I was reading the president's recent 1776 Commission and was struck by how the idea of identity politics is portrayed as the offspring of the Civil Rights Movement (actually called pejoractively? the "stepchild").This line specifically makes me ask this question:

Identity politics makes it less likely that racial reconciliation and healing can be attained

Today in the United States, the data tell us that wealth and health disparities fall along racial lines. People who identify as LGBT have a higher rate of suicide and suicide risk in our current society. Insert your favorite social injustice here.

My question is How does someone who rejects identity politics come to terms with the fact that, statistically speaking, the person society sees you as seems to determine how rich, healthy, happy (etc.) you are rather than the other way around?

I can't imagine the idea that laziness, poor work ethic, mental illness, et al are still widely believed to be the causes (please correct me if I'm wrong about this), but I also can't think of another reason for not connecting big events of history to our current situation: slavery -> Jim Crow south -> segregation -> continuing wealth disparity. Or anti-sodomy laws -> no gay marriage/rights -> social ostracism -> higher suicide rates.

I get that the solution to the problem might be different given your political leaning, and labelling parts of the progressive platform like affirmative action or special protections for LGBT people as identity politics suggests that conservatives would prefer identity-less politics. That much makes sense to me, but what I don't understand is how we make life better for all Americans without resorting to putting identity front and center in the eyes of the law.

Even though all men should be created equal, and be treated so in the eyes of the law, the truth is they aren't always. At what point do we reevaluate the needs of a minority group (who can rarely marshal enough votes) to continue to deliver on the promise of equality?

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    Would you like to know "how modern conversatives frame racial disparities" or "at what point do we reevaluate the needs of a minority group to go continue to deliver on the promise of equality"? The two questions have very different answers, and the latter promises to be subjective.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 19, 2021 at 20:15
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    That said, from what I can tell the majority of people who would identify as conservatives these days endorse some combination of straightforward old-fashioned stereotypes, like the ones you mentioned albeit updated for the modern, a bit of White identity politics, as well as the idea that societal inequalities and prejudice are not really a big deal anymore, so why talk about all that inconvenient stuff? Throw in the idea that liberals are trying to install a Marxist dictatorship and that sums up much of mainstream conservative political thought in this age of populism.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 19, 2021 at 20:20
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    The people who rail against "identity politics" tend to belong to that group. They are the people who were accusing the ACA of being a Communist reparations program and such. A relative handful of more principled conservatives would recognize the existence of disparities, but would argue that it is preferable or even more effective to address them in an a priori unbiased manner. For instance, they might argue that eliminating hiring discrimination and reforming school and prison systems would be sufficient to eliminate disparities between White and Black Americans.
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 19, 2021 at 20:23
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    My understanding is that "identity politics" is the tendency for politicians and broader culture in general to insist that persons of certain identities must vote in a certain way because they are of that identity. The most explicit one that is tossed around a lot is that American blacks should vote Democratic. A Republican one would be the expectation that white evangelicals are theirs. Accepting or rejecting an identity politic is not indicative of a political leaning. Your question is about general societal inequalities that are correlated with identities; something else completely.
    – user2578
    Jan 20, 2021 at 23:40
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    @dan04 On this particular topic, if you're not familiar with who are broad reaching conservative voices (like Shapiro), you're going to quickly end up on the crazy side of things with names like Jared Taylor and come away with a tainted and minority view of the situation which is not rightly called "conservative".
    – user2578
    Jan 20, 2021 at 23:43

4 Answers 4


Sorry for saying this but I think your post/question is not written very clearly. However the central question seems to be

What are the arguments against identity-based politics ?

I will try answer this question with some arguments I personally have against it. Note that I do not consider myself a conservative but rather left-wing on a lot issues.

  • There is no need for identity-based policies to combat social problems within a certain disadvantaged group. For example to combat poverty, higher minimum wage, higher social security, basic income would help all poor people, including those within the disadvantaged/minority group.

  • Who exactly belongs to a disadvantaged/minority group? For instance who exactly would qualify as black? Are my two daughters, who have a black mother, but have somehow ended up with a pale skin, blue eyes and blond hair, black?

  • Identity-based politics stimulate ethnic group-thinking. History taught us well what that can lead to.

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    While this is generally well-spoken, I don't think that what you've put as the central question is. Rather, I see the core question as 'how do those opposed to identity politics reconcile the objective(*) ways in which identity affects outcome?'. (The asterisk here representing that while I personally consider the evidence in this matter to be objectively clear, I can appreciate that that statement is one that might be disputed.) Jan 20, 2021 at 20:03
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    The question explicitly asked for the modern conservative perspective, not the personal perspective as a rather left-wing person.
    – Philipp
    Jan 21, 2021 at 10:19
  • @Philipp The title does indeed explicitly ask for a modern conservative perspective. However the highlighted (rather unclearly formulated) question does not. Jan 21, 2021 at 10:34
  • @Steven Stadnicki is correct, I am looking for the argument that accepts either my own or some other proof of differences along specifically racial/sexual orientation lines (controlling for income and other variables), but would then state that leaving identity out of the policy/law/etc. would lead to a society where those most disadvantaged (poorest, unhappiest) are "lifted up" Jan 21, 2021 at 23:03

The Conservative rejection of "identity politics" (per se) is not that they don't acknowledge that some disparities may be caused by discrimination (people have generally found ways to treat each other less than justly since the beginning of the species), but rather that many other factors affect the cited statistics so that to declare discrimination as the explanation is somewhere between unfounded or too simplistic.

In particular, often the statistics presented to argue that some sinister discrimination underlies some disparity appears to be an apples to apples comparison but it obscures differences between the categories (whether over time or geography, etc). For example, speaking of income in terms of households obscures that households are not all the same size and as economic status improves, people can form their own households.

Another common obscure point is differences in demographic distributions within the categories. For example, when comparing black incomes to white incomes ignoring the difference in age distribution can result in an apparent larger discrepancy than if similar age groups are compared with each other. It's unexpected that younger/less experienced people generally earn less than older/more experienced people.

I can't imagine the idea that laziness, poor work ethic, mental illness, et al are still widely believed to be the causes

Why wouldn't those things contribute to poverty rates? Do you expect people to readily become economically successful if they work less well than others (on average)? This is not to say that any group on account of their membership in these racial or other groups is intrinsically lazier, etc, but rather that if a culture encourages poor work ethic, it will tend to succeed less well than other groups which prize hard work.

In another answer, Brett mentioned that the theory that universally poverty is cyclic generationally and that it's believed to be true across cultures. It might be believed to be but the evidence is far from conclusive. European Jews, Koreans and Chinese immigrants to the United States all arrived generally quite poor but placed high value on education and hard work. Many of them took a generational look at arising out of poverty where parents would work long hours in lower-paying jobs to send their children to quality schools and universities.

but I also can't think of another reason for not connecting big events of history to our current situation: slavery -> Jim Crow south -> segregation -> continuing wealth disparity

Unfortunately, that line of thought is all too common but again a theory has to match the facts. Within the first few decades after the American Revolution, the Northern States gradually abolished slavery (peacefully). At the time of the Civil War and its aftermath, the South was economically and culturally behind the North. Slavery didn't create or worsen disparities between whites and blacks, but ending slavery made it possible to lessen the economic disparities between the North and the South (for all races). Within half a century of emancipation, the freed slaves had a higher rate of literacy than Romania and India. IIRC, Romania didn't reach a similar level of literacy until 1910 and India not until the 1970s. Coincidentally, there is a larger degree of economic disparity between Western and Eastern Europeans than blacks and whites in the United States.

In sum, conservatives consider a wide variety of factors to underly apparent disparities including education level, cultural aspects around approach to work, personal choice (what subjects to study, what type of work to do, whether to stop working to have children). Additionally, when and how the statistics are aggregated can affect the apparent disparity displayed therein. Because many factors contribute to these disparities, conservatives consider policies based upon group identity to at best ineffective at reaching their intended goal (i.e more equity, less poverty, etc) and at worse actually harmful to those groups.

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    "Slavery didn't create or worsen disparities between whites and blacks" The only way I can think of to make sense of that is if you're comparing how black people fared under slavery to how they would have fared if white people had had no contact with Africa, rather than comparing how black people fared under slavery to how they would have fared if they had been free citizens of the US. Jan 25, 2021 at 3:59
  • @Acccumulation The point was the Southern United States wasn't as well off during the period of slavery; it's actually after the abolition of slavery that results in the prospering of the South (and country as a whole). Secondarily, freed backs have existed in small numbers since the colonial era and while they were on the fringes of society, they did reasonably well economically. Thirdly, comparing complete hypotheticals is not particularly useful. With everything else remaining the same except slavery never existing, there wouldn't be many Africans in the United States until the 20th century
    – eques
    Jan 25, 2021 at 13:22
  • Perhaps I should have emphasized also that I meant the disparities of today, which is really what people are concerned with. No one is concerned with what disparities existed 50 or 100 years ago except as an explanation for the present state
    – eques
    Jan 25, 2021 at 13:32
  • Great answer, I'll probably accept it. I just want to close the loop regarding the direction of policy. Correct me or add to your answer if I'm wrong: Given that the conservative view is generally skeptical of the data supporting the idea that group identity is the sole contributor to disparities, laws/policy should not be shaped around those identities. Jan 25, 2021 at 16:16
  • @speedfranklin good question. I'll add a clarifying final remark.
    – eques
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:23

In a democracy, all politics is identity politics. The entire raison d'être of democratic institutions is to grant citizens a voice in their own governance, so that government is responsive to their wants and needs: in other words, so that their identity can make a mark on the way the nation is run. Democratic citizens are (ostensibly) not the faceless subjects we find in other regimes, they are part and parcel of the governing process.

When identity politics is used in a pejorative sense (as in that 1776 manifesto), it refers to a group identity: people organizing to promote the wants and needs of a class of individuals. Conservatives often see collective action of this sort as problematic, in the sense that it promotes the interests of that particular group over and above the interests of other groups in society. They see it as creating an imbalance, and a particular (if subtle) form of injustice. In the conservative worldview, identity politics un-levels the playing field, making it harder for people outside that identity group to get their needs and wants met. This is what they mean when they talk about 'reverse' discrimination.

However, the conservative worldview is predicated on an implicit identity group: the loosely white, Christian group that has historically dominated political, social, and economic power in the US. Conservatives effectively deny history, believing that the US as it stands is free of any identity politics, so that the insertion of identity politics by these groups is politically problematic. They don't consider the fact that these identity groups formed specifically because the groups in question found themselves politically disadvantaged by the standing rule of that white, Christian status quo.

Identity-group politics does in fact reinforce the divisive notions of identity and class in the US, and it can in fact produce problematic, undesirable outcomes. But active identity-group politics also makes it clear that our nation was never free of identity-group politics. Identity-group politics does not create or exacerbate the divisions in society. It exposes those divisions, forcing everyone to acknowledge that we do not live up to our professed ideals of liberty, equality, and opportunity in the way we might imagine. visible identity groups pushing for their collective interests against other groups is not an optimal solution by any means, but it is better than a system in which one identity group rules with implicit and unquestioned authority.

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    @speedfranklin: Hm. I'm not sure I can wrap my head around that position. You're basically suggesting a position in which one accepts that there are social and cultural forms of oppression, but rejects any social or cultural solutions. That fits well enough with Libertarian Fictional forms — e.g., The Fountainhead, where one man's individuality opposes a world of cultural biases through sheer force of will — but I can't dredge up a non-fiction reference. Heroic tales make great reading, but suck as a five-year plan... Jan 22, 2021 at 22:04
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    "all politics is identity politics" I'm not sure I'd agree. If I think my neighborhood needs a school (or a better one) and attempt to convince the political power to do so, how is that "identity related"? It doesn't have to have anything to do with my race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, etc, which is generally what we mean by identity.
    – eques
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:31
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    @eques: If you think your neighborhood needs a (better) school, that means that you think that you (and your neighbors) deserve some resource that the community should provide. But who are you to deserve anything? the answer to that question is always rooted in identity. Sometimes it's a diffuse identity ("We are American citizens, and I deserve fair treatment"), sometimes it's group identity, sometimes it's personal identity... but people without identity (e.g., illegal immigrants under Trumpism) have no basis to make demands on the community. Jan 25, 2021 at 16:43
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    @TedWrigley and that's the direction I thought you might go. If you use identity in that way, you rob the term of any significance. For "identity politics" to mean anything (positive or negative) it has to mean something more than "politics'
    – eques
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:51
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    @eques: if you use 'identity politics' the way you want to use it, you rob democracy of any significance. Which is (perhaps) the intent of people who use the term that way... ' Groups' do not exists except as collections of people; reifying groups as the primary actors delegitimizes the people who are members of those groups. Jan 25, 2021 at 17:05

They believe that the issues in question are caused by other factors, and only correlate strongly with race in USA for the historic reasons of slavery, segregation, etc. They consider these to be historic issues from long ago, which not only absolves them of personal responsibility, but also puts responsibility back on the people in poverty for having had successive generations failing to lift themselves or the next generation out of poverty - this is especially pronounced in conservatives (including African-American conservatives) who themselves, or in a recent generation have come out of poverty. For example Kanye West calling it "a choice" and "mentally in prison".

An economist could explain it better then me, but my understanding as a layman is probably closer to a typical view. Essentially it's believed that a large number of factors cause poverty to be generationally cyclical, so people who's parents are poor and uneducated tend to grow up to be poor and uneducated, and tend to then have kids who grow up to be poor and uneducated. This is believed to be universally true, and apply across cultures, race, etc.

One compelling case for me is the disparity between certain African migrant groups depending on their country of origin - most people would be surprised to know that the most educated ethnic group in America is Nigerians. Surely if racism were the cause, then being highly educated wouldn't make it go away?

If you assume the above to be true, then identity politics is just a useless lense to look at the world through where you miss all of the actual issues because you're trying to fix a correlation. This has been considered a frustrating waste of time when the government could be using resources to fight (within the appropriate limitations of government responsibility) what is considered to be several separate problems.

More recently, conservatives have started to perceive identity politics to be an active threat to not just their ideals, but also to social cohesion. This is along the same vein that a straight-white-male will get annoyed to hear about his so-called privilege when he's living out of his car. His reaction to start resenting women, LGBT, or other races isn't justified, but it's understandable why that bitterness would emerge. I perceive the reaction to begin attacking the idea of identity politics to be a knee-jerk response to noticing this kind of schism widening.

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    This sounds less like an explanation for the conservative perspective and more like a mischaracterization someone arguing for identity politics might give.
    – eques
    Jan 25, 2021 at 16:10
  • @eques what is it that gives that impression? Personally I'm opposed to identity politics, but for different reasons than what I perceive that mainstream conservatives are. I'm unsure if it's down to my misunderstanding, or if I've done a poor job communicating it. For example in your answer you clarified on mine, that poor migrants don't stay in poverty - in my mind a poor migrant isn't necessarily someone who has always been poor, or is from a poor family - they're just in a temporary state of not having much money. Maybe I'm making too many assumptions of what people will already know.
    – Brett
    Jan 27, 2021 at 1:00
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    I'm trying to remember what specifically stuck out when I made the comment. I think in part it was phrases like "absolves them of personal responsibility" and "his reaction to start resenting women" because those phrases seem less like what someone who didn't support identity politics would say and more what someone who supported identity politics would expect the opposite position to take.
    – eques
    Jan 27, 2021 at 11:54

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