Identity politics: Left and right

Divisive identity politics is on the political right – just look at Alan Fine, who sought to use religion to inflame the electorate.

Jason Stahl

As a person on the left side of the political spectrum, it is quite often when discussing politics with my friends of the same political persuasion that the subject turns to identity politics. These conversations usually focus on to what extent markers of difference – be it race, class, gender or sexuality – can be used to organize political action of the liberal/left.

Inevitably, these discussions tend to arise most often when I am conversing with other straight white men who are quick to tell me how class can be the only organizing identifier, particularly for electoral politics. Class, in their minds, is deemed the most inclusive, while other identifiers are said to be too divisive. While I certainly agree that a populist, class-based message is important to liberal/left electoral success these days – particularly given the huge wealth inequality we are now seeing in this country – I am not one who sees such a message as being incompatible with other forms of identity politics.

For an example of this, one need look no further than Keith Ellison’s recent campaign for the 5th District seat in the U.S. House. Ellison was able to win the Democratic primary for the seat with a message that was economically populist while at the same time not asking women, black people, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians to set aside their concerns – concerns which everyone has a stake in (even us straight white men).

Moreover, Ellison ran such a campaign despite the fact that he could have used his own identity to get elected. He could have said in every speech that we in Minneapolis had the opportunity to elect the first Muslim ever to Congress and the first black person from Minnesota. But he never did this – instead, he kept the focus on those he was representing and all of their concerns.

While this is what positive identity politics looks like, might I suggest that anyone who wants to look for the truly divisive modern identity politics, they need to look no further than Ellison’s Republican opponent, Alan Fine. After Ellison’s victory, Fine held a press conference in which he showcased this divisiveness. Fine, as so many Republicans now do, sought to use religion – both his and Ellison’s – to inflame the electorate.

Because Ellison had helped to organize the Million Man March in the mid-1990s, Fine argued that “he is the follower of a known racist, Louis Farrakhan … a person who believes that Jews are the scourge of the earth.” Fine argued that “he was personally offended as a Jew” because of this guilt by distant association. As if it wasn’t enough to speak only for himself, Fine then spoke for all Jews when he argued that “the Jewish community does not support Keith Ellison.”

Confronted by a reporter with the fact that “many prominent Jewish people in the 5th District are supporting Keith Ellison,” Fine then changed tactics once again and argued that “the independent thinkers throughout the (Jewish) community” would not support Ellison. I guess Fine feels he has the authority to declare who is really Jewish and who is not.

All of this rhetoric, of course, was only secondarily about Fine’s Judaism. The primary point was to tie Ellison to Islamic extremism and to play on people’s fears of it. This is why Fine invoked the name of Louis Farrakhan as much as possible in his news conference. This is why he referred to Ellison throughout the press conference alternatively as “Keith Hakim,” Keith X. Ellison,” and “Keith Ellison Muhammad.” But again, this divisiveness wasn’t enough for Fine. As he did with the Jewish community, Fine also sought to divide Muslims as well, arguing, “As a matter of fact, there are a lot of Muslims that do not consider the Nation of Islam to be part of the Muslim faith.”

For too long, people on the right have denied their own identity and divisive identity politics, claiming that these existed only on the left. However, particularly when it comes to religion, Republicans have never been afraid to traffic in the worst kinds of identity politics imaginable. We on the liberal/left should not be afraid to say so and should also not be fearful of standing up for our alternative vision of inclusion.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected].