Since Barack Obama’s run for president, and now with Hillary Clinton’s nomination, smug dismissals of “identity politics” have become popular in some circles. Conservative columnist Thomas Sowell laments that our “sense of American unity is being undermined by the reckless polarization of group identity politics.” At the radical Indypendent, Linda Martín Alcoff posits that Bernie Sanders would be the Democratic nominee if not for the fact that “identity politics [trumped] class politics” in the primary. And John Avlon, editor-in-chief at The Daily Beast, argues that the fact Jewish voters didn’t flock to Sanders, and Millennial women did, is evidence that “identity politics doesn’t seem to drive votes.”
But according to a growing body of research, the reality is that we all choose candidates and parties based on a seemingly irrational mishmash of group identity, symbolic attachments and partisan loyalties that are mostly inherited from our parents. Virtually all politics are identity politics.
People are quirky. There may well be some Americans who choose the candidate best aligned with their interests or ideological beliefs based on a dispassionate review of his or her record and policy proposals. The rest of us engage in identity politics — but we only call it that when the identity in question is a traditionally under-represented group, like people of color, women and LGBT folks.
As the dominant group, whiteness isn’t a discrete identity. There are multiple white identities — you could be a redneck from Alabama or a Southie from Boston or a goombah from the Jersey Shore. Nate Cohn pointed out in The New York Times that in 2012, “in many counties [across the South] 90 percent of white voters chose Mitt Romney, nearly the reversal of the margin by which black voters supported Mr. Obama.” I doubt anyone will argue that either group calmly evaluated the two candidates’ proposals before deciding whom to support, but only one of them is condemned for engaging in identity politics.
“It’s really a function of social identities — it’s a question of which groups you belong to, or think you belong to,” says George Washington University political scientist John Sides. “The logic here is two-fold: first, we know that social identities and group loyalties are powerful forces in our lives, in all kinds of respects — from the political arena to more mundane areas like sports. And we also know that most voters aren’t spending a lot of free time thinking about politics. So if there are shortcuts we can take, we gravitate toward them.”
Political scientists Larry Bartels from Vanderbilt University and Christopher Achen of Princeton call the common view that people select candidates based on either a consistent ideological analysis or a judgment of who will best represent their own interests the “folk theory” of democracy; in their book Democracy for Realists, they assemble a pile of evidence suggesting it’s largely a myth. First, they show that most voters hold a jumble of often contradictory ideological positions. Second, very few have enough info about the candidates’ records and positions to evaluate who would be the best fit.
There is some evidence that voters do punish or reward incumbents based on their own economic experience — that’s why stats guru Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight factors economic conditions into his electoral model — but even that’s limited to how voters’ wallets look during a relatively brief window before an election.
That leaves identity politics, or as Bartels and Achen put it, “the powerful tendency for people to form groups, the ensuing construction of ‘us and ‘them,’ and the powerful role of emotion rather than reason in determining group activity.” They acknowledge that voters’ preferences are influenced by a variety of considerations — from politicians’ personalities to economic conditions to fears of terrorism — but their research shows that identity is the most significant factor for most of us.
Some scholars, like Alan Abromowitz at Emory University and Kyle Saunders at Colorado State University have pushed back on this idea by pointing to surveys that suggest voters’ self-described ideology correlates better with their voting patterns than their group membership. But it’s important to keep in mind that membership and identity are not the same thing — you can be Jewish or Latino or a member of the white working class and not feel a strong sense of affinity for those groups. And obviously a lot of people are members of different groups and hold cross-cutting identities which aren’t revealed in those surveys.
There are also what might be called micro-identities that don’t get captured in exit polls. For instance, being a cop or a college professor are both powerful group identities that tend to result in very different political perspectives.
This is not to say that there are no “issue voters” — rather, it’s that “issue voters” are the exception to the rule. Among them, you’ll find intensely focused single-issue voters —people who care deeply about gun rights or abortion or what have you, and who select candidates they perceive as being the strongest on those issues.
Perhaps the most interesting piece to all this is that, with the exception of those kinds of hot-button issues, over time most people tend to work backwards from their group identity (or identities) to formulate their views of the issues.
The take-away from all of this is that there are no “vagina voters” backing Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman — Clinton’s supporters would never cast a vote for Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann. Wanting to see the first woman elected president is one factor in a jumble of social cues and symbolic attachments that form us as political beings. Similarly, in a broad sense, young people aren’t attracted to Bernie Sanders because they care deeply about reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act — it’s unlikely many Americans, young or otherwise, could tell you what Glass-Steagall did. Instead, they’re reacting to a complex array of signals from their peers. The fact that they love Bernie informs their opinion about Glass-Steagall.
At the end of the day, most of those smug people you hear whining about identity politics are just as influenced by them as anyone else.