The term “identity politics” has become a dirty phrase in some quarters. At the same time, there are many people who embrace the concept. Though initially the connection may seem a little farfetched, I have of late been thinking about how this phenomenon, in part, stems from the thinking of America’s founders, particularly, James Madison.
First, I think it is important to clearly state what I mean by “identity politics” since the term has different meanings for different people. For the purposes of this post, I am defining the phrase “identity politics” to be the advocacy of political and social agendas that pertain to specific groups, such as African Americans, gays, transgender people, women, etc. In addition, regardless of how folks feel about their motives and intents, I would also include groups that now claim to be advocating for so-called privileged or dominant groups, such as white people or men.
There has always been, as there is now, a backlash against identity politics. While some of this backlash, particularly in today’s social media, is nothing but racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc., there are legitimate arguments against the existence of these movements based upon groups. The somewhat popular cry, “Egalitarianism, not feminism” is but one example that I am very familiar with. There are also folks who do not object to the existence of such advocacy groups in principle, but who are extremely critical of specific aspects of these movements. Furthermore, there are conflicts that have arisen between various movements.
The arguments against identity politics are numerous and popular. Critics point out that such movements divide, instead of unite, people. Often, an argument is presented that it is better to work on good policies and beneficial social change, regardless of the needs of specific groups. Others point out that identity politics has fostered some terrible ideas that are harmful to society or to competing groups.
What does all this have to do with James Madison? Surprisingly, the philosophy and actions of this American founder were intimately related to these issues. Furthermore, as the “father of the American Constitution,” Madison was one of the architects of modern societies that foster such movements.
An integral part of Madison’s social and political belief system revolved around the concept that many diverse belief systems could come together to form strong and meritorious ideological governmental and social systems. Madison argued that these conflicting systems would at times counterbalance and at other times complement one another, leading to a strong society and a strong republic. Ralph Ketcham, a biographer of Madison, wrote in regards to Madison’s view that special interest groups,
“would preserve freedom rather then threaten it, because no one interest would control government; each interest – economic, religious, sectional, or whatever – would be a natural check on the domineering tendencies of others. Madison made a virtue of human diversity and neutralized the selfishness of mankind.”
Madison laid out the details of this philosophy in Federalist Paper Number 51. To this day, this treatise serves as a compelling argument for a society where various factions contend and compete with one another. In it he wrote,
“society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”
I would be remiss if I did not point out that Madison did not have in mind the diverse ethnic, gender-based and lifestyle-based groups that exist in the twenty-first century. He was instead confronted with a world where various economic and religious interests competed with one another. Thus, there are differences in regards to the nature of the “interests” that Madison was talking about and some of today’s advocacy. However, the same dynamics as to how these groups advocate for their interests and compete with one another apply now as they did then.
In contrast, many of America’s founders, such as George Washington, felt that the best way for a society to function was to stay away from partisanship. That virtuous people would advocate for what is right without banding into factions. In his farewell address, George Washington declared,
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.
Washington’s view of an America without strong factionalism did not prevail, and Madison’s idea that multiple interest groups competing for influence became a permanent fixture in American society as well as in the societies of democracies.
I would argue that history has shown that Madison was exactly right. All sorts of societal improvements, including those relating to human rights and justice, have thrived because individual interest groups have advocated for their interests while in competition with other interest groups. These groupings allow people to organize around very good ideas and effectively promote change. Often these interest groups are based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
There is, of course, a downside. Sometimes, these social justice movements push for ideas and policies that are not beneficial. These groups sometimes advocate for things that are detrimental to society as well as to other groups. Extremists and other forms of excess often drive the agenda of such groups. As someone who follows both social and political issues, I agree that many of these groups, such as feminists, antiracist groups, etc., at times foster some very ill-founded ideas that would be very bad for society. Frankly, some ideas that are coming out of movements that are based on such politics are downright awful and are in fact racist or sexist against other groups. This however, was certainly true of the factions that existed in Madison's time. This is why it is important that competing groups, as well as general conservative critics, exist to keep excesses in check.
Advocating for a vague notion of “equality” or “egalitarianism” rarely, if ever, has yielded results. The absence of interest groups means a lot less organization. Without such organization, change is nearly impossible. Furthermore, there are honest disagreements as to what is beneficial and just. If all that there was were millions of individuals expressing their views on equality and justice, with no coherent unifying themes, change would be nearly impossible, as would the coherent criticism of bad ideas.
American examples of the benefit of these groupings abound. The abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, equality for women and marriage equality are just some examples of social progress driven by these groups. In my opinion, history has shown that, in the long run, the best ideas win out in free societies. I like the term ‘marketplace of Ideas”.The proliferation of interest groups, as well as groups organized to counter these groups, are what makes up the marketplace.
Madison is often called the Father of the American Constitution. Indeed, he had more influence in the composition of the final document than anyone else. In its balance of powers and elected representation, he helped create a government in which such a society that is characterized by competing groups will thrive.
Madison seemed to understand this formula so well. Though he would likely be baffled and astonished by today’s debates on social issues, he was, ironically, one of the architects of the system of discourse and debate that characterizes so much of our modern society. I would argue that the great social progress that Western Society has experienced over the past 150 years has been the result of this competition between interests that Madison both created and foresaw.