The Politics of Identity

In setting up the next set of articles we use a thought-provoking op-ed by Professor Stanley Fish as the point of departure. Professor Fish deals with an issue, identity politics, which is of great relevance for us in South Asia. While the author’s application is to the election in the US (voting on the basis of color or gender), we can easily extrapolate some of the ideas to our context.

Here is Professor Fish’s definition of identity politics:

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.

An identity politics voter says, in effect, I don’t care what views he holds, or even what bad things he may have done, or what lack of ability he may display; he’s my brother, or he’s my kinsman, or he’s my landsman, or he comes from the neighborhood, or he’s a Southerner, or (and here the tribe is really big) my country right or wrong.

Identity politics is illiberal. That is, it is particularist whereas liberalism is universalist….

[Identity markers are] not supposed to be the basis of decisions one might make “as a citizen,” decisions about who might best lead the country or what laws should be enacted or voted down. Deciding as a citizen means deciding not as a man or a woman or a Jew or an African American or a Caucasian or a heterosexual, but as a human being. 

In the context of the nomination of the Democratic candidate for the forthcoming presidential elections in the US, Professor Fish poses his critical question: Is it so irrational and retrograde to base one’s vote on the gender or race or religion or ethnicity of a candidate? And he has an interesting answer: Not necessarily.

Here is his reasoning for the answer:

If the vote is given (or withheld) only because the candidate looks like you or has the same religion, it does seem a shallow and meretricious act, for it is an act unsupported by reasons. “Because she is a woman as I am” is of course a reason, but it is not a reason of the relevant kind, a reason that cites goals and programs, and argues for them. But suppose what was said was something like this: “As a woman I find government sponsored research skewed in the direction of diseases that afflict men and inattentive to the medical problems faced by women, and it is my belief that a woman president will devote resources to the solution of those problems.” That’s an identity politics argument which is thick, not thin; the she’s-like-me point is not invoked as sufficient unto itself, but as it relates to a matter of policy. The calculation may or may not pan out (successful candidates both disappoint and surprise), but it is a calculation of the right kind.

And here Professor Fish makes a very fine distinction (which, by the way, is why we need intellectuals in society):

We should distinguish, I think, between two forms of identity politics. The first I have already named “tribal”; it is the politics based on who a candidate is rather than on what he or she believes or argues for. And that, I agree, is usually a bad idea… The second form of identity politics is what I call “interest” identity politics. It is based on the assumption (itself resting on history and observation) that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to. Not only is there nothing wrong with such a calculation – it is both rational and considered – I don’t see that there is an alternative to voting on the basis of interest.

[Your vote] will always be in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject. It is those policies, not the probity of their proposer, that you will be voting for. (If your candidate is also a good person, that’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t the essential thing.) You will be voting, in short, for interests, and those who do not have an investment in those interests will be voting for someone else…. And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological and not merely tribal, constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.

There are two bottom lines here for those interested in the politics of South Asia. First, is the politics of South Asia “tribal” identity politics or is it “interest” identity politics, i.e., is the voter voting for a candidate regardless of the set of ideas the candidate stands for or is he/she voting for a candidate who would best advance the voter’s interests?

The second bottom line pertains to the nature of a voter’s interests: What exactly are the “interests” of the representative voter in South Asia? And it is here that we will articulate a surprising twist to Professor Fish’s argument in a subsequent post.

This is an issue of immense relevance for South Asia. Remember that a million people died and ten million were made homeless in India because of identity politics – because Muslims believed (or were made to believe) that in a democracy all Hindus, regardless of the myriad divisions amongst themselves, would vote on the basis of identity against Muslims turning the latter into a permanent and disadvantaged minority.

And in today’s South Asia, we have the same people elected again and again to parliament in Pakistan, there are alleged to be caste blocs in India, and Sri Lanka remains hostage to the politics of ethnic identity. So this is an issue we should spend time trying to understand and we are grateful to Professor Fish for suggesting a direction in which our understanding can be improved.

There is nothing more exciting than difficult questions in search of answers.

Professor Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His op-ed (When ‘Identity Politics’ is Rational) appeared in the New York Times on February 17, 2008.

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