Written by one of America's leading political thinkers, this is a book about the good, the bad, and the ugly of identity politics.Amy Gutmann rises above the raging polemics that often characterize discussions of identity groups and offers a fair-minded assessment of the role they play in democracies. She addresses fundamental questions of timeless urgency while keeping in focus their relevance to contemporary debates: Do some identity groups undermine the greater democratic good and thus their own legitimacy in a democratic society? Even if so, how is a democracy to fairly distinguish between groups such as the KKK on the one hand and the NAACP on the other? Should democracies exempt members of some minorities from certain legitimate or widely accepted rules, such as Canada's allowing Sikh members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to wear turbans instead of Stetsons? Do voluntary groups like the Boy Scouts have a right to discriminate on grounds of sexual preference, gender, or race?
Identity-group politics, Gutmann shows, is not aberrant but inescapable in democracies because identity groups represent who people are, not only what they want--and who people are shapes what they demand from democratic politics. Rather than trying to abolish identity politics, Gutmann calls upon us to distinguish between those demands of identity groups that aid and those that impede justice. Her book does justice to identity groups, while recognizing that they cannot be counted upon to do likewise to others.
Clear, engaging, and forcefully argued, Amy Gutmann's Identity in Democracy provides the fractious world of multicultural and identity-group scholarship with a unifying work that will sustain it for years to come.
Are identity politics a needed defense against the tyranny of the majority, or a divisive impediment to the realization of individual rights and the common good? A little of both, and much more, according to this probing volume of political theory. Gutmann, a political philosopher, examines a wide variety of "identity groups" including religions, embattled cultural groups like French-Canadians, socially formative voluntary groups like the Boy Scouts; and "ascriptive groups" who bear an involuntary marker of difference, like racial minorities, homosexuals and the disabled. She argues that overlapping group identities are an inescapable part of every individual's political makeup, for good and ill. Identity groups have been in the forefront of efforts to expand individual rights and opportunity, she notes, and America's excessive economic inequality is in part due to the absence of a working-class identity politics that might bolster unions and demand more redistribution of wealth. On the other hand, identity groups like the Ku Klux Klan and orthodox religious groups that seek to curtail the rights of women pose a serious problem for democratic polities. Rather than being scapegoated or lumped in with other interest groups, identity groups must be carefully assessed to discern their alignment with fundamental democratic values of freedom, equality and opportunity. Gutmann's is a serious attempt to reconcile classical liberalism with contemporary multiculturalism. While it will not please ideologues on any side, her clear, nuanced and humane approach brings many valuable insights to this contentious debate.
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Princeton University Press
August 15, 2004
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Excerpt from Identity in Democracy by Amy Gutmann
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY OF IDENTITY POLITICS
identity groups is viewed as the path to egalitarian justice, we might paraphrase Madison's comment about factions in Federalist 10: It would be as much folly to try to abolish what causes identity groups to form--particularistic group identities of individuals and freedom of association--as "it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to human life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency."29 Far from being antithetical to representative democracy, identity politics is an important manifestation of individual freedom within it. Far better to address the bad effects of identity group politics in a way that is consistent with free association than to try to abolish identity groups. In significant instances, identity groups have been effective in addressing inequality. More often than not, feminist politics and African American identity politics have been prominent sources of movement in the direction of civic equality, equal opportunity, and other egalitarian dimensions of democratic justice. In some instances, however, the efforts of these identity groups have been misdirected, in a direction away from democratic justice.
The ideology of identity groups is so diverse as to defy the generalization that it is either antiuniversalist and antiegalitarian, or the reverse. There are certainly many identity groups whose philosophies and practices work counter to democratic justice, and they are worthy of political criticism. Brian Barry directs his relentless critique of identity politics against illiberal groups that oppose or undermine the protections of equal rights that liberal democracies should provide.30 So directed, the critique is correct. But Barry chooses to ignore the fact that many identity groups, including many of those that support affirmative action in the United States, struggle politically for precisely the reverse: equal effective rights by means of better economic and educational policies.31 To be convincing to open-minded people, criticism of identity group politics needs to be discerning. Identity group politics as a whole cannot fairly be said to undermine a politics of redistribution.32 Many identity groups--most feminist groups, for example--do precisely the reverse: they strongly support a politics of redistribution, and they ally with many other identity groups that do the same. On the other hand, many other identity groups are highly sectarian and inegalitarian.
Better than both sectarian identity politics and sectarian interest group politics, as egalitarians have long suggested, would be a universalistic and united egalitarian political movement to raise the standards of all disadvantaged individuals, regardless of their cultural, ethnic, gender, racial, or national identities. The idea that such a universalistically based movement will be forthcoming in the absence of identity politics is doubtful in light of American history and the relative weakness of working class identification. The history of egalitarian reform in many European and Latin American democracies has been based in no small part on a politics of working class identification that is far weaker in the United States, where income and wealth inequalities are correspondingly greater. politics per se: an alternative that consistently follows from the egalitarian critique of identity politics is a democracy in which more individuals ally together politically as free and equal persons. Such a justice-friendly alliance based on mutual identification as egalitarian democrats would be yet another form of identity group politics. Democracies need more people to ally together politically and defend just causes, whether out of mutual identification as free and equal persons, or out of their commitment to justice, or both. (The identification and commitment are fully compatible.) The need for a politics that is more conducive to justice does not come any closer to being met, however, when critics condemn identity groups per se.
Critics of identity groups also focus their attention on the involuntary basis for some of these groups. The members of ascriptive groups of a particular race, gender, or nationality generally do not have a choice of being identified with the group. Involuntary ascription raises a set of distinctive problems concerning identity groups in democratic contexts that is worthy of extended analysis. But the involuntary nature of some group identities cannot be the basis for a wholesale critique of identity groups or identity politics for many reasons, the most basic of which is that involuntary identity groups are only a subgroup of identity groups and not necessarily the most prevalent or powerful subgroups at that. Memberships in many identity groups--most religious groups and all voluntary associations whose members are drawn to them out of mutual identification (in some cases because of their ascriptive identities)--are voluntary, as are memberships in many interest groups.
Nor would an involuntary basis of membership suffice for criticizing a group, as the defense of labor unions (some of whose membership is involuntary) suggests.33 The membership of most democratic societies is involuntary: Most citizens do not have the effective freedom to pick up and leave and settle in another country that would accord them civic equality and equal freedom. On its face, the left-handed invitation "love it or leave it" presents a false choice for most citizens, who cannot leave their country any more easily than they can change their gender (which, after all, is no longer impossible). The absence of an effective freedom to leave one's country is not a sufficient ground for criticizing an otherwise just democracy. But it is a good ground for criticizing democracies that are unjust, as all democracies today are, in not according civic equality and equal freedom and opportunity to all their members. Something similar can be said of identity groups based on race, gender, and ethnicity, for example, the fact that they are involuntary is not a sufficient reason to criticize them, but the absence of an effective freedom to exit some identity groups renders them suspect in the same way that societies are suspect vis-�-vis their citizens who are not accorded civic equality and equal freedom and opportunity within the group. When identity groups are voluntary, for their members, as fraternal and soraral clubs like the Masons are thought to be, they have at least a partial moral defense of the way they treat their members--based on informed consent--that is absent from involuntary groups of all sorts. The fact that democratic societies are not voluntary associations may also make it all the more important for other groups within those societies to be voluntary. This issue is critical to considering both cultural identity groups and ascriptive identity groups, which are the topics of chapters 1 and 3, respectively.
Religious groups are also identity groups, and their politics is an important part of identity group politics in modern democracies. Many critics of identity politics exempt religious groups from criticism, and treat them as deserving of special treatment. In chapter 4, I ask whether religious identity groups should be treated with special consideration in democracies. I argue that they should not, but the reason many people may think that they should is instructive. The ultimate ethical commitments of individuals--which may be religious or secular in their source--are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity. The contemporary shorthand for those ultimate ethical commitments--conscience--instantiates the identity of individuals as ethical persons. As such, conscience should be treated with a degree of deference in democracies out of respect for persons as moral beings, which is a basic principle of democratic justice. A degree of deference does not mean that conscience trumps legitimate laws. It means that democratic governments may legitimately treat conscience as special in democratic politics when so doing does not violate anyone's basic liberty, opportunity, or civic equality. By recognizing that conscience can be either secular or religious, democratic governments avoid discriminating either in favor of or against religious citizens.
Identity groups are suspect when they elevate group identity above justice, but they often fight against precisely this problem, as it is often unconsciously ingrained in discriminatory political practices that are well established and therefore taken for granted. Identity groups need to be assessed by the same standards that one would apply to any groups that make political claims and exert political influence in democracies. I apply the democratic standard of civic equality, broadly understood to include equal freedom and opportunity for all individuals. There is no ethically neutral place to evaluate the contribution of identity groups to democratic societies, nor would a neutral place be desirable if it were available. When I use the term democracy, it signifies a political commitment to the civic equality of individuals. A democracy also can and ideally should be a deliberative democracy, offering opportunities for its citizens to deliberate about the content of democratic justice and to defend their best understanding of justice at any given time.
A just democracy therefore respects the ethical agency of individuals, and since individuals are the ultimate source of ethical value, respect for their ethical agency is a basic good. Ethical agency includes two capacities: the capacity to live one's own life as one sees fit consistent with respecting equal freedom for others, and the capacity to contribute to the justice of one's society and one's world. All democratic theories that take ethical agency seriously also honor three principles in some form. One is civic equality--the obligation of democracies to treat all individuals as equal agents in democratic politics and support the conditions that are necessary for their equal treatment as citizens. A second principle is equal freedom--the obligation of democratic government to respect the liberty of all individuals to live their own lives as they see fit consistent with the equal liberty of others. A third principle is basic opportunity--the capacity of individuals to live a decent life with a fair chance to choose among their preferred ways of life. Of course other principles may be considered basic by other theories, but for purposes of assessing the place of identity groups in democracies in this book, civic equality, equal freedom, and basic opportunity serve as critical standards. Since civic equality also requires many equal freedoms and basic opportunities, I refer to civic equality as a shorthand throughout the book of a principled basis for assessing the relationship between identity groups and democratic politics.
Why is it important to evaluate rather than just to describe the role of identity groups in democracies? Much more work needs to be done in describing the role of identity groups in democracies, far more than I can do in this book. But no matter how thoroughly we analyze identity groups, our discussion will be incomplete if it is merely descriptive. Description alone is not even sufficient to describe completely the role of identity groups in democracies, and it is not even the prior task to considering how identity groups at their best can contribute to democratic justice and how at their worst they impede its pursuit. This, after all, is part of a description of the role of identity groups in democratic politics.
To describe identity groups in a value neutral way would be to misdescribe and misunderstand not only identity groups but the nature of democracy. Democracies are not neutral political instruments; they are worth defending to the extent that they institutionalize in politics a more ethical treatment of individuals than the political alternatives to democracy, which range from benevolent to malevolent autocracies and oligarchies. Some identity groups aid democracies in institutionalizing more equal treatment of individuals and others impede it. A critical part of a description of the role of identity groups in democracies must therefore be to develop a language that helps us to understand their role in both aiding and impeding the pursuit of democratic justice.
Critics who do not labor under a false sense of value neutrality still may shy away from judging identity groups by democratic standards because they realize that democratic standards are themselves often contested. But so, too, are empirical descriptions of groups, and therefore avoiding controversy is not a good reason to seek value neutrality. Judging from the depth of controversies over historical accounts that are ostensibly empirical, it is not even clear that disagreements about ethical values arouse deeper passions than empirical disagreements (for example, about the causes and effects of ending slavery or instituting affirmative action).
Reasonable contestation or challenge is something to be encouraged in democratic politics, out of respect for individuals as ethical agents. Mutually binding laws and policies should be justified to the extent possible for ethical agents; efforts at justification, even if unsuccessful (as they often are) at achieving agreement, express mutual respect among persons as civic equals. Whatever specific principles we defend in democratic politics to assess identity groups, we therefore can also defend democratic deliberation about those principles and their application out of a commitment to mutual respect among persons, which itself is a way of treating people as civic equals.34
The principles invoked in this book to assess identity groups--civic equality, equal freedom, and basic opportunity--are defended by a wide range of democratic theories. The three general principles are still subject to disagreement in their application, especially in difficult cases. Does civic equality, equal freedom, or basic opportunity, for example, require the Canadian Mounties to exempt the Sikhs from its uniform policy? Assuming that both religious freedom and separation of church and state are violated by the inability of Israeli women to pray as Israeli men do at the Holy Wall in Jerusalem, what other features of Israel's nonseparation of church and state violate the equal religious freedom of Israeli women who identify as Jewish? James Dale's challenge to the Boy Scouts raises yet another kind of principled question concerning the competition between two principles. Which is more basic to a democratic justice: freedom from discrimination on the basis of one's sexual orientation or freedom of expression for voluntary associations? What difference does the nature of the voluntary association make in how we compare what is at stake on both sides?
Some controversies concerning identity groups that I draw upon are not hard cases to assess whereas others are. It is important to consider both kinds of cases in order to understand and evaluate identity groups in democracies. When a case is hard, however, and there is reasonable disagreement among affected parties about how democratic principles should be interpreted and applied, there is also a special need to move beyond basic substantive principles and call for deliberation within as inclusive a group as possible of the people who are significantly affected by the decision. Substantive principles inform democratic deliberation, but they do not take its place. Conversely, deliberation does not take the place of substantive principles; it would be a politically hollow (and ethically senseless) exercise if it were not substantively informed.
Liberty, opportunity, and civic equality are defensible on grounds offered by almost all democratic theories, which converge in support of these principles from different starting points.35 Yet some people identify democracy far more simply with one single principle, majority rule. Why join democracy to a defense of any principles other than majority rule? First, because majority rule is not a principle by itself. It is a rule of procedure that cannot possibly define a defensible democratic politics, since majority rule can be used by oligarchic decision makers. Any democracy that is defensible on ethical grounds--grounds that respect the ethical agency of all persons--must do more than establish order through a decision-making procedure, since order alone does not respect the ethical agency of all persons.
I use the word "democratic" in this book as a concept of political ethics to signify a public commitment to treating individuals as ethical agents. (Democratic justice does not view individuals as atomistic individualists; it views them as ethical agents, which is quite a different matter.) A just democracy helps secure for all persons the conditions of civic equality, equal freedom, and basic opportunity, principles that are preconditions of a fair democratic process but are also valuable in their own right as expressions of the freedom and equality of individual persons as ethical agents.
A democratic state that respects individuals as free and equal persons does its best to secure civic equality for every person. There is room for deliberative disagreements about what counts as civic equality, but there is also a broad range of reasonable agreement possible among democrats. For example, democrats today count among the equal liberties freedom from slavery, serfdom, forced labor, and other forms of subordination of persons and the correlative freedoms of expression, conscience, assembly, and association. Basic opportunities are broadly agreed upon to include adequate schooling, subsistence, and nondiscrimination in the distribution of educational and career opportunities. Civic equality refers to both a set of political rights of equal suffrage and political participation in a fair competitive process of democratic decision making and a set of civil rights including due process and equal protection by the laws.
Defending these principles that are widely shared by democrats does not require anyone to be what John Rawls calls a "comprehensive liberal" because these principles do not encompass the entirety of a moral philosophy or a cultural identity. Nor does the democratic perspective that informs them encompass the entirety of any moral philosophy or cultural identity. Many democrats committed to civic equality for all persons are, to use Rawls's term, "political liberals." There are many versions of political liberalism other than Rawls's theory of justice, just as there are many versions of comprehensive liberal and nonliberal perspectives. Although the perspective taken in this book may be seen as a kind of political liberalism, it is compatible with many comprehensive philosophies as well.
Democracy, as I understand it, takes all persons, regardless of their ascriptive identities, as deserving of equal political regard or respect. Because a democratic view of politics is committed to equal respect for persons regardless of their particular group identities, it provides a potentially critical vantage point for assessing identity groups. While the political landscape is often divided between those who assume that all identity groups violate democratic principles and those who assume the reverse, neither assumption is warranted by this analysis. Distinguishing among identity groups is critical not only to understanding but also to assessing their role in democratic societies.
FOUR KINDS OF IDENTITY GROUPS
Four kinds of identity groups--cultural, voluntary, ascriptive, and religious--are worthy of separate consideration because each highlights a different set of ethical issues raised by the presence of identity groups in democracies and the ways in which they can either aid or impede democratic justice. Although the four kinds are not mutually exclusive, by focusing on culture, choice, ascription, and religion we can more readily examine the most important issues revolving around the relationship between group identity and democracy. I therefore have devoted a chapter to each kind of identity group.
Identity groups call attention to both the extent and the limits of expression of free identity, and the tension between free identity expression and its limits is a central issue in chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1 considers cultural identity groups. Culture is the most common category around which controversies over identity groups gravitate. This is because of a tendency to consider every identity group as representative of a culture and culture as constituting its members' identities. Although culture can be considered the universal glue that unites or divides people into identity groups, so broad a definition verges on the vacuous. Political theorists of culture are more careful in specifying what they understand a cultural group to be. Cultural groups, they say, represent ways of life that are comprehensive or encompassing, terms that are used interchangeably to refer to the provision by culture of a context of choice that determines the range of what is feasible for its members.36 Cultural groups also can give their members a sense of security and belonging. In chapter 1, I question the comprehensiveness of culture and pursue some corresponding concerns about the claims of cultural identity groups vis-�-vis both members and non-members. The concerns follow from democratic principles such as equal freedom and civic equality to which many theorists of culture themselves subscribe.
At the other end of the associational spectrum from cultural identity groups are voluntary associations. They are so far at the other end that they are often not even considered to be identity groups. Voluntary associations offer the opposite of a comprehensive context of choice to their members. Each association offers one among many options, along with disassociation itself, within an associational diverse context. Chapter 2 focuses on the voluntary groups that inhabit a democratic landscape, which de Tocqueville described in his portrait of democracy in America as of "a thousand different types--religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute."37 Contemporary theorists of choice eloquently defend free association in democracy, reminding us that "to be free, to live as one likes, includes associating on one's own terms, which means engaging in voluntary relationships of all sorts."38
However essential they are to the fabric of a democracy, voluntary associations are far from problem-free. They pose a problem that flows from the very nature of the freedom that they represent in non-ideal societies that have been ridden by systematic social prejudices. Freedom of association entails the freedom to exclude people from one's association, yet prejudicial exclusion of people because of their gender, skin color, or other unchosen characteristic exacerbates civic inequality in many forms, including unequal freedom and opportunity. Prejudicially blocked entries into voluntary associations may therefore be considered unjust. Yet the freedom to form an exclusive group and the freedom to join one are both valued freedoms. Whichever way a democracy resolves this conflict between the freedom to join and the freedom to exclude, the freedom of some people to express their identities as they see fit will be limited by the freedom of others. How a democracy resolves the conflict of freedoms is critical to the value of voluntary groups vis-�-vis democratic justice, which is the subject of chapter 2.
In chapter 3, our attention turns to those organized groups that explicitly bring people together based on unchosen characteristics: mutual identification by ascription. Many identity groups organize around unchosen social markers such as gender, color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability. Groups that organize around ascriptive identities are themselves enormously varied in their relationship to democratic justice. Some are justice-friendly, actively promoting democratic justice by advocating equal freedom and opportunity for individuals who are disadvantaged because of their ascriptive identities. Other ascriptive identity groups--like the National Association for the Advancement of White People, which arose in response to the NAACP--impede the very same cause. Even with regard to justice-friendly ascriptive groups, special issues arise. Some people claim that women, African Americans, and other people of color have special moral obligations to their ascriptive groups because if they do not contribute to the cause they will be free-riding on the efforts of justice-friendly groups. Although these special obligations are not considered legally binding, they are publicly defended as morally incumbent on individuals, and they therefore differentially burden some individuals who are identified with certain ascriptive groups and not others