Identity politics at this moment — a very long moment — in U.S. civic affairs is like a wheel, self-propelled and kept in motion by the thrust of one group’s indignation followed vehemently by another’s. It has become circular, rather than progressive (or, thank heavens, entirely regressive) because nearly everyone seems to feel threatened.
Identity politics is associated, in many people’s minds, with leftist — or leftish — causes. Those were fully on display at the Women’s March Vermont rally Saturday morning on the snow-covered State House lawn and granite stairway in Montpelier. It was, in absolute terms, a well-attended event — estimates of crowd size ranged from 700 to 1,000 — especially considering the single-digit temperatures and an impending winter storm. But the numbers fell short of the multi-thousands some had predicted, and this was largely true of turnout for sister events held nationwide.
Analysts offered several reasons: a schism in the national movement caused by two of its leaders’ affiliation with the notoriously anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam movement (it seems unlikely that was a factor in Vermont’s major rally, in Montpelier); paradoxically, some suggested that the rather stunning success of progressive female candidates in November’s elections, which helped reshape the U.S. House of Representatives, may have lessened people’s belief in the necessity for huge public gatherings right now. And, Vermont wasn’t the only place facing inclement weather.
What’s certain, though, is that any march or rally would pale in comparison to the Women’s March of Jan. 21, 2017, when millions turned out at events all over the country, and in foreign lands, too, in response to Donald Trump’s quirky election and his inauguration the day before as the U.S. president. It was an eruption of defiance — finally, after two months of gloom and disbelief, a way for appalled Americans, men as well as women, to find their voice and declare they would not roll over before Trump’s anticipated depredations. Nothing could recapture that moment. But that’s no reason not to gather, to signal continued resistance and re-energize the troops.
The organizers of Women’s March Vermont last weekend had an additional purpose. “The Vermont march is going to be specifically focused on uplifting and hearing the voices of marginalized communities, with women who are usually left out of the conversation,” organizer Kristen Vrancken told VT Digger. There has long been a strong and very visible feminist movement in Vermont, raising concerns and propelling reforms related to issues such as reproductive rights and economic and social justice; but, consistent with the state’s demographics, nearly all the leaders in those movements have been white.
The lineup of speakers on Saturday elevated other voices: former state representative Kiah Morris, of Bennington, an African-American who actually has held a high profile recently because of racist harassment of her and her family; Melody Walker Brook (Vermont’s Abenakis) and Beverly Little Thunder (the Standing Rock Lakotas) expressing views of Native Americans; black liberation and environmental justice advocate Freweyni Adugnia; and Amanda Garces, from the Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in Schools. Others spoke out for immigrants, LGBTQ Vermonters, people — but specifically, women — with physical disabilities, mental-health challenges … In sum, human beings who have been disparaged, ignored in their need, or specifically targeted by adherents to the Trump agenda and longstanding biases that predated it.
Throwing off those cultural shackles, speaker after speaker commenced her address with the defiant words, “I am a PROUD ___ ___” — fill in the blanks: woman of color, descendant of immigrants, Native American, etc. They made their cases, and rightly so, that their identities were as worthy of admiration as anyone’s, and that their voices would be heard and their causes advanced, no matter who opposed them.
Despite their unity in these declarations, however, identity politics is implicitly segmented politics. Their voices will not be squelched, for they are righteous, yet they are propelled by voices from elsewhere on the wheel — white, often rural (but not always), often male (but not always — lookin’ at you, Kirstjen Nielsen, Betsy DeVos, Lynne Cheney, Ann Coulter), adherents to a 1950s vision of the USA. Theirs is identity politics, too, although they can’t explicitly say so lest, like Rep. Steve King, of Iowa, they be cast out.
So the wheel whirs on — white identitarians stimulating responses from recent immigrants, from African- and Latino-Americans; their responses, in turn, through vehicles like Black Lives Matter, triggering Blue Lives Matter.
Will the colors ever blend together? Or, as a nation of immigrants, are we doomed to keep on spinning?