Project Wonderful

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Let's Have a Little Chat About Identity Politics

A lot of (mostly male, mostly older, exclusively white) people have accused me of engaging in identity politics lately. First of all, like "liberal," "Feminist," and "sorority girl" the accusation that I am aware of the interplay of power and identity in our political system is one that is intended as provocative or pejorative but that I am proud to own. Second, the term "identity politics" refers to a broad range of movements from social to cultural to political, a very small slice of which is referenced by the fact that I am supporting a woman for President. So let's talk about that.

When it comes to women's political representation (or that of any marginalized group), we generally consider the topic in two ways: descriptive and substantive. Descriptive representation refers to the number of women in elected office. When people accuse me of "identity politics" or voting for Hillary "just because she's a woman" they are really accusing me of disproportionately valuing descriptive representation. Descriptive representation is important because women carry a different set of life experiences and perspectives than men do. American women have faced social, economic and physical oppression for decades and there is value in electing leaders who cannot just sympathize, but empathize. When we are talking about deliberative bodies, studies have shown that diversity of opinion leads to a better outcome. And I needn't explain to you the importance of having a woman in the room when we debate issues like abortion access and equal pay. For more on the merits of descriptive representation, click here. In general, I believe that being a member of any marginalized group brings with it an understanding of the nature of power and privilege that the vast majority of our traditionally cis straight white male politicians (ahem, Bernie Sanders) are without. Of course, descriptive representation is not without its limitations. Identity does not exist in a silo and one size does not fit all. If that were the case I would be equally jazzed about Carly Fiorina's candidacy as Hillary Clinton's.

Substantive representation refers to politicians advocating on behalf of women. Representative and substantive often coincide but not always. A male politician can fight for access to birth control, stronger protections for victims of domestic violence (shout out to Joe Biden), or paid parental leave. Based on their actions and statements so far, Hillary Clinton blows Bernie Sanders out of the water in this category as well. As legislators, they voted pretty much the same, but as executives it is clear to me that Hillary will be a fiercer advocate for and more likely to prioritize women's equality. Substantive AND descriptive.

I hope that helps provide a vocabulary so that we can more accurately discuss the role that a candidate's race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc plays in his or her candidacy.

One final point: the vast majority of elections in this country have consisted primarily of white men voting for white men and that was no coincidence. Before you claim that you don't participate in identity politics, consider that you probably already have and white men are so the default for elected leadership that you haven't even realized it.

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