I heard about about Bernie Sanders’s November stop in Boston from my conservative friends. Asked by a woman in the audience about her political prospects and those of other women in her identity group, Sanders urged going beyond identity politics: “Rebecca, I would be delighted to support you, but it is not good enough that you’re a woman, not good enough that you’re a Latina. You’re gonna have to tell me how you stand on the major issues facing this country, and whether you have the guts to take on ‘big money.’” Let Sanders’s statement coincide with Mark Lilla’s controversial piece in the New York Times just two days before. Lilla writes that healthy politics “is not about ‘difference,’ it is about commonality.”
Recently, politicians and theorists have been striving to revive a liberal politics that is not about “identity,” especially not the kind of identity displayed on liberal college campuses. But what if Sanders, Lilla, and the others are wrong? What if the political issue of our moment is not that we have failed by focusing on identity, but rather that we have failed to understand all that is encompassed in people’s identities, in their revealing how they are different from one another?
For the Greeks, the concept of economics (oikos) represented things that were pre-political—matters of necessity to be mastered so that men could pursue higher things, political questions. The “political virtue par excellence” was therefore courage, as to enter the Greek polis a man left behind his concerns about his own life, his personal matters. It was precisely by looking away from himself and grappling with the larger questions of the common good, the just and the unjust, that a man was able to make himself appear, to reveal who he was and how he was different from others.
This understanding of politics is eloquently articulated by Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish immigrant to America who is often identified as an “independent thinker” by liberals and conservatives alike. This term would be nonsense to Arendt, for “thinking,” as she saw it, was conventionally an independent, private affair. “Acting,” by contrast, which occurs most clearly in politics, is public, and it is through acting that we display how different and independent we really are. “It is indeed as though everything that is alive,” Arendt writes, “has an urge to appear, to fit itself into the world of appearances by displaying and showing, not its ‘inner self’ but itself as an individual.” To act and to speak in politics is to enter the human world, where we “take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance.” In other words, identity is what politics is all about.
Sanders appears to understand the political virtue of courage when he pushes Rebecca to have the “guts” stand up for what will truly distinguish her from current politicians. Lilla appears to understand the unpredictable nature of free human action when he reminds us that “the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan.” Perhaps what we need is a reminder that our current political problems are rooted in the long and messy history of what makes politics, well, politics.
The diversity of American life is an opportunity that presents more danger, and requires more courage, than what we like to admit. Far from a “safe space,” our struggle towards pluralism is part of the long history of humans striving to be remembered as “political animals.”
Mary Elliot is a research assistant at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.