Identity Politics IS Universalist Politics
Sometime starting around the disastrous end of the 2016 primary season, the suddenly-relevant American electoral left--that loose coalition of Berniecrats, democratic socialists, and social democrats who constitute the dialectical antithesis to corporatized politics--decided that the Hillary Clinton campaign was engaged in identity politics, and that identity politics was a path to defeat.
This is not without reason. The idea of identity politics has been rising in the popular consciousness for decades, and for millennials it has broken through into part of our generational consciousness. And the Clinton campaign and its proselytizers certainly made use of identity aggressively in their ill-fated attempts to whip up support in the base and to cross ideological lines: "Think of the history," they said. "The first woman President!"
Coming on the heels of the disappointment that so much of the left felt after Obama ("Think of the history! The first black President!"), this rang blatantly hollow. Being the first black President didn't stop Obama from deporting more immigrants than any other President in history, nor did it stop him from waging largely undeclared wars all over the world, perpetuating the sins of American neo-colonialism.
Add to this the rising antithetical sentiment of "identitarianism"--a word that sounds like an ideological framework but is aesthetic code for white supremacist hate--and the growing power of that hate has in the public and electoral spheres, and it becomes reasonable to believe that Hillary Clinton's identity politics throws fuel on the fire of the enemies of justice. It follows, then, that we must abandon identity politics in the pursuit of a universalist message to have a hope of winning.
But Clinton's movement wasn't driven by identity politics. At all. It was driven by identity branding. Clinton's movement tried to sell her womanness, and it failed. It failed because it said that womanness was a reason to vote for her. This has nothing to do with identity politics as a historical idea, or identity politics as a tool for developing universal solidarity and a path to electoral victory.
Identity politics emerged in the late '60s as a tool for consciousness-raising among women of color. It was a way for people of shared identity to recognize that some aspect of their experienced oppression is shared and that its source is in the interaction of that shared identity with a violent, hierarchical social order. The full history of identity politics is rich and powerful, and there is no way that I in my limited knowledge will do it justice here, but the takeaway is that identity politics, as a tool in the struggle for mutual liberation, is a fundamentally grassroots phenomenon: it is people talking to people about shared identity and the material social facts of that identity.
In order to build a popular coalition against the forces of exploitation, in order to achieve a true political revolution, identity politics is the single greatest tool we have. It is in our shared experiences of oppression that we can find our solidarity and participate in our mutual liberation. We must link the already-built sense of togetherness in communities with shared elements of other, intersecting communities. This is the same principle from the labor movement as worker solidarity: teamsters and teachers do not face the same struggles, but rather parallel struggles, and in acknowledging that lay the power of labor.
I do not know the experience of the struggles of people of color, or of women, or disabled or LGBT or immigrants or literally anyone other than precisely myself. But I do know that I struggle against a status quo that is specifically designed to deny reforms, to preserve itself and its power dynamics, and to keep me moored to debt and to rigid labor for the benefit of an even-more-powerful class. Through my relationships with my working peers, we can build a community that has more power than I have individually to fight against these structures. But our communities are not islands: in my working class community there are women, there are immigrants. In building mutual solidarity with these people on working class lines, I am exposed to their struggles along their other lines, and our communities develop connections and develop resistance together. And our shared liberations, which have always been intertwined, reveal themselves to our now-intertwined struggles.
Identity politics rooted in raising consciousness alongside those with whom we share struggles is and will be the source of our political revolution. And the reality is that we share struggles, we share identity along some axis, with nearly everyone. So I can engage in shared identity politics and build solidarity across intersecting lines, but we can only do it by acknowledging and uplifting each of our struggles.