Politics of Identity

George W. Bush opposes affirmative action, at least
theory; in practice he has an affirmative-action record that might have made Bill
Clinton proud. According to Time magazine, Bush "has appointed more women
positions of power and influence than any president in history." He even has a
diversity policy that requires 30 percent of administration jobs to be filled by
women. He seems to have sought racial diversity as well: According to his
personnel director, Clay Johnson, minorities constitute 20-25 percent of people
selected for top government jobs.

Conservative opponents of affirmative action who once derided President
Clinton for bean counting have generally exercised their right to remain silent
about Bush's efforts to diversify. Their reticence is not surprising. They also
have declined to criticize his dad's affirmative-action appointment of Supreme
Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (I imagine that even people who did not believe
that Justice Thomas harassed Anita Hill did believe that the elder Bush
selected him at least partly because of race.)

Liberals have been flummoxed by the demographic diversity of the younger Bush's
appointments. They're loath to praise his concern for diversity, even though it
reflects their own success in expanding opportunities for women and racial
minorities. It's difficult to celebrate the political ascension of your
"We knew if we kicked the doors open, conservative women would walk through,"
former NOW president Patricia Ireland ruefully remarked. But liberals could
learn from Bush's affirmative-action program: It illustrates the falsities of
identity politics. Race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual orientation are not reliable
or appropriate predictors of ideology.

That may sound obvious, but it challenges a fundamental premise of left-wing
crusades for diversity: the belief that heterosexual women, lesbians and gays,
and racial minorities are united by their respective histories of subordination,
resulting in reliably liberal group-think (so long as they are true to
themselves). Diversity is not only valued as a demonstration of equal access and
an essential element of economic equality; it's also considered a virtual
guarantee that particular political perspectives will be voiced and strengthened.
The power of this belief--that all members of "victim groups" do or should think
more or less alike politically--is reflected in the vituperative denunciation of
conservative African Americans as race traitors, the dismissal of conservative
women as "male-identified," and the presumption that conservative homosexuals are

Unfortunately, as Bush's diverse judicial nominations are considered, we're
bound to hear more epithets like these. Conservatives will pounce on them as
evidence of liberal bias and intolerance of dissent. They'll have a point. The
patronizing condemnation of conservative women, gays, and racial minorities is a
triumph of circular reasoning: If you dismiss all right-wing women as morally or
politically deviant, you never have to reconsider your assumption that liberalism
is a female norm. You also avoid the intellectual challenge of arguing about
legal and political ideas, by relying on personal accusations of disloyalty. You
betray the progressive ideal of individualism by imputing political views to
people on account of race, sex, or sexual orientation. Civil rights struggles are
supposed to give people more freedom of thought and behavior, not less.

Identity politics has atavistic appeal, I admit. I'm not above wondering why
many Jews vote Republican or give large sums of money to Harvard. I was always
persuaded by the bumper sticker that proclaimed, "If men got pregnant, abortion
would be a sacrament." There is even some empirical evidence that people with
common experiences of discrimination and common cultures do form political
cliques, as voters or legislators. African Americans tend to vote Democratic.
Female lawmakers generally pay more attention to women's rights, health care,
child care, and other policy initiatives involving family life (according to
10-year-old studies by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers

But even if the collective political preferences of racial minorities, women,
or gay people could be discerned, the preferences of particular individuals are
unpredictable. Trends and averages obscure individual variations. Also,
collective preferences may reflect simple political expedience: Perhaps female
legislators pay more attention to child care and other "women's" issues because
of biases that limit their credibility as experts on "men's" issues, like foreign
relations. When sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race no longer occasion
discrimination, tribalism will likely have a diminished effect on political

I'm not suggesting that people will cease forming associations based on
personal experiences or social and religious affinities--associations that can
nurture political advocacy. The history of the women's movement, dating back 150
years, exemplifies the evolution of private grievances into public demands. The
nineteenth-century Women's Christian Temperance Union, for example, reflected the
anxiety and anger of women who were abused by alcoholic husbands. But the
marriage of personal and political concerns has hardly been unique to feminism or
to other civil rights movements involving historically victimized groups. Parents
concerned about their children's health initiate campaigns to clean up the
environment. Families dissatisfied with the public schools lobby for educational
reforms: smaller classrooms, higher education budgets, or the censorship of
whatever they deem dangerous or offensive speech. The political power of the
religious right today grew out of personal disgust with secular culture.

Voluntarism, the formation of political associations, can be divorced from
identity politics. In fact, the tendency to group people according to their
immutable identities--as women, homosexuals, or people of color--challenges the
belief in self-invention that helped shape the associational tradition.
Demographic identity groups are not exactly voluntary. As political theorist
Nancy Rosenblum notes in her insightful book Membership and Morals
by Kathleen Sullivan in " HREF="http://www.prospect.org/print/V9/41/sullivan-k.html">Defining Democracy
Down," TAP, November-December 1998],
identity groups compel association. They presume that the voice of the group into
which you are born is or should be your voice, whether or not you acknowledge it.
They condemn as traitors people who stray from the presumptively correct
ideologies of their groups.

If your identity is unchangeable, it chooses you. But one tenet of
American culture, reflected in the voluntary tradition, has been a belief that
can select or at least help shape your own identity. If you can't choose your
sex, race, or genetic disposition toward disease, you can choose your group or
series of groups, your religious affiliation, your causes, and your
ideals--remaking yourself (and perhaps society) in the process. Meanwhile, groups
negotiate their own surprising developmental changes. At its inception in the
late nineteenth century, the now quasi-libertarian National Rifle Association had
close ties to the military and prospered with the aid of government handouts.

Identity need not be immutable for individuals or groups; political
orientation will not be predictable so long as freedom to associate--and
disassociate--is respected. Affirmative action promises economic equality, not
ideological consistency of its beneficiaries. If characteristics like race, sex,
and sexual orientation can help situate us in a political community, they ought
not to imprison us there.