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FIVETHESESONIDENTITYPOLITICS

RICHARDD.PARKER*

ThekindoffreedomIwanttoaddressisthemostvitalkind:
politicalfreedom.BythatImeanthesummoningandexertion
of energy to engage one another on matters of collective gov
ernment.WhatIhaveinmindspecificallyisdemocraticpoliti
cal freedom. By that I mean political freedom in a context
shapedbythreesimplenorms:politicalequality,popularsov
ereigntyand,therefore,majorityrule.
What should we make of identity politics as an exercise of
democratic political freedom? Let me respond with five con
nectedtheses.
NumberOne.Allpoliticsisidentitypolitics.Politicalactivity
isand, at its best, isanimated by efforts to define and de
fendwhoIam,orweare,oryouare,orhopetobe,orhopeto
beseentobe.1Byextension,itismotivatedbyourimagination
of what is or ought to be mine or ours or yours. It is not only
aboutselfgovernment.Nordoesitalwaysinvolvemuchinthe
wayofpublicdebate.Whatstructuresit,oftenbeneaththesur
face, is the always unfinished enterprise of selfconstruction
andselfpresentation.
Thereason,firstofall,isthatpolitics2involvesmakingcom
parisons and choices amongand commitments tovalues
and interests and groups and individuals (including choices
not to choose among available choices). The choices and the
commitments we make in politics are ones with which we
meantoorbywhichwecannothelpbutidentifyourselves.3

*WilliamsProfessorofLaw,HarvardLawSchool.Someoftheassertionsmade
here will be developed toward the end of an essay to be entitled Constitutional
LawmakingattheBallotBox:APopulistCritiqueofaProgressiveCritique.
1.ThisisapremiseofRICHARD D. PARKER,HERE,THE PEOPLE RULE: A CONSTI
TUTIONALPOPULISTMANIFESTO(1994)(arguingthatpoliticalactivityisaneffortto
expressanddefendidentity).
2.Politics,asIunderstandit,maygoonincontextswecallprivateaswell
asinoneswecallpublic.
3.Allthatmaybetrueofshopping:Wedefineourselvestoothersandourselves
bywhatwebuy,afterall.Hence,thereismoretoit.

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What is more, politics involves comparison, choice, and


commitment under conditions of conflict. There are winners
and losers. Crucially, over time, it is an openended conflict:
Thefirstonesnowmaylaterbe(andoftenare)last.And,over
time, political conflict is open in another respect. It is without
permanent bounds or rules. The most unexpected issues may
one day become salient political issues; allegiances and alli
ancesshift;and,atsomepoint,anymodeofstruggle,evenwar,
may turn out to be politically decisive. This contingency of
politics tends, in turn, to open up the enterprise of self
identification that animates itkeeping it on edge and, so,
alive.
Indemocraticpolitics,moreover,theconflictisamongputa
tiveequals.Thenormofpoliticalequalitynotonlydestabilizes
temporary victories. It also unsettles takenforgranted hierar
chiesand,so,identitiesandthusrenewsthespringofpoliti
calenergy.
In this way, identity politics and democratic political free
dom are, in principle and often in practice, mutually suppor
tive,eachofthemenablingthevitalityoftheother.
Number Two. However, it can also work the other way
around. Identity politics can dampen or smother democratic
political freedom. And democratic politics itself sometimes
seemstosponsorthistendency,underminingitselfbyfostering
aperversionofidentifypolitics.Thequestionis:Whataccounts
forthat?Whatsortsofidentitypolitics,whataspectsofidentity
politics, are pathological to democratic political freedom and
wheredotheycomefrom?
Number Three. Certain familiar answers4 to the question are
deeply misguided. They are as follows: That the pathology of
identitypoliticshastodowithitspromotionofaselfregarding
(ratherthanapublicregarding)politicalculture.Orofstereo
types. Or that identity politics tends to portray and purvey
differencesandgrievances(ratherthansimilaritiesandbonds)
amonggroupsandindividuals.Suchdiagnosesarewrongnot
simplybecausetheyflushoutthebabywiththebathwater,but
because they seem not to recognize the babyto understand
thevalueofidentitypoliticsinthefirstplace.

4.These are answers that I assume are familiar to the multitude assembled at
theFederalistSocietyconferencewhereImademyremarks.

No.1] FiveThesesonIdentityPolitics 55

Of course, identity politics is selfregarding. It is, after all,


about the construction and presentation of oneself. That mat
terstoeveryone.Thatiswhataccountsfortheenergy,themo
tivation, which identity politics can infuse into democratic
politics.5ItshouldnttakeAdamSmithtoremindusthatself
concern is not necessarily antithetical tothat it can accom
pany and foster, even be indispensable topromotion of the
wellbeingofothers.
Ofcourse,identitypoliticsinvolvesconstructionandpresen
tation of personaecaricatures, even stereotypes if you
likeimaginingandportrayingparticularindividualsinterms
ofcertaingeneraltraits.Needlesstosay,theydistortreality.
And they are often prefabricated. But so what? That, as they
say,islife.Itispartandparcelofthelifethatidentitypolitics
contributes to democratic politics. In and of itself, nothing
shouldbesaidagainstit.
That identity politics promotes difference and grievance is
themostmisguidedcomplaintand,intheend,theleasttrou
blingof them all. Difference, of course, is vital to self
definitionandselfassertion.Andgrievanceisafuelthatmoti
vates the exercise of political freedom. Neither is necessarily
inconsistent with respect for ones antagonists.6 Indeed, in a
nationlikeours,therespectfuldemocraticantagonismtheycan
fosteriswovenintothepatriotismthatbindsustogether.7
Ifthereisaproblemhere,itisnotintheillshighlightedby
thesediagnoses.Itis,instead,inthediagnosesthemselves.For
it is not the supposed ills but the cure they implya neo
Victorian regimen of highfalutin deliberation or civic vir
tue or public reasonthat would tend to stifle democratic
politicalenergyatitssource.
Number Four. So, in what ways can identity politics become
pathological? Put simply: It becomes pathological insofar as it
is perverted to stifle, rather than to animate, the openness of
democratic political conflict. The ironya workingout of the
olddialectic?isthattheveryexigencyofopenconflictiswhat

5.See Richard D. Parker, Taking Politics Personally, 12 CARDOZO STUD. L. &


LITERATURE103,10708(2000)(defendingtheroleofthepersonalinpolitics).
6.See Richard D. Parker, Democratic Honor: Liberal and Populist, 39 HARV. C.R.
C.L. L. REV. 291, 292 (2004) (describing how personal political honor provides a
sourceofagencyinpopulistdemocraticpolitics).
7.SeeRichardD.Parker,Homeland:AnEssayonPatriotism,25HARV. J.L. & PUB.
POLY407(2002).

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motivates tendencies to suppress it. Hence, any such tenden


cies of identity politics are likely to be, at once, resistant and
vulnerabletorevision.Letmepointtothree.
The first is a well known tendency to essentialism. The
academicfashionistotreatthisasjustanideatheideathat
individuals sharing a particular trait (such as race or gender)
are essentially the same, share the same identity, in myriad
other respects. As such, rightthinking (which is to say left
thinking)professorsareagainstit.Butitisnotjustanidea.Itis
an embedded practice. It is embedded in the practice of elites
whoseektoestablishandmaintainapositionasspokesmen
or advocates for one or another affinity group. And it is
embeddedinthepracticeofsomerankandfilemembersof
such groups who, by means of group opinion, seek to keep
other members in line. No doubt, such practices can be ra
tionalizedasanecessarygirdingforbattleinthewiderpolitical
arena. But the effect is to truncate that conflict, erecting walls
thatkeepsomein,someoutcalcifyingthearteriesofdemoc
raticpolitics.
The second pathological tendency of identity politics arises
as healthy grievance against others turns to consuming blame
andthentotakenforgrantedprejudice.Thisiswhatacadem
icsdescribeanddeploreasdemonization.Again,however,it
is not simply a bad idea that can be calmly corrected or an
emotionsusceptibletocontrolbyadjustingthevolumeknob.It
beginsaswhatmayseemausefulweaponinpoliticalstruggle.
Yet it ends as another, even more deadening, barrier to open
political engagement. If conservatives or religious funda
mentalists or whitesor, more likely white menare
dismissed as wrongdoers having no identity worth respect
ing,8 the possibilities of political conflict (including compro
mise,itsconcomitant)tendtoshrink.Andpoliticsturnsintoa
sort of theater of selfrighteous narcissism, segmented to grat
ifylittleclotsofthelikemindedandangry.
Itisthethirdtendencythatcanbemostdevastating.Anex
tension of the second, it arises when blame and prejudice
against wrongdoers induce a conviction of impotencea con
victionwhichthencanbecomecentraltothegroupsveryiden

8.A moment of illumination for me was the afternoon I walked by our open
dooredfacultyloungeandoverheardagroupofmycolleaguesearnestlyattesting
that,needlesstosay,itwouldbeterribleifidentitypoliticswereevertoexcitethe
consciousnessofwhitemales.

No.1] FiveThesesonIdentityPolitics 57

tity.Ultimately,itsidentitymaybesuckedintosuchblackhole
characterizations as the powerless or the disenfranchised
orthesubordinate.Thisisthevictimhoodsyndrome.Like
theotherpathologies,itismuchdeplored.Butliketheothers,
onceentrenched,itisdifficulttodislodge.9Thereason,again,is
that it is so useful a weapon in democratic conflict. It is a
weapon with which to denigrate the terms of the conflict and
thentoshortcircuitthepoliticalfray.This,however,isnotthe
worstofit.Theworstisitspotentialforselffulfillingprophesy,
thetendencyofvictimtalktoundermineselfresponsibility,
eventoseverthenerveofpoliticalaction,amongvoterswhose
supposedimpotencehasbeenmadetodefinewhotheyare.
Number Five. It follows that one of the more problematic
identities in todays identity politics may be one of the most
common.WhatIhaveinmindistheidentificationofagroup
notintermsofatraitsuchasraceorethnicityorsexualorienta
tion,butasaminoritygroupand,worse,theidentification
of an individual member of such a group as a minority.
Thebanalityofthelabelblindsustoitssignificance.Consider
thewaysitcanexacerbatethethreepathologies.
You might think there is no essentialist tendency to worry
about in this case. How could so abstract and ambiguous a
termexcitethatconcern?If,however,itisasapractice,rather
than as an idea, that essentialism is worrisome, then things
lookdifferent.For,comparedwithmoreconcreteidentitycate
gories, the greater abstraction and ambiguity of minority
evenofdisadvantagedminorityordiscreteandinsularmi
noritycreatesevengreaterleewayforpoliticalmanipulation
anddiscipline.Authoritieshanddownandenforcedefinitions
ofminoritiesandtheirmembers,definitionsused,ineffect,
tokeepsomegroupsinsideandothersoutside.10Howeveruse
ful this enterprise may be in the wider political struggle, it
tendstoacceleratethesclerosisofdemocraticengagement.
To that tendency, add the pathologies of demonization and
victimhood.Shufflingthelabelsinordertoconstructandpre
sentcertainindividualsandgroups,notasLatinosorSpan

9.Indeed,itisdifficulttodislodgeevenfromtherhetoricofthosewhopurport
todeploreit.
10.See, e.g., JOHN D. SKRENTNY, THE MINORITY RIGHTS REVOLUTION 142 (2002)
([TheEqualEmploymentOpportunityCommissionsandOfficeofFederalCon
tractCompliances]designationsofofficialminorityhoodshapedthetrajectoryof
Americanpoliticsandthestructureofopportunityforthenextseveraldecades.).

58 HarvardJournalofLaw&PublicPolicy [Vol.29

ishspeaking(orwhatever),butasminoritiestendstodoa
subtlebutdeepkindofdamage.Thetermdoesnotpointto
any actual trait of a person (ethnicity, gender, and so forth).
Instead,itplacesapersoninagroupthatisdefinedbyitsplace
inalargerstructure.Notitsplaceinapalpablesocialstructure
(say, class). But in a political structurespecifically, a democ
raticpoliticalstructure,asystemofmajorityrule.Theimplica
tionofidentificationasaminorityisthatthegrouptowhich
apersonbelongsisnot,hasnotbeen,andwillnotbepartof
anymajoritycoalition(whichis,ofcourse,allthatshiftingma
jorities canever be) and, therefore, that she isbound to be ig
noredorabused(victimized)bythat(demonized)majority.As
to nearly all persons nowadays, this representation is absurd.
Howthentoaccountforitscurrency?Itisuseful.Itoffersaleg
up in democratic political conflict. But the costquite explic
itlyis the trashing of majority rule, political equality, and
popular sovereignty. When educational and economic elites,
whohavemuchtogainfromsuchtrashing,takeupthecause
andmassageminoritarianidentitypoliticsintohighminded
conventionalwisdom,democraticpoliticalfreedomforevera
threattotheprivilegedisundermined.
WhatshouldaFederalistmakeofthis?TheSocietyslogoisa
silhouette of James Madison. Didnt he famously (maybe too
famously) fret about majority factions? Isnt he often (if un
justly) associated with Tocquevilles snooty hysteria about the
tyranny of the majority? Havent members of the Federalist
Society often constructed and presented an identity as a sup
pressedminorityinAmericanlawschools?
All true. But consider the practice of the Society. Though
spurred by a healthy sense of grievance, it has not insulated
itself.Ithasnotsoughttoshortcircuitengagementwith,orset
up enclaves protected from, dominant points of view. It has,
instead, thrown itself into the fray. Indeed, it has invited the
frayintoitsownevents.MostFederalistgettogethers,asfaras
I know, involve debate with nonFederalists and anti
Federalists. Whats more, they tend to include debate among
Federalists, debate about the very identity of the group. Most
everything is up for grabs. These are hallmarks of an identity
politics that is opennot obsessed with victimhood or with
demonization of its adversaries, not defensive. It invites the
heterodoxintoitsmeetingsbecauseithastakentoheartanold
political secret, the secret of the power of optimism: believing

No.1] FiveThesesonIdentityPolitics 59

thatonedayagainstpresentodds,itmayprevail,itvastlyen
hancestheoddsthatitmayberight.
Hence,Ioffera(notveryserious)suggestion.Itstimetogive
up the Madison silhouette. Madisons association with a de
pressivedefensive democratic politics really doesnt fit the
FederalistSociety.Withwhatlogo,then,mightthatonebere
placed?
Heresa(still lessserious)suggestion.Whataboutasilhou
etteofLenin?Itwouldconveytwomessages.Ononehand,a
warningofthedangersofidentitypolitics:Whentheconstruc
tion and presentation of identities becomes a weapon of ma
nipulation with which to stifle conflictespecially if taken to
theextremeofclaimingtocreateanewmanitbecomesthe
deadlyenemyofpoliticalfreedom.Ontheotherhand,Lenins
silhouettemightofferalessoninpoliticaloptimism:Hisfaction
wasintheminority.Hence,thenamehechoseforitwasnoth
inglessthanBolshevik...which,ofcourse,meansthema
jority.