Identity Politics

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

Stanley Fish, whose blog Think Again, is hosted by The New York Times, wrote about "identity politics" last week. Here's how he defined the term:

You're practicing identity politics when you vote for or against someone because of his or her skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker that leads you to say yes or no independently of a candidate's ideas or policies.

We'll ask Dr. Fish and two other guests, columnists Clarence Page and Jill Nelson, if they think it is positive to align your political beliefs with your identity. What do you think? If you're black, should you automatically support Barack Obama (D-Ill.)? If you're a woman, should you vote for Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY.) without hesitation? If you're a veteran, is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) your obvious, perhaps only, choice?



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Race and gender should should of course not matter in politics, but it is clear that Barrack Obama is popular specifically because of his race - which no one seems willing to admit. It is not about Obama overcoming racism, it is about someone being popular because of their minority underdog status. I argue if Barrack was the same man except he was white he would not be close to being the nominee.

Sent by Scott | 2:12 PM | 2-21-2008

When it comes right down to it, aren't all political decisions based on "identity politics?" Voting Democratic or Republican could be considered "identity politics."

Sent by Jennifer Edwards-Ring | 2:19 PM | 2-21-2008

I am a middle aged, white woman who completely supports Obama for president because I identify with him as an educated, thoughtful well-spoken candidate who does not appear to be in anyone's pocket. I do not think about him as being black first, but I think first about him being amazingly intelligent.

I do not identify myself with the current president because of the perceived lack of the above qualities. I would have no problem voting for a woman...but not this woman.

Sent by Sue | 2:20 PM | 2-21-2008

To often, news programs divides election results by the following: African American, Women & Latino. 1) Does anyone else not see a problem with this since women can be both Latino or African American? 2) Are these the only voters that are cared about? What about Asian male voters? White men? etc.

Sent by William Babcock | 2:21 PM | 2-21-2008

I wonder how unbiased Stanley Fish can be on this topic. He's defended Hillary Clinton quite strongly in his Times columns.

You're missing one aspect of identity politics in this year's presidential race: age. One aspect of Barack Obama's candidacy that excites me is his youth. (I'm about to turn 34.) I believe many older Baby Boomers find this threatening, though.

Sent by Amy B. | 2:21 PM | 2-21-2008

Identity politics is a nice term for bigotry. If it was Caucasians supporting a white candidate they would be called racists, however with minorities supporting a corresponding minority we call it "identity politics." How middle-brow and subjective this whole viewpoint is. Statistics clearly support minorities in this country are excessively bigoted: the majority of African Americans supporting Obama, the majority of Latinos supporting Hillary because she isn't African American. This is racism pure and simple. Apparently no one can have an objective discussion on racism in this country.

Sent by Scott | 2:22 PM | 2-21-2008

Doesn't your guests think that if obama gets nominated that a large number of uninformed black and youth voters that don't care about politics, who have not voted before and wouldn't have voted before, but will for a Black man? Don't they also think that this kind of voting is extremely bad for our democracy ?

Sent by Daniel | 2:25 PM | 2-21-2008

Funny thing, identity. I am a Caucasian artist who has lived on the outskirts of Phila. in poor communities for the last 10 1/2 years. I tend to prefer Obama because I am familiar with and comfortable in the communities where the drug / gangster culture has mindwashed a large group of [otherwise] intelligent and able african american men and women. I hope with all my heart that Obama becomes the next president of the United States...

Sent by Kay | 2:27 PM | 2-21-2008

As a young white supporter of Barack Obama, I *strongly* object to the idea that this is a way to "pay reparations without any cost." The man's race is of no importance to me, and I'm certainly not supporting him because I have some sort of guilty liberal conscience to assuage - Nor because I think - consciously or unconsciously - that I owe a debt to the black community that I can repay this way.

I think Obama has showed much broader support in the white community than this opinion shows.

Sent by Shannon | 2:29 PM | 2-21-2008

Identity politics take many forms. Historically, farmers have formed one of the strongest identity political groups.
I am writing in farm country, and I definitely am inclined to support candidates who seem to have some in-depth understanding of agricultural policy. After all, this affects me and my community directly. Nonetheless, I will still try to vote for what I consider to be the best interests of the nation.
I think that this discussion underestimates the willingness of voters to think in terms of the greater good.

Sent by John Davidson | 2:30 PM | 2-21-2008

If Barack Obama is nominated, I intend to vote for him solely because he is black. I supported Ron Paul because he was different. Since he will not be in the General Election, Barack is the only choice for change. He sounds very similar to the other candidates so the one thing that sets him apart is that he is black.

Sent by Adrien | 2:31 PM | 2-21-2008

This is not a great definition of Identity Politics. Focused on the election, maybe, but not in general. Identity Politics deals with the struggle of personal identity (internal) vs. society and other people's labeling (external) of you. It should be noted that both of these are not fixed, and can change and evolve depending on socio-political climate and other factors.

I am an actor and playwright with the theatre company Teatro del Pueblo, and our annual Political Theatre Festival in Minneapolis is dealing with these topics of identity this at present.

Sent by Eric S.B. | 2:33 PM | 2-21-2008

One need only look the election for President of Cook County Illinois to know that racial identity is alive and well in America

Sent by Russ Bright | 2:33 PM | 2-21-2008

Where do hispanics stand on identity politics. They will not vote for Obama not because of race, but because of competition with black america. On the other hand, they vote for Clinton, although Hispanics typicaly hold "machista" and "marianista" cultural stands, where women do not occupy a place of power outside the home.

Sent by Laura | 2:34 PM | 2-21-2008

whichever of your guest stated that we're voting policies/issues must live in a different country than I live. Few people know or care about issues or can delineate the differences between the stands the candidates take on the issues. we now live in the land of "The Cult of Obama"

Sent by Lynne | 2:41 PM | 2-21-2008

I fit clearly into Hillary Clinton's base: white, feminist woman age 63. And, yet I will vote for Barack Obama. Why? Because he will represent this country to the rest of the world in a positive way. He will restore the honor and integrity of America. My greatest disappointment in George W. Bush is that he has represented and re-defined America to the rest of the world in a way that I don't recognize or respect. His America is not my America. Hillary cannot heal this wound because she will be distracted by many of the same venomous partisan issues her husband was during his administration. Eight years of bickering, defensiveness, and counterattacks is more than I can imagine surviving, personally or as a country. Obama offers healing to the people of America and we are in dire need of it, both internally and externally. And, he lets us know we can do it together. During the Bush administration I felt left if he only represented his base and was indifferent to the rest of us. I think the people of this country are greater and more powerful than any of the other political leaders believe we are. Obama is a visionary who can see what we can do if we pull together. He believes in us as much as we believe in him.

Sent by kathleen halloran | 2:48 PM | 2-21-2008

Voters need to look for substance; whats best for the community; the state; the nation; etc when they vote. There are good and bad people on both sides and in all parties.

This country has alot of problems. We do not know though which of the 3 is likely to actually help resolve them so that the majority are helped over the few.

Sent by jm fay | 2:49 PM | 2-21-2008

I am seeking an answer and hope that someone can help me. On the one hand we keep getting this idea of the identity of the candidate being a deciding factor and then on the other hand we have people who say they are voting on issues. My question deals with identity and issues. I believe that we have a clear idea on where Senator Clinton stands in regards to civil rights issues, but I cannot find any information as to where Senator Obama stands on women's issues. Can someone shed light on Senator Obama's stance when it comes to women's issues?

Sent by Rodney | 2:53 PM | 2-21-2008

What a load of bat guano! 90% of Americans are media molded zombies without a clue. The system is broken and you all focus on nonsense like race, gender, religion, and the rhetoric of "change" -
Obama, Clinton, McCain (dolls with heads that are interchangeable).
Go to and search on "North American Union" go to FOMC web site ( and read how money is exchanges between central banks of Canada Mexico and the US. Our currency is based on debt and blind faith, people believe what they are told by religions and governments -- there IS a self serving agenda from these sources. USE YOUR YOUR BRAINS AND HEARTS PEOPLE. Google "North American Union" then Google "CFR Members" (Clinton, McCain, Obama). Go to and watch it completely -- dismiss the movie but ask yourself more questions then try to disprove the points made in the movie.
Wake up, don't make it so easy for them. You are each important individuals who love and live - stop being sheep.
Help save America. THINK.

Sent by Peter Piper | 2:55 PM | 2-21-2008

Dr. Fish identifies two fundamental assumptions on which people can base their vote: "identity," i.e. voting for a candidate based on who they are and not what they stand for (a process which he describes as "illiberal" voting), as opposed to voting on the basis of "ideology," by which he means voting based on a candidate's political positions or philosophy independent of who they are (a choice which he describes as "rational").

Then he qualifies his unconditional opposition to identity-based voting by drawing a distinction between two types of identity politics: "tribal-" and "interest-based." Of the two, interest-based identity politics is allowable based on his invocation of a supposedly time-honored assumption that a candidate who shares the voter's identity (all exceptions included) will best understand their needs.

But there are many other exceptions. Since we've elected only one Catholic President in our history and have never elected either a black, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, or female President, people who identify by those labels have always had to vote on some basis other than a "shared" identity with the candidate, while white males of any religion are free to vote "anti-" any gender, ethnicity, or religion that they so choose to without running afoul of the identity vs. ideology duality. That's because white male is an identity, if not quite an ideology or philosophy.

There's also the exception that civil rights is by definition an ideology or philosophy and has often involved competing ideologies with a support base that crosses ethnic or racial lines. Early in this campaign, for example, most black leaders and clergy were backing the white female candidate, not based on her identity, but because her positions were well-known whereas her opponent's were not, and most black voters don't automatically support a black candidate and never have. Then there's a pejorative type of identity politics ideology unwittingly represented by Ms. Nelson in her NY Times review of two new books by Randall Kennedy and Shelby Steele, who each offer thoughtful viewpoints on identity politics but she dismisses as something akin to what Edward W. Said labeled "native informants."

Sent by Mike | 4:05 PM | 2-21-2008

Thank you Mr Piper!!!

If people would just think then Republicans would not just vote straight ticket and Democrats would not do the same. That is how we perpetuate incumbents who never leave and how we get a very small minority running the counties; the states and the nation to the detriment of the same.

We should all forsake all parties and all be Independents!!! Let that help with who we elect at each caucus or primary since the top 2 vote getters could square off against each other in the general. Wouldn't this be a novel idea???

Sent by jm fay | 4:18 PM | 2-21-2008

The media never even questions whether Obama is qualified to be the president of the most powerful nation in the world because it wouldn't be politically correct. But Hillary can't do anything without the media reporting it with a cynical slant. The result is that people think that they should admire Obama and be cynical towards Hillary.

We will all pay the price for his lack of experience if he becomes president. The country as well as the world is in crisis after seven years of Bush and the Republicans. And if you think that they are going to play nice just because Barack says "Come together now" , then you are even more naive than he is.

Do we need someone with experience? Ask the dwindling number of employees at any GM plant who would they want as CEO. Would they want a marketing manager as their CEO? Or would they want a businessperson who has spent a lifetime gathering the knowledge that years of trial and error provide? Do they want someone who makes promises or someone who already has a strong foundation of relationships that will enable deals to be forged because the difficulty is in the details and not in the dream? Do they want someone who says that "we can do this" or someone who has done already crossed barriers to bring change? Do they care if their CEO is the most popular guy on the planet as long as when they go to work in the morning, the doors to the plant are still open?

Nobody wants change more than Hillary and more importantly, she has the experience, the knowledge and the connections to make that change happen.

Sent by Margarita Meyer | 8:39 PM | 2-21-2008

I think it's sad that we are now in the year 2008 and still issues of race, religion, sexual orientation, and other such trivial means of identification abound.

Regardless of which candidate, either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, ultimately becomes the democratic nominee, that candidate should stand for what the voting majority in America stands for. The time to be divided and allow the news media to formulate our opinions for us, as they speculate and throw out various 'ideas' about how they assume citizens feel, should be over.

I, for one, am ready for a world comprised more of human beings than paranoid bigots or phobic hate-mongers who would rather judge others who aren't 100% like them.

Barack Obama is doing well with the American voters because he's created that unifying spark in people to believe they CAN make a difference. It has nothing to do with age, gender, race, or any other stereotypical tag the media attempts to hang on it.

Sent by Kimberly | 11:07 PM | 2-21-2008

The entire term of "identity politics" is absurd, its a non existent, redundant phase that was used by mostly white male academics in the 80's/90's who were unhappy with the fact that other groups wanted to break free of their grip and control their own path. These angry white academics decided to to make a term that was half accusation/half slur as a way to define, thereby control other groups of people by scolding them back into the institutions the old dinosaurs control.

In short, its all just politics. Black communities reasoning for supporting a candidate or a line of issues are no different-whether justified or unjustified than any other group, including and especially the as yet unnamed group of people who practiced the pure-ideal "politics" that mr fish reveres. To name them would blow that theory. Every time a definition has tried to be created it never holds if you honestly look at history.
there really is nothing that black, female, or whatever groups are doing that is any different in action or thought that what has been practiced since the beginnings of government.

Sent by SC | 6:28 AM | 2-22-2008

I was thinking along the same lines that Jennifer posted about above. How about the diversity of political identity? For as long as I have been voting I have been told that I have to vote Democrat or Republican, and if I voted any other way I was wasting my vote. One of your guests mentioned that a woman and an African-American running for the Presidency is progress. I think progress will truly occur once we get out of bipartisan elections.

Sent by Keith Walter | 10:20 AM | 2-22-2008