McGill University’s Jacob T. Levy has an outstanding piece over at the Niskanen Center on the role of identity politics in the 2016 election and in the movement for liberty. In the piece, titled “The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics,” Levy takes on the defense of identity politics by downplaying its role in electing Donald Trump and by making the case for advocates of liberty to incorporate identity politics into arguments for more individual freedom.
Identity Politics didn’t elect Trump
It seems that President-elect Donald Trump’s upset win in early November was just the evidence the anti-politically correct conservatarian crowd needed to prove that identity politics are bunk. Levy takes issue with that, writing, “…there is a powerful temptation to attribute the surprising and dramatic fact of Trump’s win to some issue about which one had some preexisting ax to grind.”
That Trump’s election was the inevitable backlash against the left’s decades-old deployment of identity politics doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and Levy makes quick work of it by looking at vote shares and shifting demographics:
Trump got a lower share of the white vote than Romney did (58% vs 59%). There was some change in both directions within the white vote: college-educated whites shifted toward the Democratic column by a few points (though a plurality still voted for Trump), but non-college-educated whites moved in larger numbers toward Trump (he got 67% of their votes, versus 62% for Romney). White men shifted toward Trump by 1% relative to 2012, white women in the other direction by 3%. This back-and-forth of course meant that Trump eked out victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency, by a combined 80,000 or so votes across the three states. But fundamentally, voting patterns didn’t change enough between 2012 and 2016 to justify big claims about new national moods or about Trump’s distinctive appeal. I believe the consequences of this election will be deeply abnormal. But the voting behavior that brought it about was, in the end, very normal.
Trump’s win was definitely unexpected, but it wasn’t a referendum on identity politics or political correctness, and Trump certainly wasn’t elected with a mandate. 74 million Americans voted for someone other than Donald Trump for President, compared to the 62 million who voted for him. Identity politics didn’t elect Donald Trump, but Levy goes on to make a case for why self-avowed liberals should incorporate it into their discourse anyway.
Identity politics are good for liberty
Levy makes the case that many libertarian pet issues, like introducing accountability to the nation’s police departments, reforming civil asset forfeiture laws, rolling back police militarization, are ultimately distillations of broader identity politics. Sure, you can advocate for these issues as a libertarian without invoking race, but given that the impetus for these liberty-destroying policies is bound up in the United States’ history of racism and white supremacy, adopting a tone at least sympathetic to identity politics would allow libertarians to make further inroads into communities that wouldn’t typically identify as libertarian. Levy writes,
It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.
As much as it might be a pain to hear, well-reasoned and logical arguments aren’t the best ways to convince people your position is the correct position. Sometimes, probably most times, it helps to appeal to the emotions of the person you’re trying to convince. To this end, Levy concludes his piece as follows, bolded emphasis mine:
As citizens of a liberal state trying to preserve it, we need to be able to hear each other talking about particularized injustices, and to cheer each other on when we seek to overturn them. Members of disadvantaged minorities standing up for themselves aren’t to blame for the turn to populist authoritarianism; and their energy and commitment is a resource that free societies can’t do without in resisting it.