Remember that Kia Soul commercial with giant hamsters rapping Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours?” Oooooh, yeah — you remember. At one point, a hamster reminds us: You can get with this or you can get with that, pointing between Kia’s vehicle and … a toaster.
While Kia is a Korean company, this commercial comes to mind when I think of American political discourse. It’s human nature to categorize things to more easily make sense of them, but we seem especially adept at creating false dilemmas. I’m not just talking about our polarized two-party system, either, but the way we discuss issues within it.
The week after Donald Trump’s election, I was having drinks with a few friends who were debating what the hell happened. One of them remarked: “One day, we’ll have moved past identity politics so we can focus on issues like the economy.” The language here is subtle and common — and it speaks volumes.
We talk often as if “the economy” is some standalone entity creating jobs and driving GDP, while “identity politics” exists in its own separate bucket. This was evident when Hillary Clinton asked if fixing the economy would end racism. It was evident when pundit after pundit suggested the left lost due to an overemphasis of identity, and that Trump won because he played to economic anxiety.
This either/or way of thinking is not just wrong; it’s dangerous. For one, this conception of “the economy” as an isolated noun is symptomatic of a deeply ingrained “market triumphalist” mindset that’s taken over both sides of the aisle. It speaks to free market ideals and assumptions without ever using the words “neoliberalism” or “privatization.” But, as John Kay wrote for the Financial Times, “The idea that there is something called ‘the economy,’ which is separable from the welfare of society and its citizens, is silly.”
But more on that later — let’s touch on the other downside of this false dilemma, which is as follows: When identity politics is seen as separate and then things go wrong, it is quickly recast as part of the problem. Oversimplified language breeds oversimplified logic, and it becomes tempting to give up on identity politics altogether. But tossing out identity with the bathwater means ignoring the very real economic effects of the identities we’re talking about.
Consider, for instance, food insecurity. Edward D. Kleinbard, in his book We Are Better Than This, cites the Center for American Progress, which showed the annual economic cost of hunger in the United States was recently $167.5 billion. Meanwhile, early childhood malnutrition reduces a person’s lifetime earnings capacity by roughly 20 percent. We cannot talk about these economic data points without talking about identity.
Consider, for instance, the fact that Black and Hispanic households experience food insecurity at a rate double the national average, according to data from the USDA Economic Research Service and Brandeis University. Consider the fact that members of the LGBT community are also disproportionately food insecure, according to a 2014 report by Gary J. Gates of UCLA School of Law. Consider that the same is true of women and girls because, as the Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Center for Women (in Malaysia) summarized in a report on food insecurity and sexuality: “Access to food and utilisation of food are intrinsically linked to an individual’s or a community’s ability to exercise their agency.” Consider that Kleinbard already showed those things are linked to tangible economic outcomes. Consider that our language rarely leaves room for such complexity.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Columbia professor Mark Lilla criticized identity liberalism. “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference,’” he writes, “it is about commonality.” Food insecurity is just one example, just one reminder, that we’re not acknowledging and celebrating difference merely for the sake of difference. It’s not because we want trophies or T-shirts for being unique snowflakes. It’s because difference so often comes at a price.
Here’s another example for you: LGBT people are one of the few groups that it’s still legal to discriminate against; most states have no protections related to employment, housing, and public accommodation. Think this is just an issue of “identity politics”? Think again. Such protections (or lack thereof) impact jobs directly. A recent study about LGBT entrepreneurs showed that “states with policies unfriendly to the LGBT community lost many, if not all, of their nascent growth entrepreneurs before they founded their companies.”
The study also found that, when LGBT founders moved the headquarters of their companies to a new state, nearly 80 percent moved to California, New York, and Illinois — states that have a 100 percent positive ranking on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index (which measures the inclusivity of municipal laws — identity politics at its finest). In all, that translates to 1 million lost jobs for states unfriendly to the LGBT community.
Language is powerful. It shapes perceptions and packs assumptions to which we are often blind. When we talk about supporting marginalized groups, we are talking about the economy, even if we never reference Adam Smith or BLS data or the invisible hand. We must make sure that it’s a two-way street. When we talk about “the economy,” we cannot be talking about some idealistic, isolated free market that assumes a nonexistent baseline of equality and agency.
Heck, even the International Monetary Fund has acknowledged that extreme fidelity to a free market (“The Economy” with a capital E) doesn’t actually drive economic growth, which, as Ben Norton at Salon noted, “is somewhat like the Pope declaring that there is no God.” Kleinbard has also pointed out the irony of our current economic discourse. “The market triumphalist view is profoundly non-economic, because it brooks no possibility of making investments with very high economic returns shared by society as a whole, whenever those investments are made through the mechanism of the state,” he writes.
The point is that the politics of identity is not a side dish to other more important issues — it’s the pan all politics is baked in. The investments Kleinbard is referencing would be made with explicit consideration of what we’re currently calling “identity politics,” as difference offers a shortcut to overlooked, underinvested groups.
Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.