Matt Yglesias, with characteristic perceptiveness, points out (ht DeLong) that

There are significant and salient tension between the economic and identity-oriented wings of the left that conservatives largely avoided… You saw this in the Clinton/Sanders primary where identity politics rhetoric and concepts were mobilized to shore up economic moderation.

Freddie deBoer offers a piece that I enthusiastically recommend. (But then I would, wouldn’t I?) deBoer writes

the existence of tens of millions of nativist racists represents a practical problem to be addressed no matter what your take on their origins. I am not talking about giving concessions that we consider contrary to our basic convictions in an effort to court these voters. I’m not necessarily talking about courting them, as voters, at all. I am not saying we shouldn’t defeat them in elections. I am asking, what do we do with them after the elections have been won? More, I am here asking that we consider whether we want to adopt the basic logic of conservatism: that some people’s distress is deserved and thus safely ignored.

In general, I think attitudes towards difference are an underappreciated fault line of contemporary liberal politics. By difference, I don’t mean individual difference or eccentricity, iconoclasm or nonconformity. What I do mean is consequential divergences of status across different, socially identified groups of people.

There are two axes of difference that seem to me to be particularly relevant. Yglesias identifies these precisely: There is an axis of “identity politics”, and an axis of economic stratification. Both of these axes are associated with “progressivism”, in the sense that both economic stratification and various socially defined identity groups have been associated with perceptions of disadvantage and oppression of the sort “progressivism” seeks to remedy. (See Arnold Kling’s axes.)

However, there are two, quite distinct approaches to remedying this sort of oppression. One way is to alter the way people are sorted and the relative status of the different groups so that the socially consequential groupings are more legitimate. Another way is to try to diminish the legitimacy and the fact of distinctions between groups, so that what groupings remain are more like elective subcultures than implacable social facts.

Along the economic axis, this distinction plays out in the question of meritocracy. “Classical liberals” and the people sometimes referred to as neoliberals don’t challenge the existence of large, consequential differences between rich and poor. They seek to remedy what is oppressive in economic stratification by putting a humane floor beneath the consequences of being sorted downwards, and by working to ensure that the sorting is “fair”. They tend to promote equality of opportunity and emphasize education as a solution. People to whom the label “left” gets applied work instead to compress economic difference, to delegitimize the sorting or at least to dramatically reduce its scope relative to the unjust, socially destructive dispersion they perceive in the status status quo. Both groups find common cause, sometimes, in wanting to put a floor beneath the bottom. But they are in sharp conflict about whether stratification towards the top calls for making the sort fairer or imposing limits.

With respect to identity politics, there is a similar divide, but the labels aren’t as recognizable. There is a strand of left-of-center politics that seeks to simply end group difference, epitomized by Martin Luther King’s call for “a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. There is a different strand that views group difference as legitimate, or else inevitable and therefore legitimate, and that seeks to remedy oppression by contesting in politics and society explicitly as groups in order to alter the sorting of material goods and social status across groups. As in economics, where meritocratic liberals and people to their left form uneasy alliances over “safety net” programs, universalists and identity-centered activists can and often do work together to try to remedy disadvantage and oppression attached to social identity. Just as meritocratic liberals acknowledge the fact of economic hierarchy, universalists are not reductionists, they (we) acknowledge the fact that social goods are differentially distributed across identities through mechanisms quite different from within-group economic sorting, and often much more brutal. But, as in the economic sphere, universalists and identity-centered activists ultimately have very different goals and so embrace very different tactics. Universalists want group identity to become less salient and consequential, and so resist tactics that highlight difference in order to promote intragroup solidarity and to sow open conflict with other groups. Identity-centered activists view solidarity and conflict as the best and perhaps only way to overcome identity-distributed oppression. To a universalist, tactics like “no platforming” sow precisely the sort of divisions we ought to be working to overcome. To an identity-centered activist, “no platforming” an apologist for racism or sexual violence is just winning. This distinction blurs in practice, because neither universalists nor identity-centered activists restrict themselves to “neutral” (race-neutral, gender-neutral) tactics. Procedural neutrality is a trope of conservatives, of people working to defend status quo distinctions rather than to alter them. But universalists adopt group-conscious tactics as a means of reducing the salience and importance of group difference (think of how Singapore actively manages the composition of its housing to prevent the emergence of distinct ethnoracial communities), while identity-centered activists work to advance the interests of the groups for which they advocate in ways likely to accentuate the salience of group membership and encourage continued group identification and solidarity.

The core dispute, I think, in identity politics as in economic policy, is over whether to embrace consequential difference across groups but make outcomes more legitimate, or whether to try to reduce the degree to which difference is socially and materially consequential.

The diagram above summarizes the differences as I see them among US liberal-to-left factions. Note that these are questions of more or less, not absolutes. I’d place myself in the “universalist left”, for example, but I do believe that some degree of economic stratification is legitimate and necessary, under economists’ usual rationale of preserving incentives to produce. I just think that the degree of economic stratification that currently prevails is way, way, way, way, way past the point where benefits of sharp incentives to produce are undone by even sharper incentives to cheat and outweighed by destructive social fragmentation.

Update: Eli Schiff offered some similar thought experiments recently, thinking about the acceptability and reputation effects of left- and right-flavored activism in a corporate setting or workplace, depending on whether that activism emphasizes identity or economic concerns. I chatted with Schiff about these, and am indebted to him in thinking about using emphasis on identity politics to cut a 2 x 2 grid. Take a look at his work, his initial cut, or his more elaborate take, also embedded below!

Update History:

  • 15-May-2016, 4:25 p.m. PDT: “…neither the universalists nor the identity-centered activists…”
  • 17-May-2016, 1:15 p.m. PDT: Added bold update re Eli Schiff’s thought experiments on the acceptability of workplace activism.
  • 19-May-2016, 1:15 p.m. PDT: Added horizontal line to separate conclusion from update.

14 Responses to “Difference”

  1. Alex writes:

    “To an identity-centered activist, “no-platforming” an apologist for racism or sexual violence is just winning”

    There I have to disagree. No-platforming, when it comes up under public discussion, is usually for four reasons:

    1. Mistake by the media. Often no-one got explicitly no-platformed, instead some media storm happened that made it seem like no-platforming. For example, a speaker is told there will be lots of protests against them, so they withdraw and tell the media they’ve been “no-platformed”.

    2. Quality control. Sometimes a group doesn’t want to invite someone because they have better things to debate.

    3. A feeling of not wanting to be seen endorsing or legitimatising the speaker by giving them a prominent platform. In this sense, it’s not winning, but a tactic towards winning.

    4. Mental health. Given the high rates of LGBT suicide, bringing in a speaker who is, say, transphobic, can be irresponsible. Lots of times organisations just want to be welcoming to all members of their community.

  2. Mark writes:

    Perhaps I’m cynical, but I think you’re overstating how much this debate is over goals and fundamental principles. It strikes me rather, that the current universalist vs. identitarian conflict is often a tactic on the part of left meritocrats to divert attention from economic issues. For example, it explains Clinton’s question, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism?” She’s correct that it wouldn’t, but as a rhetorical tactic, it uses a strawman of race- and sex-blind economic justice to downplay the ways racism and sexism are also economic institutions with (partial) economic remedies, and to fight against those remedies. Identity-centered arguments become a way for economic elites to claim the moral high ground while fighting any policy that threatens their pocketbooks.

  3. Brett writes:

    The Identitarian critique is that Universalists are not, well, universalist – rather, they represent a coalition that tends to be the “next tier down” from power, like the white working class in the Great Depression. The fear is that they’ll use the guise of universalism to favor their interests and make them the standard, while dismissing concerns from others about sharing power as “divisive” or “selfish group politics”.

    I.E. “Our guiding committee may consist of 7 white men and 1 white woman, but it’s okay because they’re pursue colorblind universal causes, and the demand representation for non-white folks or more women would be divisive and promoting group identities that undermine the cause.”

  4. Mark writes:

    Good point — I think many universalist arguments are sincere, but there are certainly people who use universalism to defend their position in the racist, sexist hierarchy as well. (e.g., people who uncritically reference Charles Murray) I think that counterargument reinforces that this debate is often more about rhetoric and diversionary tactics than ideals — racists and sexists will use universalist arguments, while economic elites use identitarian ones as ways to disguise their real interests. Even Dr. King’s “content of their character” line gets co-opted by the right against race-conscious policies, when he himself suggested they might be necessary. King also said, “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro,” but you don’t hear *that* quote anywhere near as often.

  5. Lord writes:

    What would be corresponding divisions among conservatives? Authoritarian/cultural/religious/nativist/nationalist, states rights/local control/minimal government/taxes, big business/interventionism, small business/isolationist? Social cons and business cons should be two corners, neo cons and small c cons the others, or maybe those are too small? Perhaps authoritarian central/decentral vs inward/outward focus?

  6. Kyle writes:

    I’m not sure intersectional is synonymous with identity-centered activist. If anything, intersectionalists have criticized identity-centered activism as holding down intersected individuals.

  7. Paul writes:

    A good post as usual. I think the central question I would pose this one: is a society with four rich men and four poor women different from a society with two rich and two poor people of each gender? (my example uses gender differences but in fact you could substitute many other identifying properties and the thrust of the argument would not change).
    If you’re a meritocrat, there’s an argument for saying it’s worse on the grounds that merit is not coordinated with gender, so the wrong people are being rewarded. But as an individual, you’re poor or you’re rich: it’s hard to argue that it’s better being a poor women just because some other people with whom you happen to share some qualities are wealthy.
    But in a society where women are disadvantaged, the quest to advance the cause of women in general is likely to result not in women simply displacing men from the elite, but rather of men being forced to share their lofty positions. In practice, the promotion of the rights of disadvantaged groups is likely to reduce net disadvantage, not just assign a few representatives of these groups the chance to live the high life. Promotion of group rights is thus often a good strategy for a universalist, although it means we have to endure a lot of BS which almost seems to be encouraging us to welcome a new set of (talented, fabulous) overlords to replace the old ones.
    On the other hand, rejection of such nonsense provides a very convenient do-nothing argument for many a so-called universalist: I eagerly await the revolution, but if someone has to be on top for now, it might as well be me! It’s hardly surprising that this argument doesn’t go down too well with everybody else…

  8. Peter K. writes:

    DeBoer just had another blogpost where he pessimistically speculates the Classic Liberals will win (if I understand the diagram correctly). Wall Street liberals forget economics and focus on diversity. They’re opposed by fascist nativists.

    I think increased diversity is both a diversion and a good thing. We can work on more than one thing at at time. We can work on economics while still cheering diversity improvements. The Democrats have a new plan for the Fed which Hillary endorsed. It calls for more diversity, but not just with gender and race. They call for bank and business reps to be replaced with consumer and labor reps on boards to a certain degree.

    Bank CEOs and econbloggers are mostly white males. More diversity will help. And pace DeBoer once everything including the Fortune 500 leadership is diversified, it can no longer be used as a diversion. We’ll have to move on to other issues of fairness like economics.

    (Almost half of Iceland’s parliament and CEOs are women.)

  9. tony writes:

    Paul, that’s a terrible example. Men, as a rule, marry and have children with women. Replacing your example with any other id category completely changes the equation.

  10. Paul writes:

    Tony, for any disadvantaged group, it may be possible the argue that the disadvantage is appropriate or not, but that’s not relevant to the specific point I was trying to make, which was rather this admittedly quite mundane observation: that assuming a group is wrongly disadvantaged, that group’s status can be improved without making society any fairer at the individual level (although in practice the two usually go together). I think that holds even if men usually marry and have children with lampposts.

  11. tony writes:

    It matters because men and women marry each other. In your society there are only middle class families and children. And since it necessarily has rich men marry poor women, women receive at least some of those resources and their children suffer from no class issues whatsoever. They may suffer from gender issues.

  12. eof writes:

    Tony what are you going in about? Gender inequity persists intergenerationally, and is not ameliorated by marriage and children. There is inequality within marriages and households themselves. But even going down this path of desimplification is missing the point.

    In as much as differences are recognized, and affirmed, and these correlate to outcomes there will be identity based resentment, justifiably or not. That is a serious problem especially in times of hardship.

  13. Dr Zen writes:

    You cut de Boer’s quote short so he seems to be supporting the view that he’s actually opposing, if I read him right. Dismissing Trump’s supporters as mere racists is stupid — but Krugman, for instance, is not much of a thinker on politics so no surprise — when one could learn more by asking why they are racists.

  14. Dr Zen writes:

    Brett: I.E. “Our guiding committee may consist of 7 white men and 1 white woman, but it’s okay because they’re pursue colorblind universal causes, and the demand representation for non-white folks or more women would be divisive and promoting group identities that undermine the cause.”

    If you were saying that identitarians can get bogged down in tokenism rather than focusing on goals, then I think you’d be right, but sadly I don’t think you were.

    I think Paul was closer to the truth: it’s not particularly useful to a poor woman that there are more women CEOs. She’s still poor. Enriching her and everyone in her class will do more for her than shifting the composition of the most privileged in society. I’ve never seen any good argument for the latter’s being better other than pure equity. Equity’s nice but you can’t buy shoes with it.