Questioning Trickle Down Identity Politics

By Nick Pendergrast

In previous articles in this series on identity politics, I argued that some critiques of identity politics are overly broad and can sometimes oppose the important labelling of privileged identities. However, I do believe there are some valid critiques of a certain form of identity politics, something journalist Naomi Klein refers to as trickle down identity politics.

Klein argues that this form of identity politics, typified by people such as Hillary Clinton, prioritises achieving a more diverse range of people in positions of power. This thinking is based on the idea that if more women (for example) get into positions of power, these benefits will eventually “trickle down” to women as a whole. This is similar to the concept of trickle down economics, where the priority is ensuring wealth for those at the top, with the argument that in doing so, this wealth will eventually trickle down to everyone else.

Trickle Down Identity Politics in Practice

However, Klein argues that this trickle down does not necessarily occur in practice. For example, she points out that over the last few decades in the US, which has included 8 years of the first African-American President Barack Obama and a higher proportion of African-American people at the top generally, the overall wealth gap between white Americans and African-Americans has actually increased.

Likewise, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government in Aotearoa (New Zealand) has seen greater representation of Māori people in government, while the over-representation of Māori people in prison and suffering from poor health has continued. Eleanor de Jong explains in the Guardian:

‘Despite a record number of Māori MPs in government, little has changed in the appalling socio-economic statistics that reflect the lives of New Zealand’s Indigenous people.’

Hip hop artist Lowkey has raised similar concerns in a UK context:

Weapons and Identity

Joe Biden’s approach to picking his cabinet has been consistent with this approach – a bit more representation of marginalised groups at the top to give the appearance that things are different, while continuing the same old polices of imperialism (and neoliberalism etc) that harm marginalised groups. As Oliver Milman explains in the Guardian:

‘Joe Biden is piecing together what he has promised to be a diverse cabinet, with Michele Flournoy reportedly top choice for US defence secretary…Flournoy was previously a senior defense adviser in Bill Clinton and Barack Obama’s administrations and is considered a political moderate. Since leaving government she has been involved in various consultancy roles around military contracts‘ (my italics).

Similarly, on the Vegan Vanguard podcast, they made the point that most of the biggest weapons manufacturers now have female CEOs, but these companies are still consistent with patriarchal values, such as a “might makes right” mentality.

Neoliberal/Reformist Feminism

My thinking on this issue has been heavily influenced by the ideas of Nic from Pynk Spots podcast. She has argued along the lines of there has been an effort from those in power to grant access to a small number of people from marginalised groups to positions of power instead of policies that would benefit that group as a whole.

She cites the book Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto as being important in developing her ideas on the topic. A quote from this book that she has passed on to me is:

‘[Neoliberal feminists]…want a world where the task of managing exploitation in the workplace and oppression in the social whole is shared equally by the ruling-class men and women. This is a remarkable version of equal opportunity domination: one that asks ordinary people, in the name of feminism, to be grateful that it is a woman, not a man, who busts their union, order a drone to kill their parent, or locks their child in a cage at the border.’

Similarly, feminist scholar bell hooks has argued in her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics that reformist feminism has become the ‘route to class mobility’ for certain women who have been able to ‘maximize their freedom within the existing system’, while ‘accepting and indeed colluding with the subordination of working-class and poor women’ (p. 5).

Kamala Harris

I think Kamala Harris as the first female Vice President of the United States is a good example of this idea of trickle down identity politics. In her victory speech, Harris said:

‘Every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.’

Such comments work to obscure historical and ongoing sexism in the US, just as Obama’s election victory was used by some to ignore ongoing racism in the country throughout his Presidency. Similar to the points from hooks above, this approach to feminism means that while sexism does not end, some women are able to gain positions of power, at the same time as using the existence of a woman in that position to encourage people to overlook sexism faced by women more generally.

Not only is she the first female Vice President, she is also the first Black person in this position. Biden picking her for this role could, on the surface, be viewed as some kind of concession to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, Harris takes a punitive approach towards crime, with such an approach disproportionally affecting Black people. So Biden is able to give the impression of a change in approach by picking Harris, while continuing with similar punitive policies that he supported under the Clinton administration, which led to the mass incarceration of Black people in the US.

Final Thoughts

Of course having a certain identity/belonging to a certain group can put issues “on your radar” more prominently than those who do not experience a particular issue first-hand. For example, people who use a wheelchair may think of issues around accessibility in venues more than those who don’t. So having more representation of a certain group could lead a greater focus on the issues affecting that group as a whole. However, we shouldn’t automatically assume that such representation at the top will have this effect, otherwise we run the risk of a small number of people from marginalised groups being given positions of power and then being pointed to as a way to ignore the ongoing issues faced by that group as a whole.

For more on this topic, you can listen to my discussion with Nic and Callie from Bitchy Shitshow podcast – also check out Nic’s new podcast Pynk Spots!

This article is the final in a three-part series of posts on identity politics, you can check out the first two here:

1. What Do You Mean By “Identity Politics”?

2. Do You Identify Or Are You Identified?