Identity in Democracy

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Political Science Quarterly - Margaret Moore
There is much to admire in this book. It is clearly written, deploys interesting and topical examples, and is accessible without losing important nuance and careful insight.
Academe - Kristen A. Renn
Although Gutmann writes as a philosopher, her text is accessible to the nonspecialist interested in analyzing core issues of diversity, identity, and community. . . . Gutmann's analysis of identity groups is instructive to those who seek a more complex understanding of the tensions between expressions of individual identities and the creation of an equitable community.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2003 Award for Best Professional/Scholarly Book in Government and Political Science, Association of American Publishers

"Typically, discussions of identity politics in American life are tinged with vitriol. Gutmann's book, by contrast, calms the debate with an unflappably reasonable analysis. . . . She argues that, since humans are social creatures, identity politics is a permanent fixture of the political landscape."The New Yorker

"There is much to admire in this book. It is clearly written, deploys interesting and topical examples, and is accessible without losing important nuance and careful insight."—Margaret Moore, Political Science Quarterly

"Although Gutmann writes as a philosopher, her text is accessible to the nonspecialist interested in analyzing core issues of diversity, identity, and community. . . . Gutmann's analysis of identity groups is instructive to those who seek a more complex understanding of the tensions between expressions of individual identities and the creation of an equitable community."—Kristen A. Renn, Academe

Political Science Quarterly
There is much to admire in this book. It is clearly written, deploys interesting and topical examples, and is accessible without losing important nuance and careful insight.
— Margaret Moore
Although Gutmann writes as a philosopher, her text is accessible to the nonspecialist interested in analyzing core issues of diversity, identity, and community. . . . Gutmann's analysis of identity groups is instructive to those who seek a more complex understanding of the tensions between expressions of individual identities and the creation of an equitable community.
— Kristen A. Renn
The New Yorker
Typically, discussions of identity politics in American life are tinged with vitriol. Gutmann's book, by contrast, calms the debate with an unflappably reasonable analysis. . . . She argues that, since humans are social creatures, identity politics is a permanent fixture of the political landscape.
The New Yorker
Typically, discussions of identity politics in American life are tinged with vitriol. Gutmann's book, by contrast, calms the debate with an unflappably reasonable analysis of the relationship between liberal democracy and associations based on race, creed, sexuality, or the like. She argues that, since humans are social creatures, identity politics is a permanent fixture of the political landscape. At best, identity groups can play a vital role in protecting the legitimate interests of their members. But Gutmann also cites examples -- ranging from the Boy Scouts to a Pueblo woman punished by her tribe for marrying outside it -- in which these groups have been oppressive to their own members and discriminatory toward outsiders. Gutmann suggests that we should judge identity groups on a case-by-case basis, assessing the specific work they do and remembering that the ultimate goal for any democracy is to insure "civic equality, equal freedom and opportunity" not for groups but for individuals.
Publishers Weekly
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. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691120409
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/16/2004
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,541,408
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Amy Gutmann Amy Gutmann is President-elect of the University of Pennsylvania. Her many books include "Democratic Education"(Princeton); "Why Deliberative Democracy?" (forthcoming, Princeton) and "Democracy and Disagreement" (Harvard), both with Dennis Thompson; and "Color Conscious" (Princeton, with K. Anthony Appiah).
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Read an Excerpt

Identity in Democracy

By Amy Gutmann

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12040-9



Identity groups occupy an uneasy place in democracy. Critics emphasize how much group identities constrain rather than liberate individuals. When people are identified as black or white, male or female, Irish or Arabic, Catholic or Jew, deaf or mute, they are stereotyped by race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and disability and denied a certain individuality that comes of their own distinctive character and freedom to affiliate as they see fit. When individuals themselves identify racially, ethnically, or religiously as a consequence of being identified with groups, they often develop hostilities toward other groups and a sense of superiority over them. Groups frequently vie against one another in uncompromising ways, sacrificing justice and even peace for vindicating their superiority as a group.

If critics told the whole story, we would have little reason to doubt that identity groups are up to no good from a democratic perspective. Defenders of identity politics point out some of the problems with the critics' image of the autonomous, self-made person who neither identifies nor is identified with groups. Without any group identities, defenders of group identity say individuals are atomistic, notautonomous. Group identities help individuals have a more secure sense of self and social belonging. Moreover, group identity propels women and disadvantaged minorities to counteract inherited negative stereotypes, defend more positive self-images, and develop respect for members of their groups.

What the defenders and critics of identity groups have to say is significant, but each captures only part of the relationship between identity groups and democratic politics. The relationship is far more complex yet no less important than that suggested by these and other common defenses and critiques of identity politics. People identify with others by ethnicity, race, nationality, culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, class, disability, age, ideology, and other social markers. No single group identity or even all group identities taken together comprehend the whole of a person, yet a commonly shared identification around any of the above characteristics of a person often leads to a group identity. Group identities are as abundant in democracies as they are controversial. Politically significant associations that attract people because of their mutual identification are aptly called identity groups.

Were it not for the mutual identification of individuals with one another, there would be no identity groups. Although mutual identification is basic to human existence, it has been neglected in democratic theory, where the language of "interest" and "interest groups" (soon to be discussed), rather than identity and identity groups, is far more common. Yet no one should doubt that identification with others makes a difference in how individuals perceive their own interests. Psychological experiments demonstrate that something as basic as self-image changes when individuals identify with others. And just as remarkably, a difference in self-image can be based on a seemingly, irrelevant identification with others. Experimental subjects who view a beautiful stranger report an increase in their own self-image of attractiveness when all that they learn about the stranger is that they share her birthday. The experimental subjects apparently identify with the total stranger by virtue of sharing the same birthday, and that identification alone is enough to enable her beauty to enhance their own self-image. Conversely, a negative difference can arise from group identification when women students are reminded of their gender or African American students of their racial identity before taking tests in subjects where it is widely thought that women and African Americans perform poorly. Democratic theory and politics clearly cannot afford to neglect the differences, both positive and negative, that group identifications make in people's lives.

What difference does the existence of organized identity groups make for democratic theory and practice? When is nationality, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or some other group identity a good or bad reason for democratic action? What identity groups should be encouraged or discouraged, and what actions based on identity can aid or impede democratic justice?

The analysis that follows suggests that organizing politically on the basis of group identity is not a good or bad thing in itself. When identity groups put the group above opposition to injustice or the pursuit of justice, they are morally suspect. Identity groups do better when they offer mutual support and help combat injustice for disadvantaged people. Even when combating injustice is justified, it can be ugly. A completely justifiable struggle against the rights violations of an identity group, such as the Ku Klux Klan, is often ugly, bringing with it unavoidable pain and suffering, or avoidable only at the price of appeasement. Resistance to injustice often itself encounters resistance, and people may undeservedly suffer as a consequence. By subjecting identity groups to fair-minded scrutiny, we come to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly of identity politics.

Basic questions about the political ethics of identity groups in democracy have been conspicuous by their absence in both academic and popular discourse, for reasons that are worth noting. Because political scientists have tended to treat all organized nongovernmental political actors as interest groups, they have benignly neglected the role that group identity plays in defining and guiding many politically relevant groups in democracies. At the other end of the spectrum, far from neglecting identity groups, popular political commentators often subject them to hypercriticism. Some claim, for example, that although interest groups are "an inherent part of the governing process of a democracy," identity group politics-by contrast-"is antithetical to the basic principle of one indivisible nation." If one thinks only of identity groups that teach hatred of others, sometimes martyring their members who are willing to kill innocent people, then it is easy to condemn identity politics. But this line of thought misleadingly narrows the notion of identity groups.

Nationality itself is a group identity in the name of which injustices have been both inflicted and resisted. Both slavery in the United States and apartheid in South Africa, for example, have been institutionalized and then opposed in nationalism's name. The nationalisms have differed dramatically in content. Democracies have fought both aggressive and defensive wars by encouraging nationalist impulses among their citizens. People have rallied around a wide variety of nationalist identities in support of tyrannical regimes, yet tyrannies also have been resisted by many nationalist movements. Nationalism is part of identity politics, and nations no less than other identity groups should be scrutinized according to considerations of democratic justice.

Identity groups are an inevitable byproduct of according individuals freedom of association. As long as individuals are free to associate, identity groups of many kinds will exist. This is because free people mutually identify in many politically relevant ways, and a society that prevents identity groups from forming is a tyranny. Associational freedom therefore legitimizes identity groups of many kinds.

Many political parties are identity groups, calling upon and cultivating shared identities around ideology, class, religion, and ethnicity, among other mutual recognitions. The myth that superior citizens are independent voters-citizens who do not identify in a stable way over time with a party as a partisan reference group-was an early casualty of survey research in political science. "Far from being more attentive, interested, and informed," The American Voter discovered that "Independents tend as a group to have somewhat poorer knowledge of the issues, their image of the candidates is fainter, their interest in the campaign is less, their concern over the outcome is relatively slight." The rise of independent American voters in the 1960s led many commentators to declare mutual identification around a political party to be an anachronism, but the revival of partisan political loyalty since the mid-1970s (matching its high 1950s level) underscores the importance of parties as identity groups. There now can be little reasonable doubt that mutual identification around a partisan group identity plays a central role in the official institutions of democratic politics. As the literature on party identification amply demonstrates, the relative successes and failures of political parties cannot be adequately understood without attending to the ways in which parties succeed or fail in calling upon and cultivating mutual identification among potential members. This book extends the finding that mutual identification is a central part of party politics by examining and evaluating the role of identity groups outside of political parties and the formal political processes of democratic government. Not only within but also outside of the formal democratic mechanisms, identity groups act in ways that both support and threaten basic principles of democratic justice.

Three basic principles are equal standing as a citizen-or "civic equality"-along with liberty and opportunity. The interpretation of these principles varies across democratic views, but the variation does not detract from the fact that civic equality, liberty, and opportunity are core principles of any morally defensible democracy. The broad range of views compatible with these principles all can be called democratic. Identity groups act in ways that both aid and impede democracies in expressing and enacting these principles. The benign neglect of identity groups by political scientists and the hypercriticism of popular commentators are not terribly helpful in understanding or assessing their role in democratic societies.

To assess some of the major issues that identity groups pose for democracy, I consider various illustrative examples, most taken from the United States, a context that provides examples of the major kinds of identity groups. The issues that identity groups pose for democracy are best analyzed in their specific political context, but other inquiries, I hope, will concentrate on other democratic countries. To indicate how ubiquitous and varied identity groups are in contemporary democracies, I also occasionally draw on examples from other democratic societies. These analyses must be even more suggestive, since the context can be less taken for granted.

Consider three political controversies that feature identity groups from three different democracies.

In Canada, often considered the home of multiculturalism, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for the first time in its history, decided in 1990 to exempt a group from a long-standing rule governing their uniforms. Sikhs were exempted from wearing the wide-brimmed hat that is otherwise a required part of the Mounties' official uniform. This exemption, while not in itself earth-shaking, had far-ranging implications for the accommodation of diverse group identities by public authorities in Canada. The accommodation of the Sikhs in Canada met with six years of protest and was appealed to the Canadian Supreme Court, which refused to hear the challenge, leaving intact the exemption based on identity group membership.

In Israel, also in 1990, a group of conservative and orthodox Jewish women petitioned the High Court of Justice to be given the same rights as Jewish men to pray in public. A year earlier, these women had peacefully marched to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, holding a Torah, determined to pray there without male approval. They were attacked by a group of mainstream orthodox Jews who were defending their religious prohibition of women from praying as orthodox men do in public. Ten years later, in 2000, the court recognized the women's right to pray at the Wall without abuse by other worshippers. The court also held that the fact that their prayer offends other Orthodox Jews must not annul their ability to exercise their equal rights in public. In response to this ruling, the Israeli Knesset (the unicameral parliament of Israel) introduced a bill that would impose a penalty on any woman who violates traditional Orthodoxy by praying at the Wall.

In the United States in 1990, James Dale, an assistant scoutmaster of New Jersey Troop 73, received a letter revoking his membership in the Boy Scouts of America. Dale rose up through the ranks from cub to eagle scout to assistant scoutmaster. When executives in the Boy Scouts learned from a newspaper article that Dale was copresident of the Lesbian/Gay Alliance at Rutgers University, they revoked his membership. Dale brought suit against the Scouts on grounds of discrimination. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Dale's favor on the basis of the state's anti-discrimination law. In a 5 to 4 decision, the United States Supreme Court reversed the ruling and ruled that the Boy Scouts may discriminate based on their expressive freedom as a group to oppose homosexuality.

These controversies pit politically-engaged identity groups against each other: Canadian Sikhs versus other Canadians, Orthodox Israeli Jews versus "Women of the Wall" (some of whom are also Orthodox), Boy Scouts of America versus gay men, along with other individuals and groups, many of them also part of identity groups, who supported one side or the other in these political battles. The political interests of the major groups in these controversies are intimately linked to their group identities. These identity groups represent only a small fraction of the groups that organize around a mutually recognized identity of their members and pursue a political agenda at least partly based on that group identity. Although non-mainstream groups like Sikhs and gay men are more commonly recognized as identity groups than are mainstream Canadians or the Boy Scouts of America, all are identity groups according to any impartial understanding of the term.

Once we recognize all these groups as identity groups, we are in a far better position to engage in nonpolemical analyses of the problems they raise and the contributions they make in a democracy. Here, in a nutshell, is the dilemma that identity groups present to democracy:

Identity groups are not the ultimate source of value in any democracy committed to equal regard for individuals;

Identity groups can both aid and impede equal regard for individuals, and democratic justice, more generally;

Some identity groups promote negative stereotypes, incite injustice, and frustrate the pursuit of justice;

Others help overcome negative stereotypes and combat injustice in contexts of civic inequality and unequal liberty and opportunity;

Identity groups can also provide mutual support and express shared identities among individuals whose lives would be poorer without this mutual support and identification.

Why are identity groups not the ultimate source of democratic value? Equal regard for individuals-not identity groups-is fundamental to democratic justice. A just democracy treats individuals as civic equals and accords them equal freedom as persons. If identity groups were the ultimate source of value, then they could subordinate the civic equality and equal freedom of persons (inside or outside the group) to their cause. Accepting an identity group as morally ultimate is inconsistent with treating persons as civic equals who are free to live their lives as they see fit. Living your life as you see fit therefore presupposes that self-appointed groups not impose their identity on you against your will.


Excerpted from Identity in Democracy by Amy Gutmann Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Identity Politics 1
Ch. 1 The Claims of Cultural Identity Groups 38
Ch. 2 The Value of Voluntary Groups 86
Ch. 3 Identification by Ascription 117
Ch. 4 Is Religious Identity Special? 151
Conclusion: Integrating Identity in Democracy 192
Notes 213
Index 235
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