We hear a lot about “identity politics” these days, and most of it is bad. The basic image is of ever-more strident and intolerant groups who are interested only in airing their grievances, establishing their victimhood, furthering their agendas, and shouting down anyone who disagrees – all at the expense of the greater good. But instead of looking at identity politics as an effort to destroy the social fabric of America, what if we looked at it as part of a slow and often painful journey toward including people in the story that America tells about itself – the story of American Exceptionalism? It’s a story that left a lot of people out.
How are Native Americans supposed to resonate to westward expansion? African-Americans to the sanctity of property? Women to equality? Muslims to the melting pot? And working-class people to the wonders of globalization? When they demand that their voices be heard in America’s story, these people are insisting we expand our definition of community to live up to our own ideals.
As I learned in my travels through the Rust Belt last summer, and from reading J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Amy Goldstein’s forthcoming Janesville, and Chris Arnade’s odyssey across America, we are at last confronting the hardships white working-class people have faced in the last 25 years and the alienation many feel from much of today’s America.
They are an integral part of our story – but only to expand our idea of America, not as a wedge issue to divide us. For to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of our history bends toward inclusion. It’s been a long journey from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to today’s diversity, and we aren’t going back.