The Political Isn’t Personal

In a world where the political is personal, we signal our political goodness — and hunt for political badness.

Illustration by Christoph Kleinstück

Are you still saying “people of color” rather than “BIPOC”?

Watch your language, which is literally violence. But the worst thing you can do to the planet is have a baby. Actually, it may be even worse to serve up a big holiday turkey, especially if you then posted a photo online; this is called “meatposting,” and it’s apparently even worse than eating meat, because when you Instagram the experience, you’re perpetuating the idea that eating meat is cool, despite its deleterious environmental effects.

Judging and being judged gets exhausting. Perhaps you think of sports and entertainment as an escape from the stressful realm of politics. Wrong again. You must stan only teams and celebrities with the correct political opinions who are also taking the correct individual actions. That would definitely not, for example, include Kyrie Irving, the NBA star who has made headlines for rejecting the COVID vaccine, and especially not Tom Brady, the football GOAT who is a personal friend of Donald Trump.

You’re probably getting the message that, no matter how personal or inconsequential it might seem, everything you do and say is political these days. This emphasis on the politics of the minute is burdensome to most of us, who are just out here trying to get through our day. But more to the point, though none of us is perfect, we’re probably not the right targets of collective ire. Beating up on ourselves and our fellows for individual transgressions is a distraction from the people who are really causing the world’s problems: the ruling class.

Even worse, this hyperfixation on the political implications of each individual action blinds us to our collective potential.

Indeed, a study by a Wellesley College political scientist found that white Americans with the highest levels of concern about racial injustice and inequality ranked “listening to people of color” and “educating myself about racism” as more important than “bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials” or voting.

Nowadays, it’s pretty clear that we are taking our politics far too personally.

Radical Origins

It’s worth remembering that the idea that the “personal is political” started off as a brilliant insight. During the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, women gathered in “consciousness-raising” groups to talk about their lives. Discussions of bad sex, housework, and unwanted pregnancy helped women to understand their collective lack of power, leading them to take action and organize for social change.

Redstockings founder Kathie Sarachild wrote that these early consciousness-raising sessions led to women “doing something politically about aspects of our lives as women that we never thought could be dealt with politically, that we thought we would just have to work out as best we could alone.” Many of the advances of second-wave feminism, including abortion rights, access to birth control, and the integration of certain professions, were helped by such consciousness-raising, and the process directly produced some of the period’s classic feminist books, like Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, both published in 1970.

The insight that the personal was political informed the entire feminist movement, from Jane O’Reilly’s essay in Ms. magazine, “Click! The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” to protests demanding the Equal Rights Amendment, to women organizing against rape. In the context of second-wave feminism, “the personal is political” meant that those problems that women felt they were suffering alone, whether it was unequal pay, lack of access to male-dominated fields (from medicine to construction), or domestic violence, were not individual failings but consequences of a patriarchal system, problems that demanded collective action.

Of course, given the individualistic ethos of consumer society, the concept began to devolve quickly. The structure and insight of the consciousness-raising group was rapidly appropriated by hippie gurus in “encounter groups,” as the middle classes understandably sought to free themselves from the alienation of bourgeois society.

But rather than working to build new economic and social arrangements, they sought to liberate themselves as individuals. These new ideas about consciousness-raising were also quickly absorbed by Madison Avenue, which deployed focus groups to reach similar insights about women — not for organizing, of course, but to sell products to them.

The Morass of Moralism

Today, the idea that the personal is political has devolved further still. As a culture, instead of believing that our individual experiences, shared by others, can form the basis for collective action, we now believe the political is personal, a neoliberal perversion of an idea that was designed to be collective.

As an idea, “the personal is political” helped women to understand that an abusive boyfriend or a sex-pest boss was neither their own fault nor their problem to bear alone, but rather a political problem with political solutions. But the notion that the political is personal does the reverse. It takes our political impulse, our desire to analyze the world in political terms and change it, and turns it inward.

In a world where the political is personal, it becomes important to perform your essential political goodness. Put an “In This House, We Believe” sign on your lawn. Kick off that corporate board meeting with a land acknowledgment. These may sound harmless, but the corollary to all this individual goodness is the hunt for badness. When the political is personal, we must work to identify those individuals who embody everything that is politically bad — perhaps someone who has made a “bad tweet” — and punish them as such.

Lately, the spectacle of pile-ons is almost daily in left-wing circles, despite a widespread acknowledgment that they do little to advance our politics. Recently, one left-wing podcaster, for example, allowed on Twitter that he found the comedian Dave Chappelle to be . . .  funny. The backlash was fast and furious; he has since quit the platform after wing nuts threatened violence to his wife and children. Animated by this spirit of finding the bad people and denouncing them, the Twitter pile-on has led to job loss, broken friendships, and extensive mental distress.

But in cancel culture, it’s all justified because, as Natalie Wynn has observed on her YouTube show “ContraPoints,” it’s not only the action or offense that’s bad and must be canceled — it’s you as a person. While some strains of Christianity urge us to “love the sinner but hate the sin,” adherents of “the political is personal” take a more Protestant view: you’re predestined to be good or bad, and your actions merely demonstrate whether or not you’re part of the natural elect.

On social media, the elect enjoy rewards, in the form of likes, for condemnations of the bad. And the bad are punished, in the form of quote tweets, for observations or remarks that show just how bad they are. Every belief system has its rituals, and these are the rituals that nourish the “political is personal” worldview.

The moralistic drift of this type of politics is deeply anti-collective and anti-majoritarian, since goodness is highly individual. One might even look at it as a competitive, “positional good” — a term that, in economics lingo, refers to a thing that has value because it is rare, as the title of Catherine Liu’s book on the politics of the professional-managerial class, Virtue Hoarders, suggests. Like toilet paper in a pandemic, individual goodness in this climate is difficult to come by and won’t last long.

The Personal Can Still Be Political

Encouragingly, however, the old, collective consciousness-raising spirit of “the personal is political” is still alive.

Similarly, the mass socialist electoral campaigns of recent years helped many to understand — and confront — structural factors behind their individual problems. When now congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was, in her words, “a sexually harassed waitress” who did not make a living wage or have health care, she has said that she didn’t believe she really deserved those things. She had internalized the ideology of neoliberalism: if you’re poor, it’s because of some individual failing on your part. You simply haven’t succeeded.

Bernie Sanders, by demanding a different kind of world, she said, made her understand that she was a human being who deserved a comfortable life — that the struggles she faced were not due to her personal failings but to those of the system she now fights to transform.

The best political leaders in the socialist movement right now are those who, like Sanders (or AOC herself), help people connect their personal experiences to a political movement and a political solution. In fact, it’s as good a definition of political organizing as any.

Tenant organizers talk to renters about their landlords and help them move from the powerless feeling that they have to settle for a leaky ceiling to the realization that everyone else in the building has similar complaints. That’s how rent strikes — and any collective actions — happen, and that’s how people fight the ownership class and win. It’s the only way. When organizers for Medicare for All talk to people about their individual health care woes, they begin to realize that for-profit health care is ruining their lives. The personal still is political, and the insight still moves and politicizes us.

But that does not mean that your preference for one Marvel movie over another is political, nor that canceling individual people is doing political work. It’s only as part of a movement that we ever make any political change.

As climate activist Bill McKibben once told me, “People are always asking, ‘What can I do as an individual to save the planet?’ I always say, ‘The best thing you can do is be less of an individual.’”