What is identity politics? An empirical investigation

Every time I see people making disparaging remarks about “identity politics”, I wonder what that means. It sounds like a meaningless buzzterm, like “political correctness”. It sounds like an attack on any minority groups that dare to politically advocate for themselves.

But where did the term originate? How did it become popular? Which minority groups is it directed at? Has its use changed over time? Here I perform an empirical investigation using Google.

A line plot of the popularity of search terms over time.

Source: Google trends. This tracks the popularity of search terms over time.

As can be seen from above, the term “identity politics” has been around for a long time. I looked as far back as Google trends allows (back to 2004), and it’s still there. However, there was a big spike in popularity in November 2016–the month that Trump was elected. There’s also a broad hump around January-February 2017, and a more recent spike in August 2017. I will investigate each of these time periods by sampling from time-constrained google searches.

Pre-election use
Prior to Trump’s election, “identity politics” did see plenty of use. Some examples:

  • An NPR article from 2011 used “identity politics” to refer to the Tequila Party, a political movement to support Latinos. The use of the term is neither positive nor negative, and specifically refers to groups formed in support of racial or ethnic groups.
  • A rambling 2013 blog post on Huffington Post uses “identity politics” to refer to the practice of dismissing people’s views because of their privileged identities. The author refers to multiple axes of identity, specifically mentioning race, gender, and orientation.
  • A 2016 National Review article also complains about white people being labeled as privileged. They claim “identity politics work as the mirror image of white supremacy.”
  • A 2015 article in The Atlantic argues that Democrats have an identity politics problem, saying that they rely too much on exciting voters with non-traditional candidates (i.e. women and people of color)

In summary, “identity politics” mostly referred to race, but sometimes to gender and other axes of identity. It was mostly used by critics, and seems to be tangled up in white defensiveness about being called privileged. It’s also used by liberals to critique the Democrats. This last use would become more prominent after Trump’s election.

Trump’s election
Following Trump’s election, there was a big increase in searches for “identity politics”. Here are some articles that temporally correspond to the biggest spikes during that time:

  • In the Washington Post, an article describes identity politics as appealing to a coalition of identity groups, including people of color, millenials, and unmarried women. They argue that this strategy failed.
  • In the New York Times, Mark Lilla argued that liberals were overfocused on identity-based issues (race, gender, and sexual orientation), and were losing sight of more basic issues like class, war, the economy, and religion. This didn’t correspond to a big spike in searches but people seem to refer to Lilla a lot.
  • The biggest spike came from Bernie Sanders himself. Unfortunately they don’t directly quote what he said about identity politics but it’s basically saying that Democrats need more than just a candidate that people vote for because she’s a woman.

There are bunch more articles along these lines, including some backlash articles defending identity politics. So at this point in time, “identity politics” is a way for people (mostly liberals) to criticize the way Democrats relied too much on race, gender, and other stuff.

Early 2017
There’s a broad hump in popularity around January and February 2017. Though I could not identify any clear cause, here is a small sample:

  • The Hoover Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that “identity politics” is a way of dividing people by creating social programs tailored to particular groups. The article refers to “gays, Muslims, feminists, blacks, Latinos, and an array of other groups”, but I note that almost all the examples are race-related.
  • The Guardian has an article titled “Liberals, don’t fall into the right’s ‘identity politics’ trap“. It argues that focusing on racial, religious, and sexual minorities does not conflict with working on white working class concerns.
  • An article in the Left Voice defends identity politics from a Marxist point of view. It criticizes the way that identity politics omits class from its analysis, but argues for a Marxist identity politics that recognizes race, gender, and sexuality in addition to class.

What’s happening here is that writers are further developing the concept of identity politics. Many people are questioning the framing, or trying to redefine what it means. There’s also more adoption of the concept among conservatives.

There was another increase of search interest this August. At a glance, you can tell that the cause was the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville–you know, the one with all the Nazis. The two biggest spikes were on the 17th and 20th of August, which don’t obviously correspond to any particular events or articles. Nonetheless, here are a few notable articles:

  • A Washington Post article argues that “identity politics” (i.e. race, gender, class, religion) are not to blame for creating white supremacists.
  • Five Thirty-Eight describes the White supremacists as an example of White identity politics.
  • An article in The American Conservative is critical of the right-wing White identity politics of White nationalists and neo-Nazis. But it places the blame on the left, arguing that identity politics on the left necessarily lead to the same on the right.

So now the conversation is transformed by the obvious fact that white people have their own identity politics. But different people seem to have different responses to that.

“Identity politics” has had a storied history in the last year. It refers to a grab bag of issues related to minority groups, but it’s predominantly a euphemism for race. It started out as a disparate collection of discussions about racial politics, but coalesced into a critique of the Democratic party. From that point, there were many critiques of the very concept of identity politics. It was also adopted by some conservatives looking for a way to attack liberals. More recently, in the wake of Nazi demonstrations, identity politics has become a tool for the left and right to blame Nazis on each other.


  1. says

    It’s a label for talking about race without talking about race. Basically, it’s so white people can say “black people are complaining too much about white people hating black people.” But they need to call it “identity politics” because that way they can avoid the awkward part.

  2. says

    (PS – I’d say that what you’re investigating is people’s opinions about “identity politics.” By the time you’re done I still don’t know what identity politics are, though I am confident, now, that lots of people appear to have different opinions about what they are) Pyrhhonian skepticism, ftw!

  3. invivoMark says

    So it seems like a synonym for “cultural Marxism” packaged for use by people who are slightly to the left of actual Nazis. Have I got that about right?

    I’ve seen the phrase used mostly by self-described Democrats and left-leaners, but I don’t think that changes the fact that they’re basically falling for a Nazi talking point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *