Ambrose Bierce defined friendship as “a ship big enough for two in fair weather, but only one in foul.” So what’s the state of allyship in 2016?
Allyship, for those not familiar with it—and that clearly includes my spell-checker, though this may change before long—is the glue that’s supposed to bind together the various identities that make up identity politics. According to this view of things, each identity has its own self-perceived interests which only it can promote. Black people comprehend their own needs and, if given voice, will speak to them. Undocumented immigrants the same. LGBTQ, check. Women, check. Disabled people, check. And there is also a patchwork of intersectional cross-identities, each with a unique self-awareness and drive to uplift itself through its exercise of voice.
So what about the “privileged”, those who don’t identify with any of these oppressions? And what prevents the entire social array from breaking down into a warring tangle of competing self-interests? That’s where allyship comes in. (And we are all waiting for our allyship to come in.)
An ally is someone who is not from identity x who nonetheless puts aside a competing self-interest to support the x-ers. According to this theory, why should they do this? That’s actually a bit of a black hole. An appeal is made to universal values, like justice and care, although identity politics as a whole presents itself as a critique of universalism. Everyone is guided by self-interest (where it is assumed that this is shared by all situated in the same identity box), except that we are also enjoined to subordinate self-interest to a higher ideal of moral principal. If the self-interest part of the story is right, the impetus to be an ally is perplexing. Is this a sort of self-interest rightly understood à la Tocqueville? Well, that depends on whether there really is a confluence of interests, and hard calculation won’t necessarily come to that conclusion. (Another conundrum, interesting to fans of conundrums, is that objective self-interest contradicts the subjectivism underlying the “voice” imperative.)
So let’s take this to the election. Every identity group spoke up for itself. We heard from each hue of the color spectrum, including, alas, the alt-right white identitarians. Each gender and alt-gender made its case. To get to an electoral majority, however, a combination of two things had to happen for the identity bloc. First, individuals within each identity group had to actually recognize their self-interest as fused with their identity, so they would go out and vote. Second, the large number of people with privileged identities would need to embrace their allyship.
It seems that neither of these things happened. Turnout fell among minorities, even though the difference between the two major candidates over questions of bigotry could hardly be greater. And white voters without college degrees went for what they thought their self-interest demanded rather than casting their ballot as allies.
If you accept a political framework of self-interest for oppressed identities and allyship for the rest, you’ll need to come up with a plan to turn this around. Simply shaming Trump voters is probably not going to work, since it was already tried and failed. Maybe there’s a Plan B; I will stay tuned.