Understanding ‘How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics’ with Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: podcast and transcript

“Identity politics” polarizes discourse about virtually every aspect of contemporary political life. But what exactly is it, and what role does “elite capture” play in how it has come to be understood? Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is a philosopher, assistant professor at Georgetown University and author of several books, including “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)” and “Reconsidering Reparations,” both of which were published in 2022. He joins WITHpod to discuss the origins of identity politics, the problems with what he calls deference politics and how elites have co-opted the language of social justice to their own ends.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: “Elite Capture” should be better thought of as a kind of thermometer than an on and off switch. So of course, in any society, at least, any society, this side of an extremely wide-ranging change to how societies work, any society is going to respond more to powerful people than it does to less powerful people. But how much more? Right? How sensitive is the society to elite interests versus non-elite interests?

Chris Hayes: Look, I’ve said this before on the podcast that we’re living right now, as I speak to you in a very reactionary moment. You can feel reactionary moments. There’s backlash towards movements, towards equality, social justice; movements to upend existing hierarchies; and then a backlash happens to them. We’re living through one of those backlash moments. It feels profoundly, and I’ve lived through a number, I’m 43 years old, I’ve lived through a few of them. 2010 was one of them, as was the wake of 9/11. It was an intensely reactionary moment. It’s almost like a weather feeling. You can feel it in the air.

And one of the sort of consistent themes of that, I think, in reaction to particularly the movement for black lives and racial justice around the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder is a sort of backlash to what people on the right have appropriated for their own terms, the idea of being woke. I don’t use that term because it’s been stretched out by overuse to essentially be meaningless, but in the kind of derogatory way in which the right uses it, right, it’s this sort of, like, precious, persnickety, out of touch obsession with difference and political correctness. And it’s sort of insidious towards all forms of kind of traditional values, but also just like the normal carrying on of conversation.

There’s people in the center-left who kind of have been critiqued in the same way. And there’s this whole now discussion about this, right? Often, the other word used to stand in for, quote, “wokeness” when appropriated by people insulting it as identity politics, which is another term that has been sort of appropriated as a form of insult like, “Oh, you’re engaging in identity politics.”

There’s also, however, like there’s a kind of right-wing reactionary backlash attack on it, right, Ron DeSantis on critical race theory. There’s a kind of centrist center-left people who don’t like it, again, from the right. But there’s also a left critique of certain manifestations of this form of politics, particularly the rhetorical level. So let me give you an example. It roughly goes like this. Institutions, people and entities with tremendous power, who are not at all interested in appending the basic hierarchies of power, have appropriated the language of social justice and identity-based liberation, as a kind of rhetorical sop to avoid doing anything.

So this is like the lawful brand that tweets Black Lives Matter, or the CIA when they talk about like how many out gay people work at the CIA, right? And like, it’s good that out gay people work for the CIA, just to be clear here, right? But there’s like a deeper thing here about like, well, what exactly the CIA is up to? And does the CIA stand on behalf of the status quo of power or an opposition to it.

So that left critique, there’s something almost kind of reactionary in some of the formations of tendencies around identity and identity-based conversations and politics that actually end up being bad for the left. And I find that left critique pretty fascinating, persuasive in certain ways. They’re certainly really important to engage with. And probably the most rigorous systematic vision of that critique that I’ve seen is laid out in a new book called “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else)”

It’s by a philosopher, young philosopher named Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò. He’s an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. He actually also has a book out about reparations. This year, he has two books out in the span of five months, one called “Reconsidering Reparations,” the other one about “Elite Capture.” I’m not quite sure how he got two books published within five months, but we’re going to find out when we have Femi on the program. It’s great to have you on.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Thanks for having me.

Chris Hayes: And so what’s the deal with the two books out within five months?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: It was just strange timing. The first book, the reparations book was in the kind of copy, editing, indexing stage. The weird thing that happens after you turned in the full draft, that just happened to be when the essays came out about “Elite Capture” that got a big amount of response, I guess, more response than I was guessing that they were going to get. So the move to turn that into a longer thing just kind of flowed from that.

Chris Hayes: So you just banged out a book about it?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. I mean, it wasn’t like I was writing from nothing —

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: — and the essay is out. Yes.

Chris Hayes: You’re a young philosopher, and you’re engaging in sort of both philosophy and kind of public-facing stuff which I find interesting. I was a philosophy major, and really loved philosophy and love still philosophy now. How do you decide to become a philosopher?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: It was a little bit of a gradual kind of journey. I was an Econ and Political Science major. I just kind of wanted to know how the world works. I was just curious. And I thought that it was going to be those social sciences that was going to answer those questions. I’m still interested in social science even now, and it affects how I do political philosophy. But it was really kind of bumping up against the framing assumptions of those fields. As an undergraduate in college and wanting to talk about the assumptions behind things, I just figured philosophy was the place to do that. So I took a few classes and I just liked it and stayed.

Chris Hayes: So let’s talk about “Elite Capture” and what the sort of argument is. What do you mean by that term? Let’s start with the term elite capture, what does it mean?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So it comes from social science, right? A lot of people in economics or policy analysis, trying to figure out how it is that the most advantaged members in a locality or region get the lion’s share of something, usually a tangible resource, aid dollars, that kind of thing. And I read a bit of the work there and I thought, well, if we take a broader perspective on this, maybe not just dollars, but other kinds of resources, attention, control over the political agenda, we have a flexible concept that actually explains a lot of what’s happening politically.

And, in particular, one of the things I was going for in the book is saying, “If you understand this concept of elite capture, you know most of what you need to know about why identity politics is used and the way that it is. So the basic thing that I think it is, and I’m going for in the book, is it’s when a social system, a society responds disproportionately to the people at the top of various hierarchies.

Chris Hayes: I mean, I guess we’re going to get into the specific application to identity politics and the kind of lineage there, which is fascinating. But I guess say a little bit more because it seems to me like there’s a little bit of a danger of like the concept proving too much, that it’s almost a tautological statement about disproportionate power, right? Like, well, the people that have a lot of power in this society, like, tend to have the most power. So say more about why we’re not just saying that sort of tautological statement about how power tends to collect or pool at the top and hierarchies tend to be sort of self-sustaining.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. So the thing that it’s an attempt to say something about is behavior, right, the activity of a social system rather than who has power in it, right? So there have been eras of political history where there’s been, at least to some extent, kind of broad-based, egalitarian political moments, arguably, the New Deal is an example of this.

Chris Hayes: Yes, Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: And I would say “Elite Capture” should be better thought of as a kind of thermometer than an on and off switch. So of course, in any society, at least, any society, this side of an extremely wide-ranging change to how societies work. Any society is going to respond more to powerful people than it does to less powerful people. But how much more? Right? How sensitive is the society to elite interests versus non-elite interests? That the extent to which it’s more sensitive to elite interests, that’s the extent to which elites have captured politics.

Chris Hayes: Yes. And I think it’s probably useful to talk about it in some of the sort of social economic classic context of literature which you cite in the book, like the development context, right? So like thesort of conundrum of, “Okay, we have a country and we’re going to send a lot of development dollars there because their infant mortality rate is super high,” or something like that, right?

And what ends up happening is like, lo and behold, like a sort of system of funneling that money and NGO complex gets set up in which like there’s a lot of people who seem to be making a lot of money in the context of this development universe. And the money is not actually getting to the folks that you want it to get to the most, and that’s like a classic example of elite capture in this kind of social science setting.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. It’s a classic example and it’s also the exact kind of example that lets us see why it’s a question of degree rather than on or off, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: We could just count how many of the aid dollars get to people versus get to elites. And we could be really precise about how captured the aid is.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: And we can just take that kind of perspective onto other political issues as well.

Chris Hayes: Yes. I mean, like Afghanistan, which we’ve done a number of podcasts about, it’s just insane. The degree to which like billions and billions and billions of dollars went into the pockets of like a very small group of elites and not into the actual material betterment of the millions of Afghan people. And the U.S., I should say, was complicit in that. I don’t want to make it sound like the evil bad cabal of Afghan elites were like entirely responsible for that. There’s a kind of complex that emerges in these kinds of client relationships, again, in the kind of classic elite capture situation.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Absolutely. And not just complicit in the elite capture of Afghan elites, but U.S. elites are involved in the capture as well. And so a lot of those dollars went to contractors who took those dollars right back to the DMV, real estate market, so on and so forth, right?

Chris Hayes: Right. So the model here is some kind of intervention, I mean, development is useful in this context, right? Because there’s a sort of sense in which, in the development analog, we can grasp the kind of perversion that is happening, right? Like, the idea is for the money, at least in the abstract, to go to people that need it. And then that kind of perversion happens, whereby elites sort of capture that money in sort of just material dollar cents, and it ends up in their pockets as opposed to the households where it’s needed by folks who are struggling.

You’re making an argument, there’s a parallel thing happening with the sort of rhetoric, social capital. What’s the thing that’s being captured here when we talk about the perversion of identity politics as you see it?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So I think I’d go even further than saying that there’s a parallel thing happening. I would say that there’s an identical thing happening —

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: — and we just analyze that identical thing in kind of different ways, right? So it’s kind of that age old conundrum of how different is power and money really. There’s some differences, but they seem to have a lot to do with each other. So at the end of the day, there’s just control over social life in general. And money, hierarchies of wealth gives us some insight to who has the most control over social life. But it’s not exactly the same thing.

We could think about hierarchies of attention, whose issues are being looked at, right? We can think about control over political agenda, who decides what a movement treat is important, a social movement treat is important, or a global south government treat is important, right? Who decides what legislation gets written about those kinds of things? And all of those hierarchies involve not totally equivalent casts of characters, but very similar, very overlapping cast of characters.

Chris Hayes: We’ll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: So you trace a lineage here. It’s interesting because Barbara Smith who’s a key figure in the lineage here, who was actually a guest on this podcast and we talked about the sort of origins of the term “identity politics.” Give us a little bit about where that actual term emerges from, and what context and work it’s doing in its original sense, and then we could trace through what has happened to it since then.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So yes, Barbara Smith was among the founders of the Combahee River collective, and their formation and their statement explaining their political positions, is aware of this modern term “identity politics” comes from. They were a collective of radical queer black women socialists, and they were thinking about the ways that different kinds of oppression, different kinds of unjust aspects of our one combined social structure affect people differently.

So homophobia, and the structure of capitalism and the class structure of it, racism, all those things, combined in particular ways for people like the women who formed this collective. And as I take it, the point of thinking about identity politics, was to say, those are things we should be able to keep track of when we’re doing politics, when we’re deciding what our political agendas are going to be, what’s of most importance to us, where we want to start thinking about how to get involved politically and what’s important to us.

We should think about where we are, how we are positioned in this system. We can get from that starting point to lots of other places. Maybe that will involve even coalition of work with people who are situated differently. But we start with an analysis of where we are rather than just joining in as supporting characters to a story that’s ultimately about someone else.

Chris Hayes: And then what do you think has happened to that original idea through the process of elite capture?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So I think through the process of elite capture, you have a bunch of people who are aware of the kind of terminology and the aesthetics associated with these radical movements, the radical movements of the day that the Combahee River collective back in the early ‘70s, were very much part of. And these radical ideas and radical aesthetics get brought to bear on what is, I think, a much simpler kind of social situation than the one they were confronted with, trying to change the basic political structure of the entire world, right?

If that’s not what you’re trying to do, and instead, you’re just trying to change the way that these boardroom meetings are going, you don’t necessarily need the kind of deep analysis of the way that the entire world works that identity politics was initially attached to, right? You might just use the phrase, and you might bring it to bear on the kinds of experiences that you face in your particular environments. Everybody is going to take these portable concepts and apply them to their particular situation.

What makes elites different is that when they do that, they have dollars and access to legacy media organizations, and the prestige of fancy diplomas and departments to circulate their version of the application of identity politics. So I don’t think it’s that there’s some secret ideological time bomb hidden in this manifesto. I think there’s just the regular sociological inequalities playing themselves out on the terrain of this concept of identity politics.

Chris Hayes: Why do you think this concept has gotten the purchase or been captured specifically by elites or powerful forces?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So part of what I stress in the book is that I don’t think much is exceptional about identity politics. I think the things that explain why identity politics has been co-opted also explains why our higher education system has been co-opted or governments.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: It’s the same kind of set of forces. But generally, there are two families of things, there are two kinds of things that make elite capture go. One of which is just inequality itself, right? The bigger the gap between elites and non-elites, the more society will disproportionately wrap itself around the interests and goals of elites. And the weaker that the constraints on elites are, organizations and actions like regulation, like unions, things that organize non-elites and give them power, the weaker that those things are, the more elite capture there is.

So if we want to explain why this version of identity politics is winning out, I think there’s not much more to say, or we need to say much more than pointing at upward redistribution and the weakening of organizations, the collapse of union density, the collapse of left organizations after the global war on the left that was part and parcel of the Cold War. All those kinds of historical phenomena, they explain not only why elite versions of identity politics are so prevalent, but why competing versions of thinking about identity aren’t as prevalent as they would be if there were a strong workers’ movement and a strong racial justice movement.

Chris Hayes: What’s an example of this sort of co-optation? Or what does it look like, right, these manifestations of it as you see it?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: I think the cultural and political debates around representation are often really clear examples of the elite capture of identity politics. There are different versions of the representation conversation. It’s very prevalent in terms of choosing elected officials. But I think even better examples are the arguments about representation in kind of culture and the arts.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Are there enough movies starring this kind of person, or enough fiction written by this kind of author, or starring this kind of protagonist, where those are of clear material interests to a few people who maybe are actors or directors or authors, and of some symbolic and personal interest to the wider group. But the level of attention that they get relative to other issues is difficult to explain in terms of the relative gravity of those issues versus mass incarceration and housing, and so on so forth.

Chris Hayes: How is this different? I mean, so there’s long standing sort of Marxist critique of what is called Identitarian politics, right? And the idea there is that, just to give a quick clause here, right, that the fundamental division of the society is a class division between capital and labor, that other emanations of that manifest in things like racism, et cetera. But the root cause is fundamentally around the sort of material interests, right, the kind of inherent conflict and material interests.

That it’s a sort of false consciousness to ascribe too much causal power or be too obsessed with these other forms of conflict without understanding that fundamentally at the core, its material. And this is a left Marxist critique that has been offered of identity politics for a long time, at least identity politics, how it might manifest in in the kind of casual language, not in its sort of original inception. So basically, is this a version of that or talk me through how this is a different vision than that.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: I think one thing that’s helpful to just remember off the bat is that the people who came up with identity politics were socialists.

Chris Hayes: Socialists?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right.

Chris Hayes: Okay. Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So they at least thought that it was a compatible thought with a broader commitment to materialism. And we can obviously argue about whether or not that’s the case, but it’s helpful to just start with recognizing as that as a historical fact. But I don’t think this is that criticism, because I think this way of looking at things is a little too invested in the idea of fundamentality. Even supposing it were true that class is the fundamental distinction that organizes social life, I don’t even know what that means, really. But supposing that were true, it wouldn’t thereby be true that class is the only thing you can talk about. And it’s the only thing that you should pay attention to politically or organize on the basis of politically.

It might be that the best way to win the class struggle is to meet people where they’re at in terms of thinking these other kinds of identities are important. And all of that was an “even if,” right, even if it turns out that class is the only, or the most important fundamental organizer of the world. I think the thought that matters is that the world is organized materially, and a lot of these other aspects of social organizations, social oppressions are fundamentally talking about material arrangements.

Chris Hayes: Right. So there’s these two areas of the book that I think are particularly relevant and in the sort of discourse, right? So one is you talk about this concept of epistemic deference, which I think is really interesting and like an important one. This is something that I have to say that I feel very torn on in two directions, right? So maybe just talk a little bit about what that term is, how it manifests, and why you’re sort of skeptical or critical of it.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So the term “epistemic deference,” epistemic just means knowledge essentially.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: I am in an academic philosophy department. But, yes, so how do we decide who knows? Who do we take our cues from and deciding what’s true?

Chris Hayes: Who has authority in truth claims?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. And identity has something to do with that.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: What people have experienced as individuals, as groups, as collectives has something to do with that. That’s been a very important insight that people have been thinking about for lots and lots of time. And that’s not something to be thrown out. But there are better and worse ways to respond to the fact that it matters how your position in society. It matters what you’ve experienced.

One way we could respond is by taking something that we should do on occasion, that might be a good thing to do in a particular circumstance and just treating that tactic as a strategy, right? So on occasion, maybe the thing to do is just listen to that person, right, that person over there. There’s a million times in our lives where that is just going to be the thing to do and that’s smart. But that act of deference, taking someone else’s perspective as the thing to do is action guiding, as authoritative, could just be something that we treat as a whole politics.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: I’m just going to ask women, or I’m just going to ask people of color, or that’s how I’m going to navigate the political world, at least as far as this or that political issue maybe, or maybe even in general. How I’m going to live my life is going to be decided by whichever authoritative people in the relevant identity group I decided to listen to. And I think that’s deficient for a lot of reasons. Maybe I’ll just start with a couple. One, I think it’s just so clearly rife for abuse, abuse by the person deferring and abuse by the people being deferred to.

Chris Hayes: Right. We’ll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: Kathy Barnette is a Black woman who is a right-wing Republican who just ran in the Senate primary. Her mother was raped when her mother was 11, I believe, and gave birth to Kathy Barnette at 12.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Wow.

Chris Hayes: Now, Kathy Burnette perspectival vision of the world is she comes by her views, honestly, right? This is not a person of privilege, whatever. She also has just like terrible politics, right? She thinks that like Islam is based on pedophilia. She was at the January 6 insurrection.

It would be insane to be like, well, she’s a Black woman who comes from the margin of society, just kind of kind of defer to her views on abortion, which is that, like, there should be no exceptions for abortion in the case of rape and incest. I’m giving a very extreme example of a kind of deferential politics that, honestly, when the rubber hits the road, no one actually believes.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right.

Chris Hayes: But there are different versions of it.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. No one actually believes it. And maybe more to the point, are there a lot of Black people in this country who would be out now Republicans? No. But is it also true that a particular left progressive perspective is the most common, totally, statistically dominant view among Black people? Also no, right?

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Like, it’s not that particularly uncommon, especially I’m very left. I’m black Marxist. Right? There’s a fringe view, just numbers wise, among, Blackfoot. Like, it wouldn’t make sense for someone who has views in that area to promote deference politics.

Chris Hayes: Right. And it’s also the case that, like, again, I say this a lot and I probably say too much on the podcast, but like, again, the raw numbers here, when you talk about like women and abortion, like there’s 150 million women in the U.S. Like, they have very different views on abortion. So again, like who you’re deferring to and what moment. So like, you’re talking about huge groups of people.

The other thing you’re talking about, and you talked about this in the book and in the profile of you that Zak Cheney writes, is that like, again, like again there’s so many complex like when you say you’re a Black Marxist, like there’s so many complex identity lines among any group and among any society, in New York City, between Black renters and Black homeowners, right? Like, they have pretty different interests. They might have very different views about crime and policing, between Black renters and black homeowners.

In fact, I think if you look at Eric Adams’ success and what neighborhoods he won, like, you see some of that manifesting. And so, to defer in that sense, like, well, it depends on which of those positionalities you’re occupying and deferring to.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. And all these complications point out the fact that at the end of the day, you can probably find somebody to defer to who believes what you actually believe, right?

Chris Hayes: This is a key Fox News thrill, right?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Like, no, they do it all the time, right?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Like, this is just like go find the person that has whatever positionality that is also like a right-wing fog or Republican and put them on the air.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Find the 10 people willing to wear “Blacks for Trump” shirts and put them right in front of the camera.

Chris Hayes: Exactly. Yes, right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: What’s also important about that is that the right-wing has their deference politics and standpoint epistemology when it suits them.

Chris Hayes: Totally. Yes, absolutely.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. But setting that aside for a second, it functionally means the whole kind of rhetorical strategy of deference is, I don’t want to say dishonest. I think a lot of people believe it when they’re applying it, but it is gameable. I think we should notice that, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Like, it’s gameable both on purpose and on accident, right? You might just pay more attention to the people who are saying the politics that you expect to come out of a particular kind of identity group and not even mean to be gaming it. But that’s, in fact, what’s kind of happening.

Chris Hayes: So I want to zero in because I think this actual question comes up a lot, because I think both of these things at the extremes are true. Like, one is that like a very extreme form of deference seems like gameable and also just like shuts down what we would call as like this normal substantive debate about issues of public input. So like people of all different backgrounds and positionalities can have views on matters of public input, whatever they are. Like, that’s kind of the way democratic civil society is going to work.

People are going to be differently affected by different policies, but we all, collectively, are all part of the public. So at one level, like you want to keep that going. At the other level, like there is this thing that happens where like a bunch of men start like lecturing about abortion rights, or like a bunch of white folks are like, “Oh, we should clean up the streets and arrest all these people.” And like, there is a really important positionality question about do you understand where you’re coming from in this conversation? And finding the kind of line between that, because sometimes, I find myself on both sides of it.

Like, I’ll watch someone in a debate online and be like, “You’re being a little oblivious about your own positionality here, and maybe you should, like, do a little more listening.” But then I’ll also see the other thing of like, we don’t need to hear from any men on this issue or something. And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know, I feel like actually we need to hear from everyone on this issue.” Like, that’s part of public debate. And you’ll see a lot of that in online discourse.

Like, you have nothing to say about this conversation. Person with positionality X, this is not your conversation. I see that all the time. And again, it bugs me. Now, maybe it just bugs me, because I’m a white race man so I feel excluded from it, which again, I want to acknowledge is a possibility. But then there’s also some part of me that’s like, I mean, again, I’m talking around in circles, but I do think this is hard stuff to wrestle down because it’s like I want that awareness of the positionality. I want to be aware of my own self, my own privilege, which is, again, a very loaded term in these conversations.

My own sort of the fact that like my perspective gives me certain limitations in terms of how I understand the effects of certain things, what I’ve quote, “lived experience,” right? This is another term that’s very popular. All of that stuff, like this sort of viewpoint, epistemology stuff, standpoint epistemology is like actually pretty important and like true also I think in like a higher sense.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Like, we talk about knowledge as being essentially a social product. But it’s so gamified and so like it can be invoked in these very like, “No, you have nothing to say here,” ways, these sort of Trump-Cardi ways that just feel a little unfair and also counterproductive.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. So standpoint epistemology, the idea that how your position affects what you know, that idea is just correct. It would be really weird if it wasn’t, and it would be really weird if we ignored it, right? People who have more experience with more stakes in how things work tend to do some finding out about how those particular things work.

I think the problem is when we try to take that up by making it into a moral calculus rather than by trying to figure out actions, figured out politics, that kind of structurally take that up. So rather than figuring out, morally, who gets to participate in every single conversation as some kind of categorical rule from the sky, we could think, well, what would we need to ask society? Answer this question, what a way of investigating this question of abortion access that only talk to cis men, would that be a collective process that made sense for answering that question? I think clearly no.

Chris Hayes: No. Right. But I also think there’s also limitations even to the first sort of question of I don’t want to get to, like, technically philosophical here, but just indulge me for a second, right. Because there’s actually like a deeper question about sort of like realism and relativism on the actual nature of truth, right? So the weak claim, which I think is true, is like will your position affect what you know? But there’s also a stronger claim which is like what you know from your positionality is actually a truth, like living my truth, right, which is actually a stronger claim about like how the world is?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And then I think it’s actually both people kind of believe it, but also leads to really contested ground discursively, like when we’re debating, right? So it’s when people say like speaking my truth, right, speaking my truth means I am speaking about my knowledge of my experience, right? But it’s also the case that like the frontline soldier and the trenches in World War I, or on the beach in Normandy has a truth, like a first person truth, that might not really be representative of like how the campaign is going.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Right? Like, at that point, it’s like they’re at the point of the spear. They’re the person who’s lived reality, is getting shot by a Nazi pillbox and the invasion is a disaster. But from the perspective of the general who’s overseeing it, like it’s not actually a disaster, they’re just like in a crappy situation. And so, again, this is all very complicated stuff, like how you experience the world isn’t how other people experience the world. And yet, we have to debate public politics and policies together across these lines of perspectival difference, I guess what is I’m saying.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. I think that’s also true. But notice, just to use your example, that the subject shifts in a lot of the times where we’re pretending that we’re having deep disagreements about what the world is like, right? So Lieutenant Jeff, who gets shot by the Nazis, and says, “This is a disaster,” might just be talking about his afternoon.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right?

Chris Hayes: Right. It is intuitively the case that it is a disaster.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Exactly. On the question of how Lieutenant Jeff’s afternoon went, he’s the authority.

Chris Hayes: Correct. Yes. That’s a good point. Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: But that’s just a different question from the question of how the campaign is going. And a lot of these conversations that we have around identity politics and authority involve those kinds of shifts.

Chris Hayes: Right. But that shift is exactly the one that people get spicy about, right?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Because if you try to say, well, we’re actually talking about a different thing, like your experience of this is true and valid, like you’ve got shot.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: I’m saying that the campaign is good. But I don’t want to hear that, right? Like, who are you to say that? And who are you to have the authority say that? And those perspectival shifts are precisely the terrain where it gets fraught.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes, absolutely. And I think part of what I’m after in the book is trying to say why we should be invested in making the distinction between those things. The example of Flint is one of the core examples that kind of makes this point, I think. The Flint water crisis, the pipes were contaminating the water and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality lied and said the water was fine, right?

So part of the knowledge question there is who’s right about the quality of the water, right? That has to do with some things people experience, like experiencing brown water coming out of the tap, right?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: And the question of whether or not we should believe them in what they’re saying.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: But the total political project isn’t just answering the knowledge claims about the water, or attending to the experience your claims about what it’s like to be poisoned, right? The total political project should include those, but maybe centrally includes unpoisoning the water, changing the pipe.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: And for that, you need to believe the people telling you that there’s a problem, but you also need to know some stuff about plumbing. And once you get to the kind of practical side of these things, it becomes very clear in the same way that once you’re a general trying to decide the course of the war and trying to decide whether or not to deploy troops, it becomes very clear what the limits of first personal experiential claims, knowledge and authority really are.

Chris Hayes: Totally. But then when you get to the other side of it, I mean, this is true in Mexico City, but I think it’s a question in Flint, right? Which is like, okay, let’s say you fix the pipes, right? Well, who says they’re fixed?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right.

Chris Hayes: Who trusts whether they’re fixed or not?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right.

Chris Hayes: And if it’s the same authorities who were telling you the first time that you are crazy, and are now telling you, “They’re fixed. Trust us,” and people were like, “I don’t trust you.” Then there’s this really deep crisis there about who’s right, basically. I think you and I would both agree that there is an answer to that, right?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Whether the water is clean or not is actually a thing that’s answerable. But you do end up in really, just as a political fact and a social fact, like in a difficult situation of trying to convince people that the water is fine.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. And I think that’s part of what’s so important about the insight of standpoint epistemology. That’s why it’s so important.

Chris Hayes: Right. Yes.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: It’s not just figuring out, from conversation to conversation, whose belief claims we’re going to take seriously. What we should be trying to figure out is these deep questions about what it is to organize society in a way that’s trustworthy. And it’s not just conversations that have to change to accomplish that, but it’s institutions.

Chris Hayes: Right. Or pipes or physical infrastructure, or whatever it is, right?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Absolutely, yes.

Chris Hayes: Yes. And there’s a particular part about the role that trauma plays in these, which I think is related and I think also really, to me, like that chapter really bit because, again, it’s like, I think that people’s trauma and experience of trauma has been very steamrolled, swept under the rug and ignored for a very long time. I think you really saw this, I think, in some of the me-too conversation where I think for a lot of men, I’ll just speak for myself, like, I think it was pretty overwhelming and profoundly upsetting to just hear like the ubiquity of trauma that women that I knew had experienced, that they had not talked about publicly before, but we’re in.

And it just seems like, again, you end up in a similar situation where it’s like we don’t want to go to some place for, like, “That’s not relevant. Don’t talk about it,” slipped under the rug. But then there’s also this place of like it is also not the end of the conversation in terms of whatever discursive stuff comes out of that trauma.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. In a way, this is the aspect of the book and the aspect of these ideas that I kind of grappled with the most, because all these intellectual questions we’ll spin our wheels, especially us philosophers. We’ll talk about those for forever, and maybe we’ll even get somewhere at. But what answers people will choose depends not just on these kind of stodgy intellectual questions, but these kind of deeply felt emotional questions about what pain we recognize, and how we recognize that pain, and how we respond to that. And those are doing a lot of driving of the conversation.

And I really agree with how you framed it right. The basic thing that’s happened is progress relative to a time in history, a time in culture where from the dominant perspective, trauma was ignored or sidelined. It is better now that’s being taken seriously. But I think that advance pushes us or gives us the possibility of making a further advance, right? What’s a good way of responding in trauma?

Now that we’ve gotten as far as recognizing that it’s there and that it matters, what do we do about it? And there, my answer to that is the same as my answer on the kind of stodgy intellectual question. It’s like what we have to do build networks. And it comes back to the aspect of the conversation that we were just at, right? This question about what the water quality is like, starts with a question about parts per million of lead or whatever.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: But ends up being a question at bottom about trust, about these deep social relationships, and the betrayal of the possibility of trust by lies about things like the quality of water and also much wider, systemic mistreatment. And what it would take to undo that would be some truth-telling about the parts per million in water, but about a lot of other things as well. It would take repairing a social relationship, which is the basis of believing what the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says.

And repairing that social relationship would be creating a society where we think the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is looking out for what our kids are drinking, is invested in the safety of what our kids are drinking. And that is a question that is about whose pain and suffering is taken to be important, who’s taken to be worthy of protection, and whether or not those things are happening, and that has everything to do with trauma. It has everything to do with responding to trauma.

Those are the preconditions for a political community that is also a moral community and not just a kind of zone of coercive control. And you have to build community to build that. And building community is, I think, trauma researchers have said, intimately related to processing trauma on a community level in a good and productive way.

Chris Hayes: Let’s talk a little bit about the sort of, just to clarify, because I think the critique of kind of like the thinness of certain kinds of representational politics cuts deep and I think lams at least for me. I want to give you an example and just to clarify your views on this. So let’s say Raytheon the defense contractor, right?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right.

Chris Hayes: In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd, they say, “We hear you. Our board is two white males and we are undertaking this new initiative in which we are diversifying the Raytheon board.” The board of Raytheon is now going to be much more diverse. It will be equal men and women, black, Latino, white, Asian, Pacific, Islander, gay and straight, et cetera.

So there’s three different ways of viewing this, right? And I’m curious which of these three is your view because I think I see these get mixed up. So one is all things being equal. It’s slightly better marginally, but slightly better for the world if Raytheon has a diverse board. That’s one view. Another view is it makes no difference.

And the third view is that it’s actually worse, insofar as there’s insidiousness to the performance of this thing by Raytheon, that both kind of like gives them unearned social capital in the pursuit of what is fundamentally I think, to your mind and probably mine of not defensible project, which is selling weapons. And also is sort of bad for the actual, like, real vision of multiracial democracy, et cetera. So which of those three are you?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: It’s an interesting way to put it. They should have said, “We see you and hear you because we also build surveillance technology.” It’s a weird combination of one and three.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: So the basic thing that I think is maybe a combination of all three of them. The basic thing that I think is, look, it is symptomatic of something good that Raytheon is doing this, right?

Chris Hayes: By the way, it’s a thought experiment. Just to be clear here, I don’t know what Raytheon’s exact word is.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right, right.

Chris Hayes: For anyone listening, it’s just an example.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. If Raytheon were to do that, it would be symptomatic of something good, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: It would demonstrate that the ruling class feels that, at least aesthetically, they have to hew to a new moral consensus.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: And that new moral consensus is the one that was fought for —

Chris Hayes: Correct. Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: — in blood —

Chris Hayes: Right.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: — over generations.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: And so I think if they feel they have to hide behind the banner of diversity, then good. I’m glad they feel like that and I would celebrate that. I don’t think the consequences of diversifying the board are likely to matter much, except to the few people that get the income and the stock options. But I do think there’s an open question about who will win the kind of battle for class consciousness over the coming years. And that’s the kind of question for historians a hundred years from now to unpack.

Chris Hayes: You mean on the third question of like, is it fundamentally insidious in a way that’s like more destructive than whatever small marginal gain it produces?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. Because ultimately, it’s a question of whether or not it works, right? Does it, in fact, convince people of the Raytheon version of identity politics? Or does a more robust class conscious, politically serious version of identity politics take the reins? And the second option, it’s unclear that Raytheon diversifying its board would have a negative political effect. Maybe it would even have a positive political effect because all the people who are pushing the serious version of identity politics get to use that as a demonstration that the arms control companies of the world are serious.

Chris Hayes: I mean, to me, a lot of this comes down to, to get back to this sort of question about an alternate model of politics and this sort of the thin version, the sort of co-opted version of identity politics, the very thin version of representational politics, right, is the difficulty of taking these claims seriously, and then building coalitions across lines of difference, which is actually just like very hard work.

I mean, again, it’s like whatever discursive position you take on all this and this sounds this is not a radical view. This is just a very, like Normie view, which is like the cliche about politics being addition, not subtraction, like really is true. Like, you want to get your posse as big as possible so that it’s bigger than theirs, so that you can build power. And to the extent that you’re focusing on the difference within the coalition, in the course of the project of bringing it together, that’s one thing. But if you’re focusing on it to the sort of point of whatever ordering of experience or sort of tethering the discourse, like it’s hard to build up coalitions out of that.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Yes. I think it depends on what use you’re making of differences. If like you said, the reason at pointing out differences is to cleave up the people who could otherwise potentially fit into a coalition together, right, to emphasize the fact that we’re not the same as them, then, yes, I see that being a difficult basis for coalitional politics.

But if the point of identity politics, the point of thinking about identity is to think about, “Here are all the things that we need to achieve in order to achieve justice, right? If we share all the money, but keep patriarchy, that would be bad, right?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Right. And we shouldn’t want to do that, and that’s not a real coalition, right? If we see identity politics as aiming at that kind of clarity at what we should be trying to put together, not only would I not say that it’s bad for coalitions, I would say it’s necessary to have the kind of coalition worth having.

Chris Hayes: Yes, absolutely. Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University. This year, he’s published two books, “Reconsidering Reparations” and the book that we were just discussing, “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else),” both published this year. And if you found today’s conversation as stimulating and provocative and fascinating as I did, you should definitely check out those books. Femi, it’s great to have you on. Thank you so much.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Thanks a lot for having me.

Chris Hayes: All right. Well, I love when we do podcasts that are philosophy podcasts. I don’t know, I mean, I love philosophy. I love talking philosophy. I sometimes wonder like, as I’m in the middle of these conversations, have we taken too far flight of concrete things to levels of abstraction? But I don’t know, maybe not, let me know.

We’d love to hear your feedback. Let me know what you thought. Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. And also, be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod on your TikTok tap.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway, Tiffany Champion and Brendan O’Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going tonbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway, Tiffany Champion, Brendan O’Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.

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