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Why race and identity will remain the dividing line in American politics for a while to come

John Caputo is interviewed by reporters at an event held by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the Radisson Hotel August 25, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
John Caputo is interviewed by reporters at an event held by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at the Radisson Hotel August 25, 2016, in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Writing yesterday about how race and identity has become the central dividing line in American politics, I argued that we are likely to have a politics dominated by race and identity for the near-term future.

This is a big claim, so I want to spend some time here explaining why I believe this is our near-term future, and what it might mean for how American politics will function.

The short version of the explanation is that race and identity is now the main issue holding both parties' coalitions together, which means that neither party's leadership has a strong incentive to try to make politics about anything else. The short version of the implication is that most likely this will reduce polarization, because it splits the parties on economic issues and thus creates a whole new set of cross-party coalitions. However, there are ways in which it could also fundamentally tear our nation apart.

Seeing politics in two dimensions

In yesterday's post, I spent a while discussing the two-dimensional nature of conflict, borrowing an analysis from the political scientist E.E. Schattschneider and drawing on related insights from Gary Miller and Norman Schofield on how activist groups within parties affect realignment dynamics.

The quick foundational point from the post is that American political opinion is two-dimensional, and those two dimensions tend to be organized around two types of issues, economic and social/identity issues. For most people, the correlation between their beliefs on the two issues is actually quite low. And here's the big takeaway: Depending on which issue is the primary dividing line, the party system can look quite different.

To see this more clearly, I borrow a helpful graphic produced by political scientist Jennifer Victor, who used it in a recent piece explaining Miller and Schofield's realignment theory.

Jennifer Victor

This graph nicely shows how the dividing line in American politics has shifted in clockwise fashion, producing different political alignments and different majorities.

For the past half-century, the party system has moved from one organized around economics to one organized around social/identity issues. This transition has happened quite slowly, and for the past three decades these two issues have essentially fused along a single cross-cutting dimension for an unusually long time, which is probably the reason politics became so deeply polarized.

But now the political system seems to be resolving in favor of a conflict around social/identity issues. And if this resolution holds, as I suspect it will, it will have significant repercussion for how our politics is organized.

To understand why this division is likely to persist for the near term, we need to understand the current political conflict from the perspective of both parties.

Why Democrats want to keep this dividing line

For Democratic Party leaders, there are three benefits to maintaining race and identity as the primary dimension of conflict in American politics.

The first reason Democrats want to make politics about race and identity is that they probably hold the majority position, at least if the 2016 election cleavages hold. And going forward, the electorate is only going to grow more diverse and more highly educated, which means that if Democrats get to be the party of tolerance and cosmopolitan social values in a politics organized around these issues, they will be in a strong electoral position.

Obviously, there is danger here. Democrats could go too far in supporting the rights of minority groups to the point that whites completely abandon the party.

A second reason is that Democrats are increasingly split internally along class lines. If economics were dominating this campaign, you'd hear a lot about how Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine are selling out the Democrats by cozying up to corporate elites for money and endorsements. But by keeping the campaign about Trump's racism, these divisions have been silenced.

And finally, Democrats are more and more a coalition of identity groups, all with their specific policy demands. But all these groups can get behind a politics about inclusion and tolerance and anti-racism, since such a politics serves them all well.

Democratic delegates. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Delegates hold up signs that read "Love Trumps Hate" during the opening of the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016, in Philadelphia.

In short, there are not really any reasons for Democrats to want politics to be about anything other than race and identity in the near future. It's a winning electoral issue, it marginalizes intraparty divisions, and it keeps core groups in the party happy.

Why Republicans can't break free from this dividing line

For Republicans, the strategy is less clear, which is probably why they are more conflicted internally.

In 1964, it made sense for Republicans to aim to shift the cleavage line toward the social dimension, because they were in a losing position on economics but a winning position on social/identity issues. Now that they've succeeded in shifting this line, however, they are probably in a losing position on the social dimension — at least with Trump as their standard-bearer.

If the Republican Party were just a party of strategic politicians who wanted to win elections, and had no constraints from activists, donors, or its own principles, its strategy would be very simple: Tone down the racism and identity politics, focus on the economic populism that Trump has at times channeled, and became a truly populist party. If Trump had run a strong populist, anti–Wall Street, anti-TPP, "end the crony corruption of Washington" campaign, he might be winning now.

But there are a few serious obstacles in the way.

The first is that socially conservative working-class whites have become the key voting bloc for the Republican Party. And over the past decade in particular, these voters have become very animated by race and identity issues, particularly around immigration. Now, with Trump as their tribune, they are feeling especially motivated and powerful. They feel like the American way of life they know and love is deeply threatened, and the success of Trump has likely raised their expectations that they could actually do something.

Quite possibly, if Republicans nominated a pro-immigration moderate in 2020, these voters would defect to a more hard-line third-party candidate to teach Republican leaders a lesson. For many of them, this is far more important than just winning the election. It is an existential struggle over whether the America they know and live will prevail, and whether freedom will continue to persist. If they give up now, they are finished.

Certainly, many of these voters would be perfectly happy with a more populist economic agenda — in fact, they'd probably prefer it. But it isn't the issue that is animating them to vote Republican.

But perhaps the bigger obstacle keeping Republicans from moving into the potentially winning populist position is that the business and wealthy elites who have long controlled the Republican Party from the top would be horrified to see Republicans take a populist turn.

Moreover, they likely are still convinced that Republicans can win with the George W. Bush approach of appealing to Hispanic and black voters with an inclusive opportunity and growth agenda that includes a pro-immigration, pro-trade, pro-corporate platform, while placating non-college-educated whites with some stuff about traditional Christian values and maybe a few middle-class entitlements or tax credits. In short, they want to move the dividing line back to where it was in the 2000s.

Party leaders can also point to the fact that they still control the majority of state legislatures and will likely still hold a majority in the House. And even if they lose the Senate in 2016, they should be able to retake it in 2018. And while the demographics in the long term are against them in a party cleavage organized around race and identity, about 75 percent of the electorate is still white (though that's declining).

And especially if the Democrats become more liberal on social/identity issues, Republicans can convince themselves that the silent majority really has to be on their side. At some point, Democrats might well take things too far. Moreover, if Republicans can hold together to make Hillary Clinton's presidency a disaster by making opposition to her the organizing principle of their party, they should be in a prime position for 2018-'20.

Finally, it's crucial to note that there are no groups in the Republican coalition who are pressing Republicans to move to a potentially winning populist position by toning down racism enough to win over disaffected liberals.

In short, there are no immediately compelling reasons for Republicans to shift to race-neutral populist positions, no forces within the party pushing for it, and plenty of forces in the party pushing against it.

How a politics organized around race could reduce polarization — or make it even worse

So race and identity are likely to stay as the dividing line in politics for a little while.

What does it mean for how politics gets organized?

The first consequence is that it produces splits within the parties. This is now most apparent among Republicans, who are split more and more clearly between an increasingly empowered anti-establishment wing opposed to immigration and trade and the Chamber of Commerce agenda of globalist corporatism and "political correctness," and an increasingly uncertain establishment wing that still believes Republicans should reach out to minorities, support immigration, engage with the world, and support big business. This reflects widening gaps within the Republican electorate.

Democrats are likely to stay unified longer, especially given a likely Clinton administration and Senate majority. But over time, the more populist wing of the Democratic Party will grow increasingly frustrated that they are being ignored. At some point, if Democrats become more and more the pro-business party, they may revolt.

Because both parties will be facing internal splits between different visions for the party, it will be increasingly difficult for either party to maintain a strong, centralized leadership style in Congress, as we've been accustomed to for the past several decades.

Instead, congressional leadership will likely have to become more decentralized, with committees gaining more independent power. This seems to be the only way that different factions would agree on any leadership team: by parceling out independent spheres of power in different committees to different factions. Most likely, Paul Ryan will be the last of the modern run of truly powerful House speakers.

A more decentralized Congress will likely produce more cross-partisan coalitions, and probably more legislation, but also more uncertainty and possibly chaos.

For example, we might see anti-corporate Republicans and anti-corporate Democrats joining together to fight global trade agreements, break up big banks, and take other populist stands, while pro-corporate Republicans and pro-corporate Democrats work alongside Silicon Valley and the Chamber of Commerce. This would fit with my larger "peak polarization" argument.

The counterintuitive implication of this, then, is that to reduce polarization, we might actually want to keep social and racial issues as the dividing issue in American politics.

Of course, this cleavage may be less than ideal for other reasons, especially if it leads to increased racial hostility and violence, as it well could. And if these conflicts poison the political system, they may overwhelm any potential for compromise across party lines on economic issues.

It's also important to point out that the last time we had a political system truly organized around race and identity, the country split apart and fought a civil war over the issue. That seems much less likely today for many reasons, but there are certainly some unsettling similarities between the 1850s and 2010s that I hope to examine in a future piece, with a particular eye toward what we can learn from that history in order to avoid repeating it.

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