Identity politics is what polarizes America

The great mystery of American politics is why American voters are so polarized when there is so little difference in the policies of the two major political parties?

Democrats and Republicans, when in power, both support the unending U.S. foreign wars.  In economic crises, they both prioritize bailing out Wall Street financiers over helping ordinary Americans.  They both balk at universal health care or free higher education.

As President Barack Obama once said, U.S. political conflicts take place “within the 40-yard line.”

So why is it that so many Democrats and Republicans hate, fear and despise each so intensely that there is serious talk of a possible civil war?

The answer is identity politics. I found a good explanation of how this works in a post by Scott Siskind about a new book by Ezra Klein.

Klein’s idea is that Republicans define themselves as the party of “modal Americans.”  There are more whites than non-whites, more Christians than non-Christians, more native-born than immigrants and more heterosexuals (so we think) than LGBTQ people.  So Republicans are the party of straight native-born Christian white people.

I would add that there are more voters without college degrees than with college degrees, and Republicans are also the party of the high school graduate.

Democrats define themselves as the party of everybody else—the African Americans, the Hispanics, the Muslims, the Jews, the atheists, the immigrants and the sexual minorities, but also the highly educated.

Unlike Republicans, they are diverse. “Modal” Americans have many values in common, but all that the Democratic groups have in common is not being Republicans. 

The basis of Democratic unity as a political coalition is to define “modal Americans” as the enemy.  This is what unites the Ivy League intellectual with the African-American school drop-out.  They both see the Republican coalition as a mob that’s out to get them. 

Many Democrats genuinely fear the a MAGA Republican mob will take away all their hard-won rights.  Many MAGA Republicans honestly fear that a Woke Democratic elite will force their “politically correct” values on them and their children.

Democrats say Republicans promote fear of minority groups—not just blacks, but minorities of all kinds—in order keep their straight white native-born Christian high school graduate coalition together.

Republicans say Democrats make false or exaggerated accusations of prejudice in order to hold their diverse coalition together.  There doesn’t seem to be any obvious end to this process.

The Democratic coalition appears to have a demographic advantage.  Whites and Christians are declining percentages of the population.  The sexual revolution is gaining acceptance.  The college-educated part of the population is increasing.

But “modal Americans” have been in this situation before.  They have kept themselves in the majority by becoming more inclusive over time.

“White Anglo-Saxon Protestants” redefined themselves in the mid-20th century as adherents of a newly-discovered “Judeo-Christian tradition” that included Protestants and Jews.  The next step is for Hispanic whites and mixed-race people to identify with the majority group and vote with them.

This may be happening already.  Republicans got a higher percentage of the African-American and Hispanic vote in 2020 than in 2016, although nowhere near a majority, of course.

African-Americans are, on average, more culturally conservative than progressive white Democrats, so there is potential for a less contentious Republican leader than Trump to get a significant share of their vote.

A New York University professor calls this “multiracial white supremacy.”  As one who remembers what avowed white supremacists were like, I am taken aback by this terminology.  But if you define “white supremacy” as “whatever most white people happen to believe,” I think she may be onto something.

“Whiteness” today is defined as a much a matter of attitudes as of race.  A conservative black person such as Justice Clarence Thomas or Senator Tim Scott is not consider black by Woke Democrats.

What all this means is that political polarization based on identity will not be resolved by one side’s victory, because definitions of identity are constantly shifting and changing.


The long-range trend in American society during my adult lifetime has been toward greater acceptance and tolerance of minority identities.

Catholics and Jews were once considered minority groups.  When I was young, “inter-marriage” referred to marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant, or a Christian and a Jew, and was considered highly problematic.  Marriage of a black person and a white person was almost unthinkable.

In the 1960s, I attended the wedding of my friend Jim Yeatts, who was white, to Georgiana Bell, who was black.  Local police sat in a squad car outside the church to note who went in.  That night the Chief of Police called the publisher of the newspaper I worked for to let him know what kind of a person he had working on his staff.

All of these things matter very little today, thank goodness.  Inter-marriage of all kinds is common and accepted. 

Americans have grown more accepting in other ways, too.  Many a conservative family has had to come to terms with the fact that a loved one is gay or transgender.  Some conservatives have come to accept that hard-line opposition to abortion or gay marriage is a lost cause.

Matthew Walther, in This Week, wrote about what he called “barstool conservatives.”  They don’t care about abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, pornography or other Moral Majority issues.  They aren’t interested in regulating how other people live.

Instead their conservatism consists of “vague concerns about political correctness and ‘SJWs,’ opposition to the popularization of so-called critical race theory, sentimentality about the American flag and the military, the rights of male undergraduates to engage in fornication while intoxicated without fear of the Title IX mafia.”

Why don’t woke progressives simply declare victory in the culture wars and move on?  I think it is because they would then have to address the many problems that affect women and minorities that are not caused by individual prejudice, but by the political and economic system.

I hear a lot of talk about “structural racism.”  I see little attempt to do anything about the actual governmental, economic and political structure.

The important exception to this is the powerful Black Lives Matter movement, which seems to be bringing about actual reforms in law enforcement, which also happen to benefit white people.

In my experience, though, the attack on “structural racism” means getting well-meaning white people to think of themselves as part of a collective entity that oppresses a black collective entity.

This diverts attention from the workings of the banking system, the electoral system, the judicial system, funding of public education and other structures that hold down black people, but also affect a certain number of white people.

By the same token, when MAGA Republicans tell white working people that all their problems are due to immigration and affirmative action, this diverts attention from the need for a higher minimum wage, affordable medical care and other problems that white workers have in common with black and Hispanic workers.


There is a way to break out of the identity politics deadlock.  That is to enact policies that materially benefit all voters, regardless of their claimed identities.

Donald Trump showed the way by sending out $600 checks with his name on it to people hurt by the coronavirus recession.  I got one a couple of weeks ago.    

Joe Biden, and also Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the newly-elected Democratic senators from Georgia, topped him by promising $2,000 checks.  I’m sure this gave Democrats their margin of victory in Georgia and probably other states as well.

But now that Biden is elected, what does he do?  Biden now says he didn’t actually mean $2,000, he meant $1,400.  And then he wonders whether $1,400 is too much.  He is talking about restricting eligibility, which would mean that not everybody who got a $600 check will get the $1,400 (or whatever) check.

If he continues in this vein, Democrats are sure to lose the mid-term elections in 2022 and the Presidential election in 2024.  And if they do, it won’t be because of “white supremacy culture.”


Why We’re Polarized by Scott Siskind for Astral Codex Ten.

In Changing U.S. Electorate, Race and Education Remain Stark Dividing Lines by Pew Research Center.

Reparations, systematic racism and white Democrats’ new racial liberalism by Matthew Yglesias for Vox.

To understand Trump’s support, we must think in terms of multiracial Whiteness by Cristina Beltran for The Washington Post.

Rise of the Barstool conservatives by Matthew Walther for The Week.

Images via Stanford Magazine; Seattle Times; Nonprofit Chronicles

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One Response to “Identity politics is what polarizes America”

  1. Alex Page Says:

    Could this be seen as a wider story of the contradictions of liberalism? With neither side willing to entertain real solutions to issues, even a mild social democracy, they’re left to find scapegoats for the failures of the invisible hand and a crumbling empire. An intense feud made inevitable by the mutually agreed avoidance of economics and structural focus.

    The Dems at least pay lip service to real social issues, but have to address them with lackluster individualism, blaming solely ‘the orange man’ or Putin conspiracies. The existence of QAnon maniacs lets them off the hook. No need to look further, and now Biden’s in office the ‘kids in cages’ are in ‘overflow facilities’ instead.

    The Republicans, meanwhile, have nothing but cultural grievances even more unmoored from material reality.

    Neither addresses meaningful identity issues in the manner of original radical writers on identity and intersectionality – no Hampton, Lorde, or Crenshaw; all of whom grounded the topic in a material grasp of class.

    Matt Christman summarises the parties as ‘don’t be an asshole’ vs ‘don’t be a pussy’. Who is speaking for ‘do meaningful things’? Only a small faction trapped with the Dems by the electoral system.

    Liked by 1 person

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