The establishment of genuine connections is key to social prosperity. Whenever we have hobbies, interests or personal characteristics that closely match those of the people around us, we feel comfortable and accepted within our respective groups. One could apply these truths to virtually any context, but they become readily apparent when politicians, seeking our votes to heighten or maintain their influence, amplify the stances and traits that make them appear relatable to the broadest, most significant audiences. This leads to our tendency to engage in “identity politics” (i.e., form groups and primarily base our judgment of candidates around our personal affinity with them as opposed to their policies). Now I don’t mean to invalidate anyone who aligns themselves with candidates of the same age, ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic status, etc. However, I take issue with “identity politics” as a standalone determinant of a candidate’s worth.
First, engaging solely in “identity politics” diminishes the legitimacy of our words and actions. I’ve already alluded to our tendency to seek out people who are similar to us, which is perfectly understandable but also somewhat harmful. After all it’s a textbook case of confirmation bias, meaning we peruse and interpret information that matches our preconceived notions while neglecting and disregarding any contrasting information. In other words, we’re predisposed to say and do things that are within our best interests, with little-to-no regard for how other people might be affected. Once such behavior becomes evident we lose much of our ability to be objective observers and actors — and consequently lose our credibility. Thus, our best course of action is to avoid pure groupthink and instead carefully and thoroughly consider which candidates maximize the benefits for us all.
Another significant problem “identity politics” pose is they distract us from the substantial issues at hand. Should America elect a woman as president in the near future? Yeah, it’d sure be nice to end the streak of 45, soon-to-be 46, consecutive men! Would I like to see Bernie Sanders become our first Jewish president, especially as a Jew who’s witnessed the antisemitism that’s run rampant throughout our country’s history, even to this day? Absolutely! Yet I also realize that if I were to make such desires my primary criteria for determining worthwhile political candidates, then I’d blind myself to their ability (or inability) to address critical matters (e.g., climate change, healthcare, economic disparity, immigration, etc.). Surely we can strike a balance between advocating for greater diversity among the candidates we elect to public office and supporting those candidates who are the most qualified for their respective positions.
My final gripe with “identity politics” — and perhaps the most justifiable one, at that — is they sow seeds of contempt among us. There’s certainly no excuse to engage in or tolerate misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, ageism, etc. But we’d be naive to deny that our exclusion of and dismissiveness toward people with different backgrounds and beliefs from our own leave us and the candidates we support more vulnerable to such attacks. While Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren were far-from-perfect presidential candidates, they don’t warrant such heavy scrutiny solely on the basis of their gender. As fair as it might be to criticize Joe Biden for his dishonesty and declining mental capacity, it’s downright inhumane to mock him for his stutter, a preexisting condition that’s been well-documented. And regardless of your sentiments surrounding Sanders and his policies, we can all agree that waving a Nazi flag at one of his campaign rallies — as one man did Thursday night — is sickeningly hateful. While thoughtful critiques of political candidates can be productive — after all, it’s our civic duty to vote on their ability to serve us for significant time periods — we can’t allow ourselves to become even more divided via personal, vitriolic attacks that hamper our judgment and our interactions with those around us.
In an ideal world, everyone would be judged on a level playing field regardless of any demographic characteristics or other variables lying beyond their control. But because we don’t live in that reality, we instead must prop up people with such distinctions without overlooking more critical factors or alienating those around us. The only viable path for accomplishing this task is to abandon “identity politics,” or at least lessen their influence over our beliefs and actions.
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Michael Katz is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.