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Identity Politics in the Federal System

Last Updated: 2018

Identity politics link the identities of a particular group of people with the political wants and needs of that group. Rather than coming together solely based on shared political ideology, groups with shared identity politics often occupy the same or similar social characteristics.

An individual’s identity politics are co-constitutive, which means that one’s identity shapes her politics and her politics, in return, shapes her identity (Schlesinger). Within identity politics there are mainstream identities and marginalized identities. Mainstream identities tend to be associated with social privilege, whereas marginalized identities tend to be associated with social oppression. Early theoretical work in identity politics indicated that marginalized identities shared certain characteristics; marginalized identities experience exploitation, disenfranchisement, and colonization (Pateman). The categories white, male, masculine, heterosexual, middle-aged and able-bodied are all associated with privilege. Categories outside of those are listed associated with oppression. The understanding of mainstream and marginalized identities requires binary thinking. In practice, that means envisioning that people are in dichotomous categories associated with either privilege or oppression: white and non-white, men and women, masculine and feminine, heterosexual and non-heterosexual, Western and non-Western, able-bodied and disabled.

Scholars from multiple disciplines emphasized these different binary experiences of mainstream and marginalized identities. Du Bois described his experiences as Black and American as fundamentally insoluble. Collins contributed that experiences as Black and Woman resulted in an individual experience shaped by a matrix of oppression or multiple oppressions. Lorde added that experiences as Black and lesbian further contributed to experiences of oppression. These examples demonstrate that within one identity group, African-American, one’s individual identity shapes their experiences of oppression.

Similarly, feminist scholars separated men and women and masculinity and femininity into binary categories for the purposes of understanding identity experience and oppression (Butler). Within feminist thinking, other scholars have considered the way race or sexuality add to marginalization. Still other authors emphasize the role of colonization in the shaping of identity, experiences, and politics (Mohanty).

Identity politics emerge from what it means to experience oppression through marginalized identity categories. Identity politics are all about how women, Blacks, or lesbians, for example, demand recognition by others as women, Blacks, or lesbians (Kruks). The process involves reflection on experience and self-ascription as the identity category. As a general trend, most identity groups see themselves as minorities. Identity politics blend marginalized identity and experiences with a particular politics linked to that identity. Thus, groups of marginalized individuals demand recognition and share the desire for social equality.

Identity politics are more than just existing within a certain category. Identity politics happen when groups coalesce and interact with the political system. Understanding one’s individual experiences of privilege and oppression situate her politics and politicize her identity (Hutchinson and Smith). When groups gather around a particular identity or set of identities, they adopt a collective perspective of shared experience.


When groups coalesce around identity, there are at least three ways that those groups interact with the state and national political systems: social movements, interest groups, and political parties. Identity politics and federalism are closely linked in all three of these social and political processes, which occur at both the state and national level. Yet identity groups and their policy goals tend to focus on national level political changes. It is generally agreed that federalism has produced social inequalities in history (Wildavsky), yet there are potential pathways to achieving social equality for minorities through adopting local and state-level pathways.

One link between identity politics and the federal government are historical social movements. For instance, the African American Civil Rights Movement sought equal rights for African Americans, particularly desegregation in public accommodations and the right to vote. The Women’s Movement sought equal rights through access to reproduction and the Equal Rights Amendment. The Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement sought recognition and same-sex marriage. All of these examples demonstrate the link between shared identities, collective experience, and seeking political equality through gaining individual rights related to minority identity. These examples of social movements, rooted in identity politics, emphasized policy change at the national level.

The paradigm of universal human rights informs the goals of changing national policy to support minority issues. Federalism has been used to obstruct the goals of these national-level social movements. To illustrate, slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and anti-miscegenation practices all functioned in the states that required labor forces for agriculture and benefitted from the oppression of African-Americans. In response, identity groups and rights-based social movements aimed for national level change rather than shifting policy within oppressive states.

There are at least two counter narratives to this approach to national level policy change: judicial federalism and progressive federalism. Both approaches emphasize the role of identity politics in shifting policy towards social equality for minorities. The recent gay and lesbian social movement to legalize same-sex marriage adopted the approach of judicial federalism through a process of carefully crafted state supreme court rulings, appellate court jurisdictions and rulings, and the appeals process for the Supreme Court (Zschirnt). The grand strategy of judicial federalism created state level judicial changes which evolved into a national social movement and the Supreme Court ruling to legalize same sex marriage. The perspective of progressive federalism offers that oppression against minorities occurs at the local and state level, so that is where identity groups should target policy change (Gerkin). Thus, federalism can be used to promote minority issues and policies starting at the local level.

There are at least two additional pathways for translating identity politics into policy debates at the federal level: interest groups and political parties. Some interest groups emphasize shared collective experience based on identity, such as the National Organization for Women, Black Lives Matter, or the Human Rights Campaign. Some organizations coalesce around multiple identities, which are sometimes perceived to be in conflict, such as the Concerned Women for America, a group of women committed to conservative political ideology and the Log Cabin Republicans, a group of gays and lesbians committed to the Republican Party (Concerned Women for America, 2018; Log Cabin Republicans, 2018).These organizations all have state and national chapters to promote their policy agendas at both levels, while each emphasizes national level policy changes. Interest group pursue a number of strategies and tactics that intersect with the federal government and bring policy concerns of the specific identity group into the political sphere. For identity groups, the central aim to work towards policy that addresses the concerns specific to the members in the group to create universal rights-based policies that protect minorities.

Political parties are centrally concerned with political ideology. Identity politics intersect with party politics through the use of party clubs. Party clubs are groups within the party that coalesce around a particular issue or identity. For example, the Republican Party includes a party club called GOP Hispanics (GOP Hispanics, 2018). Parties and their internal party clubs can offer pathways for specific identity-based groups to influence the party and intersect with policy at the federal level.

Taken together, these approaches to integrating protections and rights for minorities assume that citizens are unable to self-regulate, thus requiring policy to promote a set of rights to protect minority categories. The question remains whether or not it is the role of the national government to regulate minority issues in this way. There are alternative perspectives on the tension between shared-rule and self-rule which function as critiques of identity politics and federalism.


Critics of identity politics question the efficacy of identity politics to impact and shape the political system (Williams). For instance, when organizations or groups form, they are generally defined by their political ideology or a central issue of concern, not the identity of the group members. Williams (1998) proffers that such an understanding does not capture how identity plays out within a particular group, especially when thinking about the marginalized categories of women, non-white racial groups, or gays and lesbians.

Critics of identity politics suggest a failure to fully capture the ways multiple identities influence one another in an individuals’ collective experience. This criticism often favors intersectionality as an alternative theoretical perspective to identity politics.

One criticism of the pairing of identity politics with federalism is that such an arrangement shrinks the roles that communities play in regulating morality, instead focusing on individuals, which results in a restriction of the public self (Sandel). The desire for minorities to influence the system through federalism suggests that society and the individual’s that comprise society require additional rules to regulate human behavior that is otherwise unable to self-regulate. As such, identity politics reinforce an individual’s identity as minorities, leaving regulating behavior to the federal system. Critics of identity politics and supporters of federalism suggest that human behavior should not be conceptualized so narrowly.

Legislating equality and increasing special rights for minority citizens, according to this perspective, erodes the freedom of all citizens to pursue their own values and characters. One alternative of identity politics sought through federalism is a neoliberal paradigm, or procedural liberalism that emphasizes freedom through self-governance and self-regulation of social, cultural, and moral values (Sandel). Another solution that allows for increasing local and state power is to promote elected officials that represent a minority candidate in locations where marginalized identity categories are the majority, thus promoting democracy and self-regulation (Kincaid).


Concerned Women for America, “Concerned Women for America” (retrieved from, 2018; Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2005); Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, 43(6) (1994): 1241-99; W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford World Classics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1903, 2007); Heather K. Gerkin, “A New Progressive Federalism,” Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (retrieved from, Spring 2012); GOP Hispanics, “GOP Hispanics” (retrieved from from, 2018); Ange-Marie Hancock, “Intersectionality as a Normative and Empirical Paradigm, Politics and Gender, 3(2), 2007): 248-54; Bell Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margins to Center, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: South End Press, 2000); John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith, Ethnicity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); John Kincaid, “Territorial Neutrality and Cultural Pluralism in American Federalism: Is the United States the Archenemy of Peripheral Nationalism?,” Swiss Political Science Review, 22(4), (2016): 565-84; Sonia Kruks, Retrieving Experience: Subjectivity and Recognition in Feminist Politics (Ithaca, NY.: Cornell University Press, 2001); Log Cabin Republicans, “Log Cabin Republicans” (retrieved from, 2018); Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg (NY: Crossing Press, 1984); Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, edited by Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Cambridge, MA: Polity, 1988); Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Arthur M Schlesinger, Jr.,The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York, NY.: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998); Aaron Wildavsky, “Federalism Means Inequality,” in Federalism and Political Culture, edited by David Schleicher and Brendon Swedlow (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1998): 39-55; Melissa Williams, Voice, Trust, and Memory: Marginalized Groups and the Failings of Liberal Representation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); Simon Zschirnt, “Gay Rights, The New Judicial Federalism, and State Supreme Courts: Disentangling the Effects of Ideology and Judicial Independence,” Justice System Journal, 37(4), (2016): 348-366.