What’s right and what’s left? The curious case of identity politics in America

4 mins read

The political landscape changes quite frequently with new ideas, views and notions born from time to time. Some of these conceptions win favour and spread throughout the underground until they reach street level and, occasionally, become common knowledge. Lately, one might argue these concepts have tended to end up on the left side of the traditional political spectrum when arrangements are made to create order among newer elements in the old world of established politics. Although present in virtually all countries, the distinction between left and right in politics looks a little different in the United States than elsewhere; especially if we consider how newer elements are perceived and categorised.

In the wake of so-called “woke culture”, Black Lives Matter campaigns driven by notions of critical race theory have come to face major backlashes, mainly from right-wing conservatives of different adjectives. Although it is not always clearly stated, many parties see this new radical movement as inherently left-wing and even socially revolutionary. The left-leaning wing of the Liberal Democratic Party with famous young figureheads such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC for short) is the affiliation of choice for those supportive of the new social justice movement. Looking at it with a contemporary gaze, it is easy to forget that the Republican Party (the GOP) was once the Northern abolitionists, whereas the Democrats were the preferred choice of the slave-owning aristocracy of the South. The initial fight for civil rights for African Americans in the 1950s and 60s was also supported by many conservative Republicans. In contrast, many otherwise liberal Southern Democrats opposed it; in the Southern states there were even the Dixiecrats, a short-lived segregationist breakout party just after WWII.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, two of America's most prominent socialist figures right now.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, two of America’s most prominent socialist figures right now. Image Source: Senate Democrats

There is also an interesting dissimilarity that sets the U.S. quite apart. Liberalism on a whole, most often identified as a centre to right-of-centre ideology, has by many Americans become associated with the political left. This is partly due to the strong and far-reaching roots of conservatism in the country, resulting in the view that conservatism alone holds the ground as right-wing. Conclusively, while the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights and gender equality two of many possible examples can be just as much of a liberal as a socialist cause, all progressive political views are generally synonymous with being left-wing to conservative Americans. Contrary to today, there was once a budding (classic) socialist movement in America, of which hardly anything remains today, supposedly different from just about every other nation. The early 20th century saw the emergence of a strong political left-wing, led not least by unions, but was weakened throughout the interwar period and largely died out in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Another partial explanation for this can be found in how people of the American working class historically viewed themselves. Rather than a strong sense of community, individualism dominated over collectivist perceptions. Furthermore, the pride of being a worker had (and has) more to do with the idea that anyone and everyone can one day attain the American Dream and become financially affluent, thus advancing from the working class. Regarding the difficulty in actually achieving this for a ‘regular Joe’, it is occasionally understood as one of the Great American Myths.

While America is currently experiencing something of a socialist renaissance, the movement struggles to get people to accept the rather outdated term class and instead try targeting other more updated understandings of inequality. This is where identity politics play a crucial role, in how it is both effectively used by the left-wing side of American politics and its current inseparability from the left. Among many socialist parties in Europe, such as Sweden’s Vänsterpartiet, an active resistance towards identity politics has developed, since it is regarded as highly individualistic and opposed to the collectivist cause of the more typical class-struggle-based socialism. The economy, the former main battleground, has taken a step back, not least because the socialist solution is usually not considered equal to the capitalist free market. It, therefore, seems plausible that U.S. socialism will continue to stride down the path of identity politics. It has already proven to be a winning formula in obtaining votes from ethnic and sexual minorities, but also younger women in urban areas, who might feel that identity politics help them in some way or the other.

As mentioned, identity politics are not without criticism. While liberals, socialists and other non-conservatives may be critical, the real battle against identity politics is most fiercely fought by those associated with growing conservative groups. Internet-based and furious with how politics have evolved for decades, the alt-right, alt-light and other related movements on the far-right deem identity politics and other aspects of the established ‘liberal’ order as the main, even existential threat to America and are therefore its greatest antagonists. It may seem paradoxical that while often claiming to fight against identity politics, these movements are, through their focus on traditional masculinity and white pride, deeply rooted in identity politics as well. In the high-strung tension of public America, this deep divide separating the population has led many to claim that the present-day U.S.A. is embroiled in a verbal civil war of staunch opinions. Paleoconservative Republican Pat Buchanan, a former three-time presidential candidate, was among the first established politicians in the early 1990s to speak of a cultural war raging in America. 

During Donald Trump’s presidency, we saw some similarities with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf of the 1800s, where the German protestant majority was engaged in a state-sponsored cultural conflict with the Roman Catholic minority. Trump rallied Americans of European ancestry around the war cry of them being the victims of multicultural globalism, brought about because “the liberal elite” thought it was the politically correct thing to do. Whatever the future holds for identity politics and the political left and right in America, there seems to be no shortage of wanting to further politicise issues. For example, while being pro-Israel does not necessarily mean that one is right-wing in general, the common view is that being pro-Israel is a right-wing statement.

To conclude, it can be said that in Chinese discourse, the fall of the Soviet Union primarily came about because of their policies surrounding national minorities. If America’s states will remain united or fall apart as a result of for example major civil unrest– and what might trigger a real disbanding – is a question still best left unanswered.

By Eric Axner-Norrman

Cover: Pexels

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