The 2016 election was contested based on “identity politics”. The 2020 election will also turn on identity politics along with other factors such as the economy. As polarization based on identity has become salient in our politics and society, a spate of excellent research explains its origin and characteristics.
This article provides a brief synthesis of approaches, which together provide a clear view of the history and character of our politics, including:
- populism of the left and right,
- re-alignment of the Parties since the 1960’s based on policies and party composition based on race,
- ideological divides – the politicization of language around race, taxes and big government
- the increasing emphasis of Democrats on group-coalition politics (group interests) as opposed to general economic well-being,
- increased sorting of our Country along a range of dimensions, exacerbating political divisions,
- identity politics as an outcome of sorting, and its emergence as a determinant of voter behavior,
- identity as tribalism, and implications for inter-group political conflict,
- is there a way out?
First, let’s clarify the concept of “populism”, so we understand its relation to other topics below. Populism gets its name from its “anti-elitist” roots as a form of rebellion against the establishment. Populism in the US has historically come in a “leftist” variety and a “rightist” variety. In the 2016 election, the rise of Bernie Sanders was seen as a form of “leftist populism”, and the rise of Donald Trump as a form of “rightest populism”.
In the US, leftist populism has been characterized by proposals to “lift up the people” through reforms, some of which historically have been adopted by mainstream parties. At the dawn of the 20th century, William Jennings Bryon advocated direct elections of Senators, graduated taxation and government reform, all of which became part of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 proposals for universal health care, taxation on the rich and free higher education, have filtered to varying extent, into the mainstream of the Democratic Party, in the current 2020 Presidential contest.
“Rightist” populism, which is what we will focus on here, is driven by identity politics, based on defining who a nation’s “real people” are. For Donald Trump, Dreamers who have spent their lives in the US are not “real Americans”, nor is the Press, nor are elites who are not part of his base. These elites are painted as incompetent and corrupt (“drain the swamp”). The mythology (“Make America Great Again”) is a moral reconstruction catering to Christian and white identity with a past (the 1950’s?) when the status quo was stable, and not to a particular set of policies. Because this construction of “real America” is fluid, and is based on loyalty, rightist populism often veers into politics of personality and reverence for the leader. When the cult of the leader is so strong that guard-rails of democracy are abused by that leader without consequences, rightist populism can veer into Fascism, as the rule of law crumbles. This has happened in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and Russia.
Often rightist populism is tacitly supported by and partially co-opted by conservative current elites (in this case, the Republican Party). For example, Donald Trump’s tax cut came directly from the Republican playbook. It primarily benefits the rich and does not help the finances of his base. Its primary long-term impact, besides a short-term Keynesian shot in the arm to the economy, has been a build-up of the National Debt ($1 trillion/year deficits which are growing) which will need to be paid for eventually by the public at large. Trump paints it as a populist bill, but even among his base this particular effort fell flat, as the benefits went primarily to the rich.
While the rightist populist leader is influenced by the existing conservative elites, the leader exerts a reciprocal influence on those elites. Under Trump, for example, the Republican Party has abandoned its support of free trade and fiscal restraint.
An enabler for Trump has been his appeal to underlying racial themes as part of his populism; here we discuss the role of race in American politics in a historic context. Trump did not originate these racial queues; he adopted it and made it salient as an issue in 2016.
Race as an Underlying Theme in American Politics and as the Source of Party Re-Alignment
Many political scientists have traced the origins of current party politics, and underlying attitudes about government, to the 1960’s, when changing racial policies of the Northern branch of the Democratic Party, led to the re-alignment of the two Parties along geographic and racial lines.
Prior to Lyndon Johnson’s push to pass civil rights legislation, culminating in the The Voting Rights Act and the Equal Rights Act of 1965, neither political party was considered much more progressive than the other on racial issues. In fact, the Democratic Party, home of a very conservative Dixiecrat Southern wing, was often more conservative than the Republicans on civil rights and other social issues. Tax and spend discipline for the entire Federal budget, was enforced by the Southern wing of the Democratic Party.
Barry Goldwater, in 1964, in defeat as candidate for President, was the author of a new strategy to abandon the Republican Party’s traditional support for broadening equality between the races legislatively, in favor of support for State’s rights over equal protection and in opposition to the Lyndon Johnson Democratic agenda, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Medicaid, model cities, rent supplements, and War on Poverty programs which were painted as government bloat, redistributing benefits from the middle classes to the poor. Goldwater did not oppose racial equality directly, but instead opposed expansion of government, erosion of State’s rights, and social engineering, which was a result of these programs.
Goldwater opposed Supreme Court’s programs to end desegregation through busing as an unconstitutional expansion of federal over State’s rights. As a reward for these policies, Goldwater, won the deep South, while losing the rest of the Country, thus originating a new Southern strategy for Republicans. Republican leadership, from that election on, adopted the 1964 playbook of resisting expansions of programs to end racial disparities. This furthered the Republican goal to shift the South away from Democrats and to their Party.
It took a number of years for the South to become Republican (Party affiliations are a strong from of identity) but by the 1980’s the transformation was complete.
Republicans Peel Away the Working Class from Democrats
Republicans, starting with Nixon, worked to peel away the Northern working class from the Democratic Party. Larger government and the taxes to support larger government, were painted as resulting from expansion of the welfare state. Anti-tax rhetoric from the Republican Party increasingly gained support with the working classes, as the “tax and spend” label was applied to Democrats with great effect.
Middle-class white voters were influenced by Nixon’s attack on the “liberal elite”, who were painted as bureaucrats supporting social engineering. Supreme Court rulings mandating forced busing, Rowe versus Wade, a wave of assassinations and continued involvement in Vietnam increased social tension within the Country. As culture wars grew in the 1960’s, as anti-War protests swelled, universities and the media were also associated by the Nixon administration, with “the liberal elite”.
The Democratic Party, a party of coalition (as opposed to the Republican Party, a party of ideology), aided the Republican efforts in the 60’s and 70’s to peel off the working class, through embracing distinct sub-groups, such as the black power movement, gays and lesbians, and the more broadly based woman’s movement. Between 1968 and 1972, party reforms resulted in the ascendancy of the left wing coalition of the Party, as evidenced by the nomination of George McGovern in 1972. Through this reform process, the Democratic Party weakened its connections to its traditional Blue-collar base and instead became a coalition of a white-collar elite, newly enfranchised Black voters, and specific identity and issue-oriented groups.
Finally in the 1990’s, the Democratic elites threw in their lot with globalism and big business, furthering their separation from the working class. As the working class was increasingly less protected from global and technological trends, and did not have clear representation in the System, conditions ripened for populists to exploit this gap. After the Great Recession of 2008, as those responsible for the recession went unpunished, potential exploitation of this gap moved to a reality with the Tea Party, as explained below.
Politicization of Language Around Race, Taxes and Big Government
As a cultural backlash to the Democratic identity politics took place, Nixon and Reagan were able to create a rich vocabulary to attack the “liberal elites”. Nixon adopted rhetoric to win over the “Silent Majority”, playing on resentment against busing, redistribution of wealth, and rejection of traditional American patriotic norms.
Spiro Agnew called the Democratic elites “thieves, traitors and perverts”, “permissivists”, “the garbage of society”, and “radical liberals”. He called the press “nattering nabobs of negativism”. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
Reagan associated Democrats with “higher taxes”, “big government”, “quotas”, “reverse discrimination”, and “welfare queens”. Through mass media Republicans drove a wedge between working classes and Democrats by objecting to “giveaway” government, in the process sacrificing tax revenues government has needed for long term solvency.
Increased Sorting of the Elites from the Populace, Sorting Within the Populace; and the Emergence of Extreme Partisanship
There are spate of books which analyze the increasing sorting and re-alignment of the electorate and society at large from the 1970’s through the Obama presidency, and the emergence of extreme partisanship which is built on these divisions.
“Coming Apart”, “The State of While America, 1960-2010” by Charles Murray, illustrates changes since 1960 which have isolated the elites who run large businesses, government, the press and our educational institutions from all other Americans, and especially the white middle class. In 1960, Murray illustrates that the top 5% of the economic stratus was solidly rooted and grew up among the American middle class in small towns, in the same churches and with modestly more wealth.
Fast forward to 2010 and Murray shows an elite that is increasingly isolated, and part of a class. The top 5% (and especially the top 1%) became much wealthier compared to the middle class than in 1960, as inequality has widened. Secondly, elites increasingly separated themselves from the middle class through choice of neighborhoods, and cultural choices around education, schools for their children, their media sources, religious affiliation, etc.
What really separate the new elite from the rest of the population, as Murry puts it, is “brains”, and the increasing premium their knowledge commands in the marketplace, separating them from the rest of the population. Inter-generational mobility in the US has been reduced, as those in the top 5% pass on their habits and education to their children, and dominate the ranks of the top universities in the US, This separation is now also geographic, as the top 5% dominate and live in the wealthiest zip codes, referred to by Murray as “super-zips”. These zip codes tend to be urban, on the coasts or in university towns, and are hubs for high-tech growth and global companies. Another form of self-separation, is that spouses of the 5% tend to be equally sorted with less intermixing between college and non-college educated. And the top 5% provides more stable child rearing practices as well, and pro-active preparation for their children to succeed through elite schooling and emphasis on achievement. Divorce rates among the 5% are far lower than the norm.
Murray shows that for white non-Elites from 1960 to 2010, the picture is negative. Increasing levels of divorce, rising levels of never marrieds (mostly men), and children living with a single parent, have grown dramatically over these years. Unemployed white males aged 30 – 49 (who should be working), have increased three-fold to 8% in the early 2000’s. Religious practice has decreased, with those who remain religious, more likely to be fundamentalist. Civic life has deteriorated as isolation has increased. All in all, the average middle class citizen has been subject to more strain, and less family life and support than in 1960. Of course, this means that the prospect for the advancement of their children is lower than in 1960, as the avenues for and preparation for advanced education have decreased.
Political Sorting Among the Populace
Charles Murray describes a gulf between the generally liberal elites, increasingly located in super-zips on the coasts, and the rest of the population. Related is the political and cultural sorting within the electorate, resulting in partisanship which has grown dramatically from the 1960’s to the present.
Alan Abramowitz, the “The Great Alignment”, argues that “polarization [in the American political system] is not just an elite phenomenon. Dramatic changes in American society and culture have divided the public into opposing camps – those who welcome the changes and those who feel threatened by them. “This growing division with the public expresses itself in many parallel rifts – racial and ethnic, religious, cultural, geographic – and it has produced mistrust of anyone in the other camp. Democratic and Republican elites are hostile towards members of the other party primarily because Democratic and Republican voters are hostile toward members of the other party”.
Abramowitz (and other writers) have explored the dimensions of this extreme partisanship, in which cultural sorting along racial, religious, educational, and geographic lines has exacerbated political sorting:
- The parties are divided racially, as a result of the great re-alignment in the 1960’s and 1970’s as the Republicans took over the South, and since then as the white working class has gradually abandoned the Democratic Party. The non-white share of Democratic Party voters was estimated to be 45% in the 2016 election, according to ANES data. One example of how skewed this division is – Obama lost the white male vote by 20% in 2012, and still won the election.
- Cultural characteristics and views reinforce the divide, as opposition to abortion and affiliation with Evangelical or born-again Christians mark one as a Republican, while gays and women tend to vote Democratic.
- There is an education divide as well, with post-college and college educated voters tending Democratic, whites with less formal education tend to be Republicans.
- Geographic sorting has occurred with re-alignments, such that the Republicans dominate rural areas, and Democrats dominate urban areas.
Political sorting, following the trend of cultural sorting, has increased:
- Straight ticket voting has grown over the past two decades to the point where Presidential votes determine which Senator or House member will be re-elected or elected that year, regardless of their individual records.
- Party supporters rarely stray from voting with their party, and this includes independents who lean towards a party. These voters are generally not independent; they just call themselves independent.
- Ideologically gaps have increased mainly due to rightward shifts in the Republican Party towards a belief in smaller government and lower taxes, while Democrats, especially recently, believe in a renewed role for government, and taxes to support those programs. (There is an inconsistency in Republican ideology and its distrust of big government as opposed to strong support among the Republican rank and file for increases in specific programs such as Medicare and Social Security.)
- In general, strongest support for Democrats resides among those who have positive views of the changes which have occurred in the last few decades such as increasing diversity of the US population as immigration swelled, growth of alternative lifestyles and government protection for those lifestyles, and globalization. The Republican Party draws its strongest support from groups with negative views of these same changes, such as older votes, religious Christians, those without a college degree, and opponents of large government.
- Over the past two decades, negative partisanship, that is, dislike for the opposing party, has grown dramatically, as each party views the other’s members as foreign to themselves in values and social characteristics.
The Emergence of Identity Politics as the Key to the 2016 Election
In the run up to the 2016 election, Identity Politics evolved both on the left and the right, laying the ground for Donald Trump’s embrace of identity as the key issue for the 2016 election.
Francis Fukayama has written an excellent book, “Identity, The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment”, which traces the historical evolution of thinking on identity from the Greeks (who originated the notion of “thanos”, the need for recognition), to Luther who in opposition to the Catholic Church promoted the individual’s unmediated relationship to God, to Locke and Hobbes “social contract” where individual identity is based on the freedom to pursue happiness and accumulate wealth, to Rousseau, the father of modern identity politics, who believed, in Fukayama’s words, “that individuals have a true or authentic identity hiding within themselves that is somehow at odds with the role they are assigned by their surrounding society.” It was Rousseau who postulated that this true self was good; it was society which reduced the potential of the inner self. (In contradiction, Rousseau also postulated the idea of the “general will”, a contradictory notion to the true self, which ideologically justified the massacres of the French Revolution.)
In the years leading to 2016, the left pursued identity-based policies which the right saw as diluting the independence of US policy and US national identity:
- At the extremes, the left embraced loyalty to the global community as opposed to primary loyalty to the Nation State and fellow citizens.
- The Democratic Party, prior to 2016, increasingly focused on expanding specific group rights, reflecting its makeup as a “group interest” party. But these groups were increasingly fragmented; the Party struggled to find a message with broad appeal to middle class voters.
- Commitments to global trade agreements and the Paris Agreement on Global Warming (which actually allows for flexible commitments by its members) provided a foil for right wing populists painting a picture of growing US global obligations without benefits to the US.
- Multiculturalism was tested by the Arab Spring and Syrian conflicts, which produced waves of refugees, and a debate about the “obligations” of European Countries and the US to take in Middle-Eastern immigrants. In the US, Obama’s promises to let in 10,000 Syrians (a small number) after careful vetting, incited powerful political debates, stirring up Americans who were opposed to Muslim immigration.Within the Country, multiculturalism celebrating diversity, but not as a route to the “melting pot” promised by earlier European waves of immigration. A vision of the end point – an American society united in its diversity – was not explicitly spelled out by multiculturalism, which celebrated diversity in itself.
- On college campuses, identity politics reflected an ever more individualistic search for identity in opposition to traditional lifestyle choices. Gender identity became a hot topic, as students explored whether they were truly male or female; this was posed as a choice each person has to make. These individual struggles evolved into the fight for transgender rights, impacting a very small percentage of the population. Obama became a champion of transgender rights by issuing executive orders protecting transgender rights in the military. The issue was debated at the State level, in regard to bathroom rights for transgender individuals. Unsurprisingly, this debate provoked a backlash from traditionalists, and those who felt this debate was an inappropriate focus diverting attention from more pressing issues.
- In 2015 and 2016, groups such as “Black Lives Matter”, an effort to end police brutality and make Americans aware of challenges of being Black and more recently the “Me-Too Movement” to end abuse of women and foster equal treatment of women in the workplace, have galvanized supporters and resisters on the Right to the demand for change and recognition of new rights for specific groups.
Through the Obama years, the stage was set for a backlash (justified or not), by who those who felt changes in the US population and global order over the past 40 years did not benefit them, who felt ignored by leaders in both Parties, and who were galvanized to resist both the ever more splintered forms of identity fostered by the left and a global identity based on cosmopolitanism rather than local or national roots.
Identity Politics of the Right
Changes which have left the American working classes more vulnerable economically (globalization, marginalization of unskilled workers), socially (see Charles Murray references above), and ultimately politically as demographic trends toward a non-white plurality have accelerated, have laid the conditions for identity politics of the right. As the left has pushed its version of identity politics, either based on global cosmopolitanism or the individual’s quest for identity including sexual identity, the right, with great effect since the Obama Administration, has pushed its version of identity.
Unlike identity movements of the left, those of the right, not just in the US but around the world, are nationalistic in nature, defining what the “true nature” of the people. In the case of the US, rightist identity defines what it means to be a “true American”, stigmatizing out-groups who do not meet the definition, and increasingly, anyone on the left who disagrees with their vision.
Donald Trump did not invent these impulses, but recognized them (unconsciously or consciously) and took advantage of them. The origins of rightist identity, as the salient issue defining a certain portion of the Republican base and influencing the 2016 election, arose through The Tea Party.
The Tea Party – A Spontaneous Uprising
During the Obama presidency, the Tea Party sprang up spontaneously as a protest not only to the Obama administration, but to the Republican party leadership itself. In their excellent book, “Change They Cannot Believe In, Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America”, published in 2013, Parker and Barreto provide substantial research to show that the elites who became the voice of the Tea Party, and who represented its goals as conservative stewardship (ie. prevent excessive government spending), did not speak for its members and sympathizers.
Rather among its base members (“sympathizers”) the Tea Party represented a radical shift to restore the control of white, native-born Christians over the culture, narrative and government of the US. The Tea Party was created out of an anxiety that political and social dominance of the white majority “super group” had been lost, fueling anxiety and a resolve to “take back their country”. Barreto and Parker show that reactionary movements like the Tea Party, have a rich history in the US, as witnessed by the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, “Know Nothing” movement prior to the pre-Civil War, the growth of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920’s, and the John Birch Society. (This ties neatly to our discussion of “populism of the right” at the top of this article.)
Tea Party supporters, fearing the loss of their group power, are vulnerable to conspiratorial beliefs about perceived opponents. Tea Party supporters were widely supportive of theories that President Obama was a “Muslim” socialist, here to undermine America and institute sharia law, and that Obama was not born in the US (Donald Trump’s birther theory).
Research makes clear that Tea Party activists were not primarily disadvantaged. Members of the Tea Party were generally of above average income, white, Christian and often evangelical, middle-aged or older, and of average education (generally not college educated). Tea Party supporters were found to have certain characteristics:
- Scored high on measures of racial resentment and social dominance orientation.
- Tea Party supporters were not strict conservatives; for example they were not fiscal conservatives.
- Likely to express negative, strong feelings towards out-groups such as immigrants and ascendant minority groups, and those outside the country.
The Rise of Donald Trump
As the reader can now tell, Donald Trump did not “invent” his followers; his followers were there “in plain sight”.
In the book “Identity Crisis” (Sides, Tesler, Vavreck) use empirical data to show that Trump’s base responded to two parts of his message:
- On economic issues, Trump supporters responded favorably to his unique (in the Republican field) message to preserve Social Security and Medicare, tax the rich more (a promise which Trump broke) and in general, to his more liberal economic proclamations which were not those of the Republican elite,
- On cultural issues, Trump attacked outsiders, stoking resentment towards Muslims, immigrants and poor blacks, while celebrating white identity. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” harked back for his followers to a time when political control and culture were aligned with the mores of white Christian leadership, without the complications of globalism, cosmopolitanism, political correctness, and sexual identity.
Trump’s supporters were not those who bore the brunt of the Great Recession, but they did view the economy through a group partisan lens, believing that fellow group members were disadvantaged by overall economic and social changes.
Trumps’ Loyal Base:
In the book “The Great Revolt” by Zito and Todd, the authors interview a number of Trump supporters and categorize them into various types. What does come across in interviews in this book, is the personal and cultural allegiance to Trump of his base, including attraction to his lack of ideology, bluntness, business background rather than any policies. While the authors cite rational reasons for attraction to Trump, in the interviews the attraction seems far more personal and associated with Trump’s criticism of elites and current politicians in both parties (“drain the swamp” often came up) rather than agreement with specific policies or outcomes. Many said they will vote for him in 2020 as long as he keeps fighting the establishment, whether his record is positive or negative, highlighting the loyalty of the Trump base.
Trump’s main tactic has been to divide the American people into “in” and “out” groups. Those who are not loyal to him espouse “fake news”, the independent press is “the enemy of the people” (a phrase used in fascist countries); Mexico “doesn’t send us their best”; former leaders were “stupid”; all policies from the Obama presidency were discarded, seemingly because they were Obama’s policies; US allies were insulted; international institutions and treaties were belittled and abandoned; former trade deals were all made by idiots; those who disagree with him are “traitors”. He stressed “winning” over and over, a tactic designed to appeal to “in group” members.
Tribalism: The Politics of Us and Them
Increasingly, the US has become a nation in the grip of two tribes, as Trump has exacerbated already existing differences into ever greater rejection and dislike of the other side.
The tribal mentality encourages an “us versus them” mentality and this is borne out by political scientists who have empirically shown that each side has more and more dislike for the other. As documented above, the sorting in our society, which separates urban from rural, secular from Christian religious, gun-controllers versus gun-owners, pro-choice versus anti-abortion, college educated versus non-college educated, liberal versus conservative, has eliminated most of cross-cutting associations that moderate political partisanship.
As whites lose their majority status in the US, they (67% according to one survey) feel they are discriminated against and oppressed. Likewise, the left has gotten more defensive as Trump’s aggressive language and actions disrupt liberal institutions and groups. Dislike for the other side has spiraled during the Trump presidency, although this polarization has been in the making for many decades.
It is important to realize that as political tribal identity has merged with personal identity that winning or losing for the tribe becomes more important than policy. As an example, we have seen that Republican Party policy under Donald Trump has undergone a sea change, absorbed by both the base and the party elites. Fiscal restraint, a hallmark of Republican policy beliefs for decades, has gone by the wayside under Donald Trump. Research supports the view that “voting behavior is primarily a product of inherited partisan loyalties, social identities and symbolic attachments. Over time, engaged citizens may construct policy preferences and ideologies that rationalize their choices, but those issues are seldom fundamental.” (Achen and Bartels, “Democracy for Realists”)
Likewise, ideological identity is different than adhering to policies consistent with that ideology. For example, It is well known that Republicans favor smaller government, but when given a menu of social programs such as Social Security and Medicare, Republican voters often favor their expansion.
So it is not as much policy disagreements or even ideological beliefs which fundamentally separate the two sides; it is identity with the group which counts, with winning the key goal, over and above the best policies for the country.
Three disturbing characteristics accompany social identity politics, according to Lilliana Mason (“Uncivil Agreement”):
- The other side is treated with bias and negative partisan prejudice.
- When their group is perceived to be losing, partisans rally to fight for the group, This is a negative form of activism; we want political actors to be partisan, but for the right reasons – to promote policies best for the country, and not to beat down the other side or merely for the sake of their side winning.
- Group members become emotionally attached to the group, such that victory becomes a key driver; and more disturbingly that pain/defeat of the other side provides pleasure for the winning group.
When social identity politics becomes the salient motivator, prejudiced group dynamics motivated by winning, and not by what is best for the country, pollutes the democratic system.
Is There a Way Out?
As tribalism is based on group identity, and not as much on specific policies and beliefs, we can hope that both sides could cool the rhetoric and agree on specific policies.
- There is evidence that when partisans interact in a guided setting with those on the other side, that stereotypes can be overcome, and specific compromises on issues can be achieved.
- Our society needs to revive larger supra-majority myths of what it means to be an American, not discarding specific group identities, but merging them into overarching goals with appeal across groups.
If people are brought together to solve specific, “rubber meets the road” issues, can they work together, when given common facts to work with?
Support the Center is going to test this hypothesis on March 23rd and March 24th at the Mendel Center in Benton Harbor, when we bring together partisans on both sides of the spectrum to do a budget simulation created and facilitated by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (a non-partisan group based in Washington, DC). This simulation, where tables of eight people from both sides of the aisle will get together to reduce the federal budget deficit through establishing common priorities, will provide a test of whether partisans can put their symbolic tribal attachments aside to simulate solving complex political issues.
What is clear is that we need to experiment with how to break down the cultural barriers dividing the US today. Only by working together towards a common cause, can we break the pernicious nature of our tribalism.