As a libertarian-conservative, I generally agree with the assertion put forth by my fellow ideological travelers that the left takes identity politics to an absurd extreme. Too many liberals expect fealty to an ideology of ever-expanding government as an expression of loyalty to one’s race, gender, or class. I’ve penned many a diatribe rejecting this premise, noting that it’s not only possible, but sensible to identify fully with one’s community or background while repudiating the idea that the hiring of yet another government bureaucrat is a solution to the social ill du jour. Most conservatives and libertarians, when the argument is presented in that way, will nod their heads in agreement. But when you drill down into specifics, too many appear to conflate any acknowledgment of cultural or social identity outside of their own mainstream with the left’s more extreme form of actual identity politics.
Over the last several years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to friends made through my work in politics who come from groups that the left categorizes as marginalized. As a result, I’ve gained a great deal of valuable perspective through both these conversations themselves and observation of how these individuals are treated in the broader conservative movement. What a lot of people on the right either don’t want to see (or are blinded to due to the circumstances of their own lives) is that the left, despite their tiresome policing of language and endless desire to grow government, has a point: It is harder, on balance, for women and people of color to get ahead. It’s also true that mainstream society and politics have been, historically speaking, dominated by white men. Naturally, culture has in turn followed the same trajectory. Despite obvious social progress and inclusion of others in relatively recent history, changes in this arena never happen overnight.
To be abundantly clear, I’m not suggesting that every white man “has it easy” or that their perspectives are less valuable than anyone else’s. I’m not a fan of the left’s attempt to silence debate by saying that only certain people are allowed to hold opinions on various topics, and I’ve always been a strong advocate of honoring the hard work every person engages in, regardless of their background. But what appears to escape far too many conservatives and libertarians, is that it’s difficult for individuals from the aforementioned groups to feel welcome in a movement where too many people tell us daily that our experiences and perspectives are invalid because they stray from a mainstream that is by default, and through no individual fault of any one person, white-male centric.
When you tell a conservative woman who is inspired by Carly Fiorina’s empowering vision of what feminism ought to stand for that she’s engaging in identity politics, you’re making her feel as if she’s wrong for embracing a fundamental part of herself. When you tell a young libertarian who praises the first woman of color to win an Emmy that she must be a liberal for identifying with someone of the same background explaining how she fought against the odds to be where she is, you’re denying her the very essence of her being. When you tell a black Republican to stop talking about the violence, unrest, and police brutality he sees on the streets everyday, you’re denigrating the people and places he loves; expecting him to abandon his culture and community.
By engaging in these behaviors you are also, consciously or not, pushing people who share your overall perspective on policy away from your political movement. You’re denying those who agree with the premise that government ought to be limited, the basic dignity of a perspective that is, and should be, different from your own. What you’re ultimately doing is driving people who ought to be your allies into the arms of an abusive political relationship with the left; because at least there – authoritarian policies that damage the very people they love be damned – they aren’t constantly berated for refusing to give up who they are. And remember, most people will choose culture and community over complicated policy that almost nobody has the time to wrap their heads around. Keep that in mind the next time you look around the room at a center-right political meeting and wonder where the minorities are.
The fact is, you never hear charges of “identity politics” automatically levied at white men who happen to support or admire other white men. And to be clear, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with looking up to people who share your experiences or background; I’m acknowledging the fact that it’s natural. As people, we draw inspiration from those we identify with and strive to emulate. That’s the premise of role models. And while I agree with the quintessentially libertarian point that the smallest minority is the individual, it doesn’t mean I reject the fact that we as units make up different, diverse communities, often based on fundamental and shared characteristics.
What many on the right would do well to understand is that there’s nothing wrong with allowing people’s diverse backgrounds to shape their viewpoints and perspectives. These don’t need to be cast aside to embrace conservatism or libertarianism. Instead of rejecting anything outside of your frame of reference as “identity politics,” take a moment to listen to people who are fundamentally different from you. Perhaps you’ll learn that you too engage in your own form of “identity politics” on a daily basis – it’s just that no one notices because in doing so, you’re simply going with the mainstream flow.
And by all means, as you genuinely listen to others, particularly your fellow conservatives, continue to mock the left for its absurdities. Liberals deserve every moment of ridicule they get for their hapless policies that encourage dependency rather than progress – just as they’ve earned criticism for using the realities of what marginalized groups face as means to shut down debate and avoid political accountability. Remember though, that the left wants nothing more than for conservatives to deal with their behavior by being reactionary to the point of alienating everyone who isn’t, as they like to say, “old, rich, white, and male.” Don’t let liberals’ abuse of identity politics allow you as a conservative to fulfill their prophecy and drive those of us who don’t fit that bill out of the movement. Because the reality is, we often feel unwanted. Help to change that by opening your mind, listening to others, and creating a welcoming space for people who, in many ways are fundamentally unlike you. Absent those prerequisites, the left will win.
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Corie Whalen Stephens is a libertarian-conservative activist and writer based in Houston, Texas.
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