong with it.

Identity politics encourages people to think of themselves as victims. White Christians are egged on to think of themselves as being threatened by gay rights, civil rights, feminism and all manner of social movements. Identity groups on the left are encouraged to think of themselves as put upon by white privilege and the patriarchy, among other evils. In both cases, victimhood becomes a sought-after status. Groups engage in a sort of victimhood Olympics. “You may be a woman, but I’m a Black woman and therefore a double victim!” “You may be a white Christian, but I’m an evangelical, and so I’m a more worthy victim than you are!”

Identity politics identifies scape goats. Problems in society — crime, income inequality, homelessness, etc. — are caused by some group identified by their race, gender, wealth or some other characteristic. So, you can blame immigrants, Black people, white people, intellectuals, the under-educated, the one percent, blue collar workers who don’t understand their own best interests, the main stream media… take your pick. What’s corrosive about this should be obvious. Finding demon groups on which to blame social, cultural or economic ills always ends badly.

Identity politics discounts personal initiative, merit and hard work. If you’ve achieved anything it isn’t because of your native talents or your hard work. No, it’s because you got an affirmative action break or you’re a beneficiary of white privilege. This is nihilism. Your fate was decided at birth based on your skin color and gender. Nothing you do matters, so why try?

Identity politics discourages personal responsibility. This is the flip side of the previous point. When things go astray, it’s not your fault. Dropped out of high school? It’s systemic racism in the school system. Didn’t get the job? It’s affirmative action.

A society steeped in identity politics breeds people who are always looking for new ways in which they can imagine that they have been victimized, people who blame categories of other people for what’s wrong in society, people who don’t see the point in hard work because their future has been fore-ordained, and people who refuse to take responsibility for their own failures.

In short, identity politics nurtures the very worst characteristics in human nature. Better, I think, to strive for a society that sees people as individuals with potential and with flaws, a society that doesn’t ignore discrimination but sees it as something to be eliminated and, crucially, does not see it as the explanation for 100% of every problem.

I would rather live in a society that encourages resilience instead of victimhood, hard work instead of resignation and personal responsibility over group identity.

This current political culture of bitterness, resentment and finger-pointing — practiced by both hard-right and hard-left — is getting us nowhere. In fact, I believe that it’s at the root of our polarization.

Those of us who are worried about Critical Race Theory — and there are a lot of liberals and moderates who are concerned about it — are right to be worried. But it’s not as if this kind of thing is exclusive to the left. CRT is a refined form of identity politics and that is a practice that is used on both the right and left.

It seems to me that a fundamental project for us as Americans right now is to get back to the practice of seeing one another as individuals.

Welcome to the 171st consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

9 thoughts on “The Trouble With Identity Politics

  1. First off, I’d encourage readers interested in getting back to the practice of seeing one another as individuals to read an article by Robin DiAngelo titled “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Anti-racist Education”. I believe it’s available for free. If we’re trying to get “back” to seeing one another as individuals, can somebody please let me know when this used to occur?

    Next, while I agree with the ideal that we reject identity politics, we’re at the same time lying in the bed that has been made. I totally get the fact that the impact of racism and sexism on our society and culture is not fun to think about and politically difficult to deal with. Life would be way more smooth if we could just say “that was in the past, we’re all individuals now”. The problem is that we’re not “past” the past yet.

    Like CRT or not, the truth is the truth. For the vast majority of the history of our country one’s racial and gender identity was a primary factor in the opportunities a person had. That is a fact. It was in the laws. That is the bed that was made in which we were born. Sure things are better now, but that past is not very distant and the effects still do reverberate.

    If there was no such thing as inheritance it could be easier. For instance, the effects of all the home ownership red-lining didn’t stop with past generations, inherited home ownership derived wealth continues through today via inheritances.

    If our legal system were just it could have worked out the retribution for all the historical theft, but it never has. The longer we wait the harder it is to fix. If I kidnapped someone and made them work for me and took all the fruits of their labor, then my descendants did the same to their descendants for following generations, then after a long time freed those who were being stolen from, a just legal system would allow for those persons to sue and regain the stolen wealth that would have been passed down those generations. We remember the phrase “40 acres and a mule” but forget that it never happened!

    In other words, suppose someone stole a million dollars from my dad. If my dad dies does the theft evaporate? If the thief dies as well, does the theft evaporate? No – the inheritors on both sides would take the issue to court. The theft remains a theft.

    Instead these decedents are told that the past has nothing to do with the present, you’re an individual. Just work hard and things will be great, don’t think about all that theft. It’s too far in the past anyway, how on earth could the bookkeeping be figured out? We’re colorblind now. All the disproportionate negative outcomes in your community have nothing to do with past practices, you and yours just need to work hard and everything will be great – clearly you are not working hard enough, as evidenced by your poverty.

    Some people think that by confessing a sin one is absolved of it. I believe that confession is just the first step. After the confession comes the part where you attempt to make right what was wrong, then you change your self so as not to repeat the sin. Our society is barely handling the fist part, and the impact of the sin will continue until we handle the necessary next steps. Until then the resentment is inevitable. We all wish that we could “live in a society that encourages resilience instead of victimhood, hard work instead of resignation and personal responsibility over group identity”. But that doesn’t happen by just wishing for it and sins don’t get washed away by just saying “oops, my bad”. Actual action is required.


    1. Very well argued. Thank you. But I don’t understand what I’d be confessing to. I didn’t kidnap anybody. I didn’t redline anyone. I don’t understand how individuals who are alive today and who did not discriminate against anyone are responsible for the horrible actions of people in the past.


      1. I’m not an expert in this topic by any means; it’s not my field of study – I’m just a regular person working a regular job. So this is just my personal effort to understand the world and I welcome critique. I also feel like I’m hijacking the article so my apologies for such a tangent. I’ll try not to be so crazy in the future.

        This is kind of repeating myself, but it gets to why individuals today can bear responsibility. One way I think of it is in terms of inheritance – if my father stole from your father and both our fathers died, I inherit your father’s stolen wealth while you get nothing. Neither of us had anything to do with it, you did nothing wrong nor did I, but can we just ignore it since both of us are innocent? Our lives would be completely different had you inherited what was your father’s rather than me. Could you really look at me, college educated, no debt and living in a nice house that I own – while you rent and struggle with student loan debt – and not feel resentment? Could you not make a legal case against me? If there were an entire group of people in exactly your situation, would you not form a group identity around this significant common issue?

        Now that’s a specific and easy example, but it does scale up and is an extraordinarily complicated book keeping task given the scale we’re dealing with. Maybe insurmountable. But acknowledging the truth of the premise and concluding after a genuine effort that it’s impossible to remedy is way better from a society standpoint than denying the premise. There would be a measure of healing to at least attempt to right a wrong. Perhaps those experiencing the harm could begin then to move past resentment if everyone acknowledged that theft did occur and the effects do last into today even if the evidentiary line from a – z is obscured by time.

        That’s kind of where that house bill on reparations seems to push – it just calls for studying the idea of reparations, not implementing reparations.

        Another way to think about it is through systems rather than individuals. Sure, you or I might have done nothing wrong, but the system in which we are a part did. This happens all the time. The city of Milwaukee just paid out a settlement to former Police Chief Morales. I didn’t do anything to Chief Morales, why should my money go to paying him? But it will. Since the settlement will be paid via debt, even people not yet born will pay the cost just because they’re born into this system. The opioid manufacturers are paying out settlements. The shareholders didn’t do anything wrong, but it’s essentially their money that goes to paying it out. After WWII Germany paid reparations to Israel. I imagine many regular Germans didn’t commit crimes against the Jews, but the entire country bore the significant cost of reparations in attempt to right a wrong.

        Now perhaps one could argue that individuals should bear all those listed costs rather than organizations. I could go along with that. But under our current paradigm that’s not what happens – why should individuals be accountable for redlining and slavery but not opioid settlements? I’m tempted to answer that question but I’ll refrain…

        In the end, not one of us is really an individual. That’s a theoretical concept that’s done far more harm than good. There’s no stretch of land where a human can live a truly individual life, at least not without first participating in the collective life wherein they would get the money to pay for that land and the associated taxes. And even then the rest of us will remind that person that they’re not an individual when their water source gets polluted upstream. We all are connected to each other – humans, animals, plants. We are literally One. Humans need to quickly get that understood before we become extinct. The myth of the individual is at the root of our destruction.


  2. You really buy right into your new pal Dave Blaska’s arguments on this, don’t you? Consider this about identity politics: This city, county, state, country, world have traditionally been governed by white men and that hasn’t been great for people who are not white men. So let’s try to get more women, people of color, and other traditionally unrepresented groups involved in politics.


    1. Michael, So you would prefer Clarence Thomas to Stephen Breyer? Betsy DeVos to Arne Duncan? Janel Brantjen to Gordon Hintz? Also, if you’re going to blame white guys for all the world’s problems, then wouldn’t it be fair to credit them for everything that’s gone right? That would include liberal democracy and capitalism, which has resulted in the greatest and most rapid expansion of human health, wealth, freedom and equality in human history. And as for getting traditionally under-represented groups involved, the Madison City Council and School Board are over-represented by people of color compared to the population at large. If they’re doing a job that’s demonstrably better than anybody else, that’s news to me.


      1. Dave wrote, “And as for getting traditionally under-represented groups involved, the Madison City Council and School Board are over-represented by people of color compared to the population at large. If they’re doing a job that’s demonstrably better than anybody else, that’s news to me.”

        This is a very good point.

        Also; we need to stop trying to compare the percentage of people of color representing us to the percentage of people of color in the larger population because it both directly and indirectly implies that there should be some kind of equivalency in these percentages and I for one believe it doesn’t matter! I want competent persons representing us and I don give a hoot what the color of their skin is. We are defined as human beings not as black or white human beings and until people get that segregated identity garbage out of their heads nothing will change to unite we the people the way we should be united.


  3. Dave wrote, “So, let’s give [Critical Race Theory] a rest for now and avoid all that.”

    That’s the functional equivalent of allowing the ones that are actively pushing CRT to get their way with no opposition. This is never a good idea, it enables that which you oppose to proliferate and it’s why we are where we are politically and socially in the United States of America in the 21st century.

    Intelligent adults can easily multi-task and deal with multiple important issues at one time, you don’t drop one important issue and focus on another when they are both important issues.

    It’s perfectly fine if you personally want to focus a blog post on identity politics but don’t start it off by tell others that they need to “give [Critical Race Theory] a rest for now”.

    Identity politics encourages people to think of themselves as victims.

    Identity politics identifies scapegoats. Identity politics discounts personal initiative, merit and hard work.

    Identity politics discourages personal responsibility.

    In short, identity politics nurtures the very worst characteristics in human nature.

    I would rather live in a society that encourages resilience instead of victimhood, hard work instead of resignation and personal responsibility over group identity.

    I agree with every one of those statements.

    CRT is a refined form of identity politics…”

    I disagree with this statement. CRT is a propaganda lie that’s being used to intentionally indoctrinate and shift society as a whole with a goal of undermining the core foundations that our country is built upon. CRT uses the divisiveness of identity politics as a political tool to push the lie. The CRT propaganda lie is being pushed in an effort to fundamentally shift the culture of the United States of America.


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