Identity Politics Explained Simply

Identity Politics describes identifying with a concept, or being perceived as identifying with a concept, and the social and political implications of that.

Speaking broadly, this includes identifying with a gender, race, brand, political party, band, values (like a love of liberty), nation, etc.

If one can identify with with a concept or thing, and especially if there is a sort of shared culture around that concept or thing (either arising from the thing, from the community that identifies with it, or both), and especially when the nature of that culture has political implications, we can describe what arises as “identity politics.”

That description might seem a little confusing, but that is rooted in the fact that there are a number of sides to the phenomena that can’t be neatly summed up. Below we attempt to clue you into the different aspects of identity politics.

TIP: Identity politics arguably arises from the natural and human desire for connection and acceptance, especially in the post-propaganda and information age where we all have immediate access to a variety of symbols, media to reinforce this, and social media to build groups and discussions upon this (thereby reinforcing identities). Whether we identifying with a commodity or an idea, and whether the desire arises from within us or from without (either as a result of the commodity or idea itself or due to another’s messaging which pushes it on us), the end result is that the values of the thing or idea are being merged with our own identity (helping us find acceptance with some groups and individuals, yet alienating us from others).

TIP: This concept is not a left or right thing. It is used by the left, right, and center in all types of social situations (so only sometimes is it actually about “politics” in the governmental sense).

What Is Identity Politics

TIP: We can say identitarian politics is a synonym for identity politics. With that said, the problem with using those terms as synonymous is that the “identitarian movement” is already anchored a far-right ideology that identifies with being European, white, and anti-immigrant. Here I’ll note that both the Fascists and Communists, the collectivist ideologies of WWII, were big into propaganda and creating “civil religions” out of shared identities and values. In other words, we can in this sense see identity movements on the far-left and far-right (and in the center). This can result in the meaning of identity politics being contextual, either referring to left-wing or right-wing collectivism depending on the rest of the conversation. Despite this however, as noted above, there is nothing inherently political or left-wing or right-wing about identity politics as a broad concept.

To state the definition of identity politics once more in slightly different language: Identity politics describes how people identify with concepts as individuals and groups, how people are identified as being part of a group by others, and the related social and political implications of shared identities in the politically polarized world of social and mass media in which single-voter issue factions spar. Beyond that, the term is also sometimes used to refer to specific left-wing and right-wing movements focused on identity, and that can add complications to discussing the concept of identity in politics (as the specific meaning of the terms can in some cases shift based on context).

Identity Politics as a Civil Religion; the General Concept of Identity Politics

Identity politics is well thought of as a type of civil religion.

Its a type of faith based around a specific identity, culture, and set of symbols and properties that groups of people share and connect over.

In America we all identity with a number of attributes of Americanism, and thus Americanism is our shared civil religion, that identity binds us (the way theological religion binds a people).

It is in this respect, something that speaks to collective identity.

The Problem With Identity Politics

The problem with identity politics is that it is more about shared identity, and less about substance and individualism. It is a collectivist animal, which gives individuals identity. Its nature has a host of nasty implications.

  1. On one hand, it can make people lazy. They turn to a shared identity instead of building their own identity.
  2. The other problem is, we don’t always get to choose our own identity.

The Problem of Not Choosing Our Own Identity

Just like with theological religion, either we identify with the properties of that religion, or people identify us with those properties. Let me offer two examples, one right-wing and one left-wing.

If (for one of many examples) we wear a headscarf, we may be identified as Muslim (even if we are Sikh), and that could be a big problem in some settings.

We are identifying as Sikh, but what if we are in an environment where that is unsafe? What if we are sitting next to joe-the-far-right-nationalist who such a bias against Muslims and for Pan-European identity, that he lashes out at us because he perceives us to have an identity we don’t have.

Or, to offer a different example, imagine a white person with a southern drawl who looks like a Trump supporter trying to march with BLM and Antifa at a free speech rally at Berkley in early 2017.

One can’t imagine that this person would have an easy time conveying their individual character to a large group on the march (yet one could easily imagine this person feeling alienated by the group they identify with and pushed toward the group they don’t based on their outward appearance).

In both the above cases, the left-wing and right-wing one, the point is the same. We are running up against a problem of biases and collective identities overriding our respect for individual character.

Here we may be alienated from a group that we identify with, or may be aggressed on by a group or individual who identifies with a group we identify with, by appearing to be a part of a group they oppose (or see as their out-group).

When we band together around identity, and when we anchor emotions and culture to people, and when we build our own identities on this, we run the risk of diminishing our respect for the individual and fall into some of the pit-falls of collectivism (see a discussion on individualism and collectivism; one can argue they are both important aspects of the same coin, wrought with pit-falls in extremes on their own, but natural and necessary in tandem).

With that above said, it may come as no surprise that the far-right and far-left WWII ideologies embraced identity politics, and that their spiritual predecessors today do as well. The extreme WWII ideologies of Communism and Fascism were both collectivist movements who either wanted 1. group think for inclusiveness or 2. group think for exclusion.

In both cases, they leveraged symbolism to oversimplify life. That may have worked for the extremist collectivists trying to build a strong military state on-top a culture of conformity, but it is a nightmare for an individualist liberal.

NOTE: More than being a slippery slope of just identity politics, this speaks to a larger and more slippery slope contained in the general concept of “giving names to things“, “anchoring attributes to those names”, and then “identifying with those concepts as a type of religion”.

TIP: Again, it is important to point out that don’t always choose your identity, often we identify others and then decide what they think based on that. Social Justice Warriors and the Alt-Right are both identities, but I’m not sure any SJW has ever called themselves one. that term is instead slander used to describe activist progressives who are perceived as being too PC. So part of the problem is that it isn’t just about identity we embrace, it is about the “tells” others see in our action or dress and how they choose our identities for us. The bad part is that this can, in a polarized political environment, lead to someone dismissing your entire point or even being violent against you due to their perception of who you are, based purely on what they think (which is likely influenced by the media they watch; god help you if they watch Alex jones and you are liberal, or, to be fair, if they watch Young Turks and they have a Trump hat on).

Other Problem of Intellectual Laziness

Another aspect here is what I would call “intellectual laziness”. It is the idea that since you are part of a group, you can sort of let the group do the work for you.

It is the idea that you can be BLM just by putting on the T-Shirt or tweeting about it. That “just because this figure is X gender or has X amount of wealth” we will or won’t support them. Just because they are Democrat… Just because they are Republican… etc.

We can say “I am X, so I should be treated Y” or you can say “Don’t treat my Z, just because I am X”.

Shared identity is good, but we should be operating on our own merit, and we should not resort to such levels of collectivism that we lose our individual identities.

The collectivist vs. individualist paradigm speaks to a need for balance.

Bernie Sanders slams identity politics. Says we must listen to working class people. The left-view, 

TIP: As noted above, Communism is identitarian, but even more so Mussolini and Hitler’s brands of Fascism were designed to be Civil Religions. They were identitarian in nature and used all sorts of complex propaganda to “sell their brand” (as did the Communists). So, Hippies, Fascists, Communists and the type of brand you wear… all are within the sphere of identitarian politics. We can use these powers for good, neutral, or bad. We show you how to use them for good on our site, many people use them for bad (thinking our dear sisters and brothers aren’t quick enough to catch the manipulation; what we can call the “criminal virtue” of tyrants; something between manipulating public opinion and despotism).

The Different Types of Identities

With the above in mind, to be clear, there is almost no limit to what one can identify with.

One could identify with being for or against any single voter issue or concept related to any issue pertaining to: age, social class or caste, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, nationality, sex, gender identity, generation, occupation, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation, settlement, urban and rural habitation, or any icon, brand, or social status.

Here one could be in a black power movement, pro-X race, anti-X ethnicity, against a sub-group of a religion, pro-homeschool, pro-spoken Latin, pro-X country, anti-X country, feminist, anti-feminist, for a cartoon character, against an art style, a fan of Apple, or purely a Microsoft guy, etc, etc.

It is the Civil Religion of things, the related politics, and the shared identity of the in-group that creates.

More on the Term Identitarian

Those who share any identity anchored to any concept, are broadly speaking, identitarian.

They share a civil religion based around a concept, that feature makes them identitarian.

We can call this whole concept, good or bad, identitarian politics or identity politics, keeping in mind the above warning about the far-right using that term to describe a very specific right-wing collectivist movement, those terms mean the same thing (logically speaking).

Some concepts have many political planks anchored in, like “white nationalism” (where the concept of KKK and NAZIism and their related planks are invoked), but some only have a few innocent quirks “like HelloKittyism” (which implies being cute and liking cute things, and likely knowing Hello Kitty lore).

Some movements call themselves by names that describe more than their own movement, thereby appropriating some terms.

Since this is the cases with identitarianism, it is a matter of individual taste if a person chooses to use that phrasing instead of identity politics when speaking.

S0, simply: any concept + identifying with it to the extent that informs one’s identity, especially in social settings (or there being a perception of this based on your features or speech) + the social and political aspects of this = Identity Politics or Identitarianism (although that term also has other connations).

Identity Politics in National and International Politics

With all the above said, what we are mostly talking about when we say “identity politics” is the more impactful version (the white nationalists and the anti-white nationalists, or the LGBT and anti-LGBT; ie the symbols abstracted from powerful concepts and the civil religion created from that symbology).

We are talking about identities like Mexican, Muslim, Gay, BLM, or liberal, and Nationalist, Tea Party, Libertarian, conservative, or Euroscepticism.

We are talking about divisive identities that create these little or big “single-issue” factions, who have a rule-set that are specific to that group.

If you are of this group, you might always wear this color. If you are with that group, you are listening to political speeches for a specific political dog whistle. If you are in this group, you might hate X type. If you are in that group, you may only like type Y.

Here it is the group’s identity that defines the member’s ideology, and not the other way around, which is an odd thing.

Focusing on the Positive, and Not Fully Noticing the Negative

Another problem with political identities that have planks and other identities anchored to them is that one can get caught up in the positive aspects of a group (common traits and common ideals), and lose sight of the negative aspects (traits that were not shared with the group; at least at the onset of your embracing the identity).

One might identify as a radical hippy, but then find their image dragged down by activists, one may identify as a anti-government conservative, but then have their image dragged down by a rebel faction within the party.

Identity politics is as simple or as complex as you want it to be, it has many pros and cons, but it can really become destructive when groups like “Nationalist” and “Internationalists” start fighting, or when like Ethno-Euros and Pro-Immigrant groups start so spar using propaganda, or when two core groups who are supposed to work together (like liberals and conservatives) begin to see each other as the enemy.

The Benefits of Shared Identity and a Few Last Warnings

In sports and war clear identities are given to both the home and away team, here we find a clear picture of how identity can bind together a people as a civil religion, in a positive way.

Healthy competition is good, and individual and group identity can be too.

However, that is only true to the degree we understand how this can alienate and divide people pointlessly based on something as trivial as turf color.

We are all identitarian at our core, we are social beings who seek union with other beings (the odd ego-less hermit aside).

We want to associate with brands, because it is cool. We want to feel cool, we want to have a an identity, and we want to share identity with an in-group.

Identitarianism is too human to ignore, but it also has big sticking points like: individuals belonging to some groups are, by virtue of their identity, more vulnerable to forms of oppression such as cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation of labour, marginalization, or powerlessness; and at the same time, those who identify with oppressive groups are more likely to be seen as oppressors.

When we embrace an identity, we become anchored to it, and it in turn bestows its qualities on us. Or at least, others will perceive this. If you put on a BLM T-Shirt, you now stand for everything else it stands for. If you wear a MAGA hat, then you are a Trump supporter in the eyes of some groups.

A single commodity or feature became your identity, your X years of building your character hardly even mattered.

When you vote for Trump or Hillary, and you tell someone, you now stand for everything everyone thinks Trump or Hillary stands for. You can see how this can get divisive and problematic. And it is, does, and has. It is a problem of collectivism.

Sam Harris – The Religion of Identity Politics A conservative offering their view (we can make vast judgements about this person as they have used dog whistles which clue us into their identity, from here we can dismiss and hate them… or wait, none of that. Darn you Civil Religion! I get why the fascists used your powers, but we should not. Instead, we should use our intellectual Judo and bring this into the light and take away your power. See purple politics for some examples of solutions.

"What is Identity Politics?" is tagged with: Individualism and Collectivism, Left–right Politics, Philosophy of Language

What do you think?

Rob on

This feels like more of an attack on the way certain groups, such as right-wingers and Republicans, tend to use the word “identity politics” than the defense of a working definition of identity politics that I was looking for. This article seems to present itself as objective, but have a clear identity of its own that it is defending, and presents a handful of identities which it either explicitly or implicitly discredits. Though everyone, including the author, reasons with the concept of identity and has opinions about groups, I think this needs to be avoided in a meta-discussion about identity politics itself, because it throws the ethos into question. Can I trust the author to be objective on identity politics when he/she has a clear political identity? If the author has a clear political identity, is it reasonable to expect objectivity on a definition of “identity politics,” when definitions of identity politics and its acceptability are stratified based on political identity?

Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele on

I will give it an edit, thanks for the feedback.

I think what you are picking up on is the “Identitarian movement” aspect of the page:

That is an “alt-right” / neofascist movement that champions “the preservation of national identity and a return to ‘traditional western values’.”

So for example, Richard Spencer (if my memory serves me right) identifies as an Identitarian, and the politics that arise from that (as they would from any identity on associates or is associated with) is “identity politics.”

All that said, I’ll give this an edit and see if I can’t help ensure the page is presented in a more neutral way.