Political scientists have found data to support an idea that became a truism of the 2016 elections: Conservatives and Republicans have embraced so-called “identity politics” just as much as the liberals they chide for it.
The finding was part of a wide-ranging paper on American political identities called “One Tribe to Bind Them All: How Our Social Group Attachments Strengthen Partisanship,” published in the journal Advances in Political Psychology in February.
The researchers, Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland and Julie Wronski of the University of Mississippi, found that Americans have sorted themselves into political parties increasingly based on their own social identities, defined as “a sense of shared identity with a particular group.” Means by which Americans previously defined themselves culturally — race, class, religion — are increasingly how Americans define themselves politically as well.
And Republicans were even more likely than Democrats to identify with their chosen political party on the basis of their own identities.
“The ‘correct’ alignment of social identities — including White and Christian identities that are not typically mentioned in ‘identity politics’ punditry — is more strongly related to Republican partisanship than to Democratic partisanship,” the authors write. “In essence, we find that all politics is identity politics, including the partisan preferences of Whites and Christians.”
White people have identities too
When conservative and moderate commentators talk about “identity politics,” they usually mean espousing ideas and policies that appeal specifically to women, minorities, and LGBTQ people — as they did after Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, when they cited the liberal embrace of “identity politics” as a reason Trump won and Hillary Clinton lost.
But “identities” held primarily by white and Christian Americans have been politicized for decades, from the Silent Majority of the Nixon presidency to the “NASCAR dads” Democrats sought to recruit during the 2004 presidential election.
Trump’s victory relied largely on appealing to white identity politics, from saying that a judge should recuse himself from a Trump University-related lawsuit because of his Mexican heritage (saying he had a “conflict of interest”) to espousing birtherism and anti-Muslim rhetoric. His support reached 81 percent with those polled in January 2016 who said that “their identity as whites was extremely important.”
His presidency has continued in the same vein, from calls to boycott the NFL over player protests to his comments about Haiti and African countries (which he described as “shitholes”). In effect, Trump’s victory wasn’t a triumph over “identity politics.” The GOP’s embrace of him represented its zenith.