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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Identity Politics Doesn’t Advance Equality and Harmony, It Subverts Them

Peter Buttigieg's individual accomplishments are quite impressive. So why are they so little discussed?

marcn [CC BY 2.0 (]

Democratic presidential candidate Peter Buttigieg has come under fire recently from members of his own party. In the eyes of some columnists, Buttigieg is an enigma. His “gayness” appeals to the diversity they are seeking in a presidential candidate. However, his “white maleness” looks like more of the same.

Indeed, in a recent publication for Slate, columnist Christina Cauterucci investigates this very issue. In the article, Cauterucci asks, “Is Buttigieg a run-of-the-mill white male candidate, or does his sexuality set him apart?”

Identity Politics

Although Buttigieg identifies as gay, for Cauterucci, he isn’t as expressive of this part of himself as she would have hoped. “Buttigieg doesn’t seem terribly sold on the idea of gayness as a cultural framework, formative identity, or anything more than a category of sexual and romantic behavior.” Buttigieg, in claiming that his gayness has had little impact on his other accomplishments, is more of an “assimilationist” than a “gay trailblazer,” she notes.

This leads Cauterucci to conclude that Buttigieg’s gayness does not do enough to diversify him from other white male candidates. “In a primary for the overwhelmingly pro-gay Democratic Party, Buttigieg can be more accurately lumped in with his white male peers than with anyone else,” Cauterucci claims. After all, according to Cauterucci, Buttigieg is well-educated and wealthy, and the opportunities presented to him are more indicative of his “whiteness” than his marginalized “gayness.”

Liza Featherstone, a columnist for the Jacobin, extends these same concerns to analyze Buttigieg’s perceived intelligence. In her article, Featherstone takes issue with a recent tweet by economist Alan Cole. In the tweet, Cole claims

Mayor Pete Buttigieg seems head-and-shoulders smarter than the other candidates running, and IMO that should count for quite a lot.

However, to Featherstone, such a tweet is implicitly sexist and racist. “What about Elizabeth Warren…Julian Castro holds degrees from Harvard…Cory Booker, like [Buttigieg], was a Rhodes Scholar.” For Featherstone, Buttigieg is only smart in the way Cole perceives smart to be, which is through the lens of his “white maleness.”

But taking a step back from Buttigieg’s group identity, why should Cole think otherwise? After all, Buttigieg learned the Norwegian language just so he could read a few untranslated books by his favorite author. On top of that, he knows seven other languages, was a Rhodes Scholar, a Harvard graduate, and an American war veteran. Putting politics aside, he certainly passes the eye test for what an accomplished, intelligent man looks like. At the very least, Cole has grounds to hold such an opinion.

Group Identity Distracts Us from Individual Merits

But this is where the identity politics of the left becomes problematic. It makes people blind to what is unique about a person in exchange for a categorical interpretation of their existence. Indeed, it dismisses Buttigieg’s individuality and groups him into a “white male” category of sameness that can then be easily criticized. As such, any individual accomplishments are overlooked because of a dislike for the “group identity” that he is defined by.

This concern is brought to light in a Politico article by Bill Scher. In the article, Scher contemplates how a white male can possibly win the Democratic presidential nomination. Scher reasons that,

Issues pertaining to race and gender are bound to be prominent in the campaign, and white men do not exactly have the best track record of dealing with them.

But when the race and gender of a candidate are the predominant qualifiers for success, their respective policies and principles can be ignored.

After all, Kamala Harris opposed a bill to investigate police shootings, failed to reduce penalties on nonviolent crimes, and relentlessly pursued truancy cases that most significantly affected low-income people of color. Additionally, as a San Francisco district attorney, Harris aggressively sought to uphold convictions even when presented with evidence of tampering and suppression.

Buttigieg’s “gayness” and “whiteness” are pitted against one another in a zero-sum game.

And Cory Booker has routinely voted in the interests of big pharmaceutical companies. Most famously, in 2017 the Senate voted on a measure to lower drug prices by importing pharmaceuticals from Canada. Despite the fact that Booker’s own website claims African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately affected by high drug costs, he voted against the proposal. This led some to label him a “Big-Pharma Democrat.”

To be certain, these issues are of paramount importance to the left. However, these particular merits can be hidden from sight when the candidate is grouped into preferred categories based on their race, gender, or sexuality. More concerning, as seen in the debate over Buttigieg’s “gayness” and “whiteness,” each category of human existence are pitted against one another in a zero-sum game. Buttigieg can’t be both. And if he is the latter, it is believed that he can’t sympathize with the needs of a diverse base.

The Sympathetic Imagination

Such reasoning should give us pause. Speaking with The Weekly Standard, renowned professor of psychology Steven Pinker raised concerns about this very issue. Identity politics “can subvert the cause of equality and harmony if it is taken too far, because it undermines one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them,” Pinker noted.

But this idea actually precedes the Enlightenment and finds its origins in antiquity. In their confusion over how to label Buttigieg, a faction of the left is forgetting to acknowledge this “capacity for sympathetic imagination.”There, Plato and Aristotle termed the “sympathetic imagination” as mimesis or imitation. It is not only the ability to empathize with other human beings but also with all of nature itself. And such a faculty is not limited by race, gender, sexuality, or religion. It resides in the very core of individual human nature.

However, in their confusion over how to label Buttigieg, a faction of the left is forgetting to acknowledge this “capacity for sympathetic imagination.” In their minds, his “gayness” and “whiteness” are at war with one another. In his “gayness,” they see someone who should be able to sympathize with their call for increased diversity. But because of his “whiteness,” they perceive him as lacking the capacity to do so. Unfortunately, in settling on the latter, they are overlooking the plurality of his humanity.

  • Adam Toomey is a Philosophy graduate and current Masters student at St. John's College. You can follow him on Twitter at dare2besocrates.