The Fallacy Of Identity Politics

  • Ryan Ross
  • Oct 8, 2017 1:12PM

My father is 67 years old. He is a Christian, is retired, lives in Florida, and with the exception of Barack Obama in 2008, has traditionally voted for Republican candidates in presidential elections. Given this information, it likely would not surprise you to learn he voted for Donald Trump. However, this particular Trump voter is also college-educated, holds a Master’s degree, collects Social Security, and is on Medicare.

One more thing: my father, the college-educated Trump voter, is black.

Much has been made of Donald Trump courting — or, at the very least, encouraging — the white nationalist “alt-right” vote during his campaign. One of the more popular explanations for Trump’s Electoral College victory is that it was a backlash against our having a black president for the past eight years, spearheaded by the racist underbelly of America. But as tempting as it is to credit (or blame) white racists for Trump’s rise to power, voters like my father are at odds with this narrative.

The Democratic path to victory in the 2016 election was built on two fundamentally unsound ideas. One plank of the platform was based on the assumption that in the case of Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, American voters would elect the more qualified candidate in order to avoid a total disruption of our political system. By adhering to this assumption, Democratic strategists lost touch with the mindset of the average American voter, one who is more skeptical than ever of those in power and therefore more willing to accept a dramatic shock to the system if it means movement, no matter the direction.

The other line of faulty logic assumed that as long as President Obama lent his support to Clinton, black voters would cast their ballots for Hillary with the same enthusiasm they did for Obama. By extension, Democratic strategists not-so-subtly implied that minority voters (and more specifically, black voters) are a monolith that subscribes to what is known as “identity politics”: the theory that voting blocs are divided into racial, religious or socioeconomic groups. As the thinking went, capture a simple majority of voters from these groups, and the rest will fall in line.

To be clear, both parties are guilty of trafficking in identity politics as a means of earning votes, but the backlash is far more significant from left-leaning voters. Conservative voters tend to hold a less nuanced view of politics; in most cases, they simply want a steady job with good income, money for retirement, and access to health care. More importantly, conservative voters prefer that government play a limited role in the daily lives of the people it serves, believing that true social equality begins with personal responsibility and not government oversight.

Liberal voters share the same personal needs as conservatives; liberals, however, believe that government action is necessary to benefit individuals in a society, and that the government is in place to enact legislation which positively impacts these individual members. By extension, these individuals, having benefited from said legislation, will in turn contribute to society, allowing the government to turn its attention to a new set of individuals in need of assistance.

In a way, the Republican iteration of identity politics was (likely unintentionally) more inclusive than that of Democrats. While both Democratic and Republican strategists utilized identity politics in the campaign, Republicans focused largely on capturing the votes of individuals existing in the same socioeconomic strata, regardless of race. (Though racial division certainly played a part.)

On the other hand, Democratic strategists attempted to rally the fabled Obama Coalition around their candidate by dividing the middle class into specific racial, social and religious segments and campaigning to them separately. But some voters — like my father — fell through the cracks.

Voters like my father (minority men with a college degree) account for only 2% of Trump voters, according to The Atlantic; without question, they are far closer to the exception than to the rule. But to dismiss them entirely as statistical aberrations poses two problems.

First, as Hillary Clinton’s margins of defeat in Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida (13,000, 27,000 and 114,000 votes, respectively) demonstrated, every vote counts. Whether or not the vote tallies in the aforementioned states were tipped in Trump’s favor by college-educated minority voters is impossible to determine; however, 2% of the 64 million votes Trump received is still 1.25 million votes.

Second, the tendency of left-leaning political pundits to ignore or discount the votes of more than a million Americans is emblematic of the larger line of illogical thinking that currently plagues the Democratic party; specifically, that there are factions of voters who polling indicates cannot be swayed and therefore are not worth addressing. To disregard certain votes as unworthy of consideration is bad enough, but even more dangerous is the implicit twofold concession of defeat among certain groups of voters and presumption of victory among others.

When campaigning for white votes, Democrats have no problem dividing those voters into discrete groups: for example, working-class voters who are concerned about the decline in manufacturing jobs; college-educated voters who want the government to act as an instrument of social justice; women who worry about reproductive rights; or younger Americans who are gravely concerned about the cost of higher education.

But when it comes to minority votes, strategists rarely think along these lines. Rather, minority voters are viewed as an entity unto themselves, and issues that are important to a significant number of minority voters are more likely to be treated as though they carry the same weight among all minority voters.

A perfect example of this is the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement began as a reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin in February of 2012 and the subsequent acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman. It gained steam as instances of police brutality, especially against black men, continued to pile up in the public eye: Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old), Eric Garner, Walter Scott; the list goes on.

We heard plenty of cries for accountability from elected officials as death tolls continued to rise; unfortunately, those cries were not coupled with action. In fact, only one piece of legislation specifically geared towards addressing and stopping police brutality has been passed in the last decade: HR 1447, or the “Death in Custody Reporting Act,” which was signed into law in 2014 by President Obama. However, in the strictest sense, this law pertains to the record-keeping and reporting of deaths of arrested individuals while in police custody to the Attorney General; therefore, by its very nature, it overlooks any instances of police brutality that do not result in death.

So while some politicians have spoken out against police brutality in the past, their legislative records indicate a general malaise toward actually doing something about it. And yet, Hillary Clinton made stricter police accountability a main plank of her campaign platform. An optimist could make the argument that Clinton was indeed concerned by police brutality and had a plan to end it, but her legislative record – not to mention her “superpredators” comment in 1996 and support for her husband’s crime bill in 1994 that had a disproportionately negative impact on black Americans – tells a different story. A more cynical reading of her campaign promises would classify this as mere political maneuvering: Black voters are concerned about police brutality; therefore, if I voice my opposition to police brutality and vow to put a stop to it, all black Americans will vote for me.

We’ve even seen candidates targeting specific minority voting blocs in their speeches (Tim Kaine’s delivery of a campaign speech entirely in Spanish and Hillary Clinton’s assertion during an interview at hip-hop radio station Power 105 that she always carries hot sauce with her come to mind). At best, these maneuvers are shameless attempts at pandering to minority groups; at worst, they are an indictment of the Democratic party. Democratic candidates offer a wider-ranging message of equality and opportunity for all to white audiences, yet reduce the courting of minority voters to a mere popularity contest, as though minority voters lack the capacity to consider a presidential candidate on the basis of their policy positions.

As reductive and insulting as it is to assume that black voters will vote for the Democrat solely because they’re black and that’s the way things are always done, more often than not, that’s exactly what happens. But the point I’m trying to make here is that it doesn’t always work, and sometimes black voters – like my father – come to resent this campaign strategy and vote against their own self-interest as a means of sending a message. In most cases, these voters do not comprise a significant-enough percentage of the electorate to tip the balance one way or another in a general election. But as this past November has shown, the votes of this sub-group can sometimes dovetail with those of a larger voting bloc with shocking results.

My father is a reasonable, intelligent, educated man, and he would be the first to concede that Donald Trump is not doing a good job as president. Nonetheless, he chose to vote for Trump not because Trump earned his vote, but because he thought it was more important for him to use his vote to express his displeasure with this cynical brand of political campaigning.

That’s the most damaging effect of identity politics: ignoring an individual’s agency to form their own opinions in favor of capturing the low-hanging fruit. In its purest distillation, identity politics dehumanizes people. It allows politicians to think of their constituents not as individuals, but as cogs in a larger machine, a machine that can be oiled with vague blanket statements and perfunctory action. It prioritizes casting aside the needs of the minority in favor of the majority. And on a long-enough timeline, it also leads to the confluence of smaller groups who, ignored by politicians for too long, have grown in size and influence until they have the means and motive to make themselves heard.

Donald Trump won the election on the backs of what he called “The Silent Majority.” But without identity politics, that majority may never have come into existence.