The End of Identity Politics

(Note: the I don’t write about politics very often, for very good reasons. As you will find, however, this is not a purely political piece. Nor is it partisan.)

On this particular day, with the most gorgeous weather imaginable for an Earth Day, the eyes of the nation will turn to Pennsylvania. For weeks, the electorate has been starved for real political combat. Non-issues have filled the time, but that will soon give way to the next chapter in the lazy horse-race election coverage once we start getting some exit poll numbers.

In the hours leading up to this “historic primary vote,” Senator Clinton responded to a question from Ann Curry of the Today Show, about whether she felt the playing field was not level for a female candidate:

“I don’t know if I’d call it unlevel. I just think that it’s never been done before. Nobody knows quite how to cover a woman running for president. We’ve never had someone get this close. And it is like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: you know, I have to do everything Fred does, only backwards and in high heels. The most pervasive form of discrimination in the world, no matter what the ethnicity, the race, the religion of the people who live in any society, is discrimination against women.”

Some may take pieces of this quote out of context — and clearly the senator states up front that she would not go so far as to say the field is “not level.” But the very division going on within the Democratic Party comes about not because of who the contenders are, but who they aren’t.

Identity Trumps All

The concept of “identity politics” is a few decades old. The term was meant to describe the means by which various oppressed groups could better leverage power by acting in the best interest of the group instead of furthering the progress of individuals. More than a simple voting-bloc strategy, it is a commitment to elevate that characteristic to the fore (identity.) Absent is any notion of individual buy-in. Members of an aggrieved group – because they share the same defining pain and struggle against tyranny – must also share in the same vision for triumph. Simply put, there is no decision to “join” a cause. You are a part of the struggle by virtue of your defining trait. And since others are making it a top priority to fight for your best interest, any deviation is nothing less than traitorous.

The application of identity politics in American culture has been haphazard at best, leading us to a present day conundrum: in the Democratic primary, what does your vote truly reveal?

Both Senators Clinton and Obama have been tip-toeing around the Identity Grenade with the stealth of a child who wants to be seen avoiding the cookie jar while swallowing a mouthful of crumbs. The ludicrous paradox that we face is in choosing how we as a society will offend: do we vote for Clinton because we are racists, or for Obama because we are sexists? Replace either candidate with a white male, and suddenly those questions are not only no longer ludicrous, they are an effective rallying cry. In the general election, one of those candidates will be replaced by a white male, and a Republican one at that! And somehow, I predict that rallying cry will rise up again.

Today, in Pennsylvania, voters who heard the Ann Curry interview are walking in with a subliminal thought that Clinton has a tougher fight because she’s a woman. Not in the general election, but in the primary. Clinton, in a back-handed fashion, has introduced the concept that voters in the Democratic Primary are more sexist than racist. Senator Obama, to his credit, has essentially done the same, with a passive-aggressive nod that Democrats are more racist than sexist. “You may not be familiar with how we worship in black congregations,” he intoned. He wasn’t talking about white Republicans in that statement.

Again, nothing overt, but it’s out there.

And this wasn’t a post about politics.

The True Melting Pot

The paradox of Identity Politics is best described in those hypothetical questions that reporters pose to African-American women: which candidate are you for? You can only be for one, so which is it?

For too long, we’ve been a country where – if you listened to popular culture or our dominant media – you could only belong in one bucket. Sure, there has always been that rather large slice of “undecideds” and independents out there, but they are often portrayed as politically naive, uninformed, or disengaged.

The real truth is that independents aren’t wanting to lock themselves into a box. And “undecideds” are actually quite decisive about issues that are important to them, but they haven’t yet figured out which candidate or party meshes best with the amalgam of opinions they cherish.

Now think about the change in the dominant paradigm of sorting…

It’s In the Cards

When records were stored on paper, it was very important to keep all of that paper sorted in easy to find. Ideally, you have it all in one place. The Sears Tower, in Chicago, was designed to be a central repository for all of the records of Sears & Roebuck. Files that now would fit an a rather unassuming rack, or maybe three or four racks dispersed among different and redundant locations. If you had a single record, it went into a single file. You can’t keep copies of the file floating around, because one might get updated and leave the other inaccurate or incomplete. The File Drawer was the dominant paradigm in search. One place to find everything.

In our school libraries, we had those nice card stacks with the Dewey Decimal System. We had three concurrent files going on – one for Author, one for Title, and one for Subject. When a record needed to be updated, you had to go to three individual stacks and manually retrieve the cards. Maintaining sortable information in another area, like Date of Publishing, would require yet another file catalog. Relationships and correlations we might find interesting today would have meant the razing of entire forests to provide card drawers and cards. All because each entry has to be in one place.

There is a fundamental shift in our information sorting that I predict will have a huge impact on our political process.

Tax Issues

The process of sorting and cataloging has a name: taxonomy. (The same root word as taxidermist, which literally means “arranging of skin.”) In the internet age where there is more information than anyone could possibly want, finding interesting things is more important than knowing where they already are. After all, when I want to get information about the Byzantine Emperors, I don’t physically “check out” the single copy of the record and move it to my computer. I can look at it simultaneously with as many people as the web server and bandwidth will allow. I don’t have to make a copy of it, because that URL (Universal Resource Locator) will always tell me where it is.

If one copy can be seen anytime and anywhere, then it doesn’t need to exist in just one physical place. And neither do the people who interact with that file. If I want to make a change from here, you don’t have to come to my computer to see the edit.

Lost in the Trees

This radically changes the paradigm we’ve been accustomed to with our home computers. I can’t tell you how many friends and relatives drive me crazy with their folders all over the desktop. With no organization to those folders, you have to memorize where they all are. The natural step, which I use at home, is to start putting folders within folders. For instance, I have a main folder called “Internet and Browsers” that has all program files that deal with the web. I have another one called “Media” that covers digital media – and within that are subfolders for “Music/Audio,” “Video,” and “Images/Photos.”

Naturally, this makes perfect sense to me but confuses the heck out of my wife. (I did all this without permission, and never got around to setting up individual profiles on the PC, so she’s stuck with my changes. Sorry, dear.) Periodically, I have to walk her thorough a menu tree to find the program she needs – and I find at times that my system breaks down. For instance, what would you do with Picasa? It’s clearly a photo-cataloging and image manipulation program, but it also uploads to the internet. What about Windows Media Player 11, which handles both Audio and Video? How do I resolve where in the forest these programs belong, when they can rightfully be placed in a number of trees?

Tag. You’re It.

The solution is the best of both worlds. I can add tags. Tags are common descriptors that classify and describe an object without defining the object. I no longer have to choose one folder! Wherever the program or file physically resides, I can find it by searching for the tags associated with it. If you want, you can think of each index of tags as a “virtual folder,” such that you can follow any of the paths and find what you want. I can now find Picasa by following the Images tag, the Photo tag, or the Internet tag.

If you’ve been using GMail, then you’ve been playing with a version of tags. The Labels allow you to describe messages and conversations, and you can give each one as many as you’d like. (Google’s search algorithm actually goes you one better — it essentially turns every word in your email into a “tag”, even the misspelled ones, and crunches that into a index.) Now I don’t have to make a fateful decision about the final resting place for things on my computer, because tags let me define them according to the complexity and completeness they deserve.

A New Political Dimension

…which brings me back to politics. Identity Politics is predicated on the notion that people with a particular trait owe an allegiance to the rest of those sharing the trait. You are in our bucket, and you can’t leave. It even extends to partisan identity. If you are a Republican, then you must believe in A, B, C, and D; and never F or G. As a faithful Democrat, X, Y, and Z are assumed, and Q and V are grounds for psychological evaluation or treatment.

One party. One bucket. Except now the technology with which we interface on a daily basis is abusing this one-bucket notion. A generation that thinks intuitively in terms of Tags and multiple taxonomies will be ready to break this stranglehold. Political parties aren’t going anywhere, but they will be forced to compete for our attention and allegiance at the candidate level, not at the top-down platform level. A generation that thinks in terms of Tags will classify candidates across the spectrum of real issues, and may never get around to attaching the labels that carry “empty calories”: Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, conservative, liberal…

Instead of tabulating the votes and position statements to come up with a “scorecard,” we’d simply look at each issue for what it is. And we’d be more inclined to vote our convictions and self-interests because the diminishing of the “big-bucket label” takes away the power to cower us into voting against our conscience “for the good of the group.” Our Identity will once again be as an individual, and not a function of birth, genes, or other factors outside our control.

The internet is changing things – not so much by what it contains, but rather by how it frees us from the artificial containers we’ve used to store our collective knowledge.

[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, internet, politics, identity politics, taxonomy[/tags]

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  1. I suppose that if I were to vote my bucket, I’d need to vote for either Ralph Nader or for John McCain. As a librarian, I love your use of the library catalog as an analogy for one entry for one place. I still use this when explaining databases to students.

    This issue of identity politics takes too much off track; it’s kind of like the ABC debate last week that spent too much time on unimportant issues. I wish we could simply focus on the real issues which is why I really liked another white guy – Dennis Kucinich.

    Alas, I live in California and we have had our primary. When the time comes to vote in November I hope I will vote for the person who I feel is the right leader for our country – based on the issues – not on the color of skin or gender.

  2. There are still women in the marketplace who discriminate against women for indivdual gain.

    We can only hope that this problem will not interfere with election results.

    Senator Clinton has been quoted several times about how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened up avenues for women just as much as it opened up equal rights for minorities populations in the United States.

    That does not mean that the bubbas and the bubettes have imbraced a willingness to be nice to everyone.

    This is still a patriachal world. It is up to us to change the control of who dicriminates against whom.

    The image of the bucket implies that voters will refrain from voting a straight party ticket because they don’t want to take the time to search out the intentions of one party’s candidates over anotherparty’s candidate.

    In small pockets of population in the Deep South, voters’ ministers tell them how to vote on issues in additiion to who to vote for in national elections.

    I am not sure how we can change that.

  3. Ike, in the way of an intro to my piece–> since I’ve been reading 3 of your posts in a row, and you’re flooring me, friend. I’m not idly directing warm Vitamin D rays up your, ahem…sir. Not at all! Scout’s, baby, Scout’s.

    The way your greyness works is something I want to study closely. How you manage to make these seeming connections between seemingly disparate events/topics astounds me, to no end, even from up here in the Great White Northness of it all. The linearness of your thinking is remarkable, and I bet Mrs. Pigott, the elder AL stateslady, is impressed as all getup, because I certainly am. Golly…

    But onto your post…I totally DIG the concept of tags which transcends partisan issue voting.

    What a wickedly scrumptious concept, and one which one of the candidates should have (or still should) seize in the runup to November’s tipoff. Why don’t they do this?!

    Think about it — why can’t all the candidates dispense with all the usual pageantry and assorted rump-kissery and simply lay their opinions and views out for us in Excel-like read: spreadsheet/grid fashion?! And if not, why the heck NOT? Aren’t we losing some of these “undecideds” who might otherwise me swayed — the deeply thinking crowd which doesn’t fall for the usual slew of attack ads, spin, and trashing of your opponent…

    Now that would permit us to make more measured assessments of their positions on things, and it would permit me, the voter, not to be waylaid along the path of decision-making as I choose the most opportune candidate or the one who carries the best vision for our country.

    Thanks for another stellar post. and anyone who uses persnickety in a sentence is beyond just the mere “Triple Word Score.”


  4. ADM –

    The fat cats who run the fiefdoms at the Donkey Ranch and the Elephant Graveyard have too much at stake to let this happen willingly. They like the ducats to flow to their buckets, which won’t happen if we’re slapping messy labels on people that aren’t simple Blue and Red.

    This is going to be a bottom-up revolution. The parties won’t go anywhere, but a larger percentage of voters who refuse to toe the line and vote straight tickets will be a major disruption. Particularly if they start seeing their contribution to special interest PACs as simply that – instead of as a means to fuel the great Two-Animal Circus.

  5. Fantastic post

  6. Thanks, Erin! Apparently, David Weinberger liked it too.

    (there’s a reason I don’t write about politics very often…)

  7. This is genius Ike. Grouping people using coarse segmentation (e.g., by race, party, gender, etc.) is inefficient, ineffective and expensive.

    I’m linking back to you and adding a trackback to my post discussing these issues.

  8. Ike, I’d like to add something insightful here in the comments but I’m still working on grokking your post.

    Excellent work, I think the future you see would be a better one indeed.

  9. You hit it on the nail head Ike. Truly voting on issues via a tagging system would be a certain disruption to the identity politics we practice. I wonder how they would then market themselves…

    If the party system never goes away, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere unfortunately, the people can certainly educate themselves and their children to choose a candidate on issue not on party, learning the “tagging system in second grade. 😉


  1. susancellura says:

    @ikepigott – Wow! What a post!

  2. […] The End of Identity Politics – Ike Pigott takes a long, rambling run at the continued efforts by politicians and news media to force-fit all Republicans into one box and all Democrats into another. In this age of tagging, the idea that one label can effectively describe tens of millions of individuals is laughable. […]

  3. @ikepigott Pessimistic, but I foresee more polarization than collaboration. Look at Dems themselves, per your post:

  4. Are Your Marketing Strategies …

    While some bloggers focus on using the conventions as lessons in marketing, I want to spend a moment here by asking you to step back and ask yourself if we can learn anything from political marketing that is useful to us as business and consumer market…

  5. Ike Pigott says:

    @booksbelow – I wrote a similar piece, The End of Identity Politics.