Identity politics in context


The Wall Street Journal Columnist Gerald Seib recently noted that Republicans are preparing to focus the attention of 2022 midterm voters on the “three I’s” – inflation, immigration and identity politics.

The first two of these are fairly straightforward, with the emphasis on how candidates and political parties propose to approach them. Opinion polls on these issues are plentiful. Mohamed Younis of Gallup recently reviewed the evidence relating to public opinion and inflation, and Gallup analysts over the years have done a lot of work focusing on Americans’ views on the immigration.

But the third – identity politics – is less specific, more complicated, and an issue on which there is not much direct public opinion research.

Identity politics generally refers to people who assess issues through the prism of their association with a specific group. This in turn means that the approaches to issues, politicians and political parties revolve around how these things affect the group or groups concerned. This may include the belief that one’s group is oppressed or discriminated against either by larger groups or by society as a whole. Identity politics can also create negative reactions among those who disagree with what it means for the rest of society.

As noted, to my knowledge, we don’t have a lot of research that directly asks Americans whether a particular aspect of their identity drives their political views. A more frequently sought-after offshoot of identity politics is “critical race theory,” which addresses a variety of topics – history, literature, science, criminal justice, medicine, and many other societal structures and institutions – from a societal perspective. of the unequal situation. black Americans, and how this in turn is ingrained in the structures, law and legal institutions of society. Recent polls on this topic show that while about a third of Americans are unfamiliar with critical race theory, those who think it is taught in schools are more negative than positive.

There is no shortage of groups to identify with

There are many different groups Americans can relate to, ranging from those based on attribution characteristics (traits we are born with, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and social class positioning). parents) to those based on circumstances and choices that develop as people move through life, including political party, religious affiliation, geographic location, socioeconomic status and membership to a club and a group.

The groups most commonly associated with identity politics in today’s political environment focus on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. An interesting benchmark in this regard comes from Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign website, where he listed 19 different identity groups he had specific plans for. These included tribal nations, women, people with disabilities, black Americans, military families, union members, rural Americans, older Americans, the LBGTQ + community, veterans, the Catholic community, American students / youth, immigrants, AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander), the American Indian community, the Jewish community, the American Muslim community, the Latin American community and the Arab American community. Others will point out that white conservatives or political liberals can also constitute identity political groups.

Critics of identity politics tend to focus not so much on the idea that people’s group identity should be important in their politics, but on how identity politics has been positioned by its advocates. This includes criticizing the rigid norms of verbal behavior that are meant to be used in reference to identity groups, and criticizing the assumptions that people not belonging to particular identity groups are responsible for the negative situation of those who are. .

Additionally, some observers (including the candidate who won the Virginia gubernatorial race in November) equate identity politics with critical race theory and criticize the latter’s introduction into school curricula and elsewhere.

The whole question of how humans or not identify with various group characteristics and how this affects their politics is very complex and has elements that involve scholarly fields such as sociology, psychology, political science, history, anthropology and genetics. More generally, I think it is fair to conclude that tribal belonging and group identification are powerful forces in almost all contemporary societies. It is therefore not surprising that identity groups can play an important role in American politics.

Place identity policy in the context of all societal challenges

The emphasis on identity politics is essentially an emphasis on internal aspects of the functioning of societies. Those who see their politics through their identity, we can assume, see this focus as necessary for the society to function fairly, which in turn helps to maintain the stability of the society.

This contrasts with the emphasis on external challenges facing society – fending off threats that could cripple or totally annihilate society. Author Yuval Noah Harari summed up these enormous external challenges into three main threats: nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption. The pandemic has drawn our attention to a fourth: the potential threat of biological agents. A broader list of external challenges would include the inability to sustain economies, food and water shortages, the provision of energy sources, inequality, and non-nuclear warfare.

Social systems must clearly focus on internal and external challenges. If a society’s primary focus is on internal issues surrounding the status and well-being of identity groups, then attention can be diverted from external challenges with potentially disastrous consequences. And, if the primary focus in a society is on external challenges, the system can crumble and burn if people within the system perceive injustice and ultimately rebel and revolt.

People’s priorities

As noted, we don’t have a lot of public opinion research that deals with identity politics per se, but we do have research that gives us some idea of ​​the broad priorities people place on the challenges facing society.

Gallup’s “most important problem” data is valuable in this regard. Top 10 issues from the perspective of the American public from Gallup’s last November update are: government / bad leadership, COVID, the economy in general, immigration, high cost of living / inflation , country unification, unemployment / employment, race relations, environment / climate change and ethical / religious / moral decline. I would classify all but three (the need to unify the country, race relations, and ethical / religious / moral decline) as external threats. The priority given to government as a major problem reflects the view that the political system is ineffective in dealing with all types of threats.

Earlier this year, Pew Research gave Americans a list of issues and asked if each one should be a top priority for Congress and the President. The top 10 are, in order: strengthening the economy, tackling COVID, improving the employment situation, defending against terrorism, improving the political system, reducing health care costs, strengthening security. social, improve education, deal with the problems of the poor and address race-related issues. Again, all but two of these (dealing with the problems of the poor and solving race-related issues) are what I would call external challenges, with improving the political system being a broad ‘catch’ category.

This relative priority given to external problems and priorities is not surprising. External threats such as biological plagues, a crumbling economic system, terrorism and ecological damage theoretically affect all members of a society and represent clear and present dangers.

The impact of internal challenges, including those stemming from identity politics, are often less immediate or less relevant on a personal level. Identity politics in many cases addresses the challenges that revolve around groups that are in the minority. This makes it less likely (but certainly not impossible) that a majority of members of society will regard the situation of these groups as a critical issue or assign them a high priority. At the same time, evidence shows that issues focused on minority groups may gain importance in certain situations. In late May / early June 2020, right after George Floyd was assassinated by a Minneapolis police officer, 19% of Americans cited race relations as the number one issue facing the nation – the highest percentage since 1968. In addition, issues related to identity groups that encompass a majority of the population (such as white Americans or women) can by definition essentially garner broad support.

In any case, political issues do not need to generate majority support to have a major effect on the political system. Many so-called wedge issues are of critical importance to smaller sections of the electorate, and their votes can be decisive. The ultimate impact of identity politics in next year’s mid-terms and in future elections, therefore, remains to be determined.


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