Talking past each other on identity politics

The debate about whether ‘identity politics’ is crucial or dangerous to liberalism is on. And it is frustrating.

Jacob Levy came out swinging yesterday in defence of the crucial role of identity politics in liberalism, against arguments about the role of identity politics in the rise of illiberalism (and Trumpism) in the U.S., such as those presented by Reason’s Robby Soave and in Mark Lilla’s recent NYT piece. Jason Kuznicki has responded to Levy. Elsewhere, Tom Palmer names identity politics as a danger to liberalism in his fabulous essay on the three fronts of growing anti-libertarianism.

The first order of business seems to be to decide what, exactly, we mean by ‘identity politics’. Jason Kuznicki agrees:

“An equivocation is occurring here, between good and bad, both claiming to be “identity politics.” In cases like that, it’s morally imperative to differentiate rather than to lump together.”

I am concerned about identity politics as it’s represented by Tom Palmer and Jason Kuznicki, so I’ll draw from them as I take a stab at nailing down a definition of the ‘identity politics’ that worries me.
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Time to rehabilitate a pejorative?

As folks struggle to deal with the populist, anti-market realignment on the right, Godwin’s law has been making itself more relevant. People who make the mistake of equating today’s right-populism with national socialism might be forgiven, even if they go too far, for a more appropriate term has been drained of meaning: fascism.

Anyone who says that politicians today are fascist sounds nuts. The word has been applied indiscriminately to dismiss people and policies so often that it’s devoid of meaning, though it’s broadly associated with an unhinged lust for power, disregard for constitutional law, and eugenic racism. But the original intent of fascism aimed at none of these things. I’ve written on how modest the tenets of fascism sound in today’s political climate. Steve Horwitz has been pressing the applicability of the technical term since last summer. The fact is that, fallen as the word might be, there’s simply not a good substitute.

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