In November of 2019, David Leonhardt of the New York Times wrote an article called The Left’s Identity Problem. In it, he discusses the (accurate) forecast of the UK’s Labour Party losing their long-held constituency of Grimsby to the Conservatives, and claims that a shift away by Labour from economic policy and towards identity politics is the reason why. Identity politics, a term which is most commonly leveled against the left, indeed applies to the entire political system that often exists in diverse countries, which organizes people in terms of race, sexuality, and religion and forces them to face off in a zero-sum cultural and political battle. Although some form of identity politics is unavoidable, it is only a problem when its framework and particulars are inconsistent with liberal democracy. As several authors from the literature describe, social identity is a potent force in signaling policy preferences within a group and mobilizing them to action. While identity politics, when based on superficial boundaries like race, contributes to democratic erosion, if these identities were more all-encompassing and were built on foundations of democratic norms, then identity politics would then indeed be a force to be reckoned with against democratic erosion.
People will, as a rule, vote according to their social identity, rather than in response to the raw facts of the situation. According to the research of Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, people living in similar locations and sharing similar identities tend to signal voting preferences with each other through the natural exchange of information. This is evident in, for example, the cases when voters punish incumbent parties for circumstances beyond human control, like increases in shark attacks (which damaged Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 election campaign in New Jersey) and natural disasters (like the droughts that occurred throughout the twentieth century). These voters had no reason to suspect that their government was responsible for natural events, and probably did not consciously think they were. However, rationally or not, the social network they found themselves in due to their identity worked to collectively damage the reputation of the incumbent party in the minds of the people who lived near these incidents. Similarly, Oscar Barrera, Sergei Guriev, Emeric Henry, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya conclude in their article Facts, Alternative Facts, and Fact Checking in Times of Post-Truth Politics that mere information may increase a voter’s knowledge of an issue, but does not necessarily change their opinion on it. The research of Achen and Bartels, along with Barrera et al, helps to establish that people mostly do not vote as individuals responding to facts, but as members of a social group responding to cues from others of the same group.
In other words, “identity politics” is here to stay. However, though our current form of identity politics is not redeemable in its division of Americans into factions, it cannot be said that group politics is not accurate in signaling voters as to what kinds of preferences are in their self-interest. As Arthur Lupia’s article about voting behavior during an insurance reform ballot in California shows, social behavior while voting can indeed act as a shortcut, not a hindrance, for the kind of rationality we prize and expect from voters. The classical requirement of rational voters is that they function as encyclopedias about policy issues. The virtue of a citizen, since the early days of the United States, has been defined by their capacity to stay tirelessly informed about the kinds of questions that face their community and their preferences with regards to those questions. However, even in the 1780s, there was much doubt as to whether a citizen, who had other concerns besides politics, could stay so well-informed. (In fact, this conundrum was one of the reasons why Aristotle held that only educated upper-class city dwellers, who had the time to ponder politics, should be allowed to engage in it.) Today, when the average American faces, with globalization and the age of information, a much more complex world than the classical Athenian or revolutionary Bostonian ever could have dreamt of, there is little doubt as to whether voters can be reasonably expected to become walking encyclopedias of policy. Despite all these concerns, however, Lupia posits that, under conditions where “shortcuts” to information are readily available (such as outspoken public figures like Ralph Nader), “voters who have not acquired encyclopedic knowledge can vote as though they had.” (Shortcuts Versus Encyclopedias: Information and Voting Behavior in California Insurance Reform Elections, p. 64) This shows that social identity in itself is not necessarily a barrier to rational voting behavior.
To serve the needs of minority Americans without setting them apart, and without encouraging cultural and political warfare between them and majority groups, the base model of “identity politics” may be conserved. However, the particulars should be tweaked in a way that is more conducive to building a single nation out of people of many backgrounds and individual identities. The Financial Times article Is Identity Politics Ruining Democracy presents the book Identity by Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama argues that the solution to American politics is for Americans of majority and minority backgrounds to gradually subordinate their particular identity, which is defined by race, sexuality, and religion, to a ‘universal’ American identity defined by citizenship and public-mindedness. Francis Fukuyama names mandatory service (in the military or otherwise) as one way to achieve this, along with heavier taxes on the rich and a nationalized healthcare system. This would help to soothe both sides of identity politics: the right-wing populist nationalism and the left-wing progressive identity politics, both of which scream for a recognition that they are inescapably different from all others and which reek with an implicit acceptance of racial essentialism, a doctrine which goes against the ideal of a society which aims to grant all individuals, regardless of identity, an equal and unique opportunity to contribute to their community.
In summary, it is foolish to think that the behavior of voting determined by social identity is anything but essential human nature. However, the way that we conduct ourselves within human nature is not set in stone. Imagine a contingent of young Americans who feel intimately connected through service to their peers of all kinds of backgrounds. Although they recognize that they are different in the same way that people with different colored eyes are different, they still look out for each other, and when they go to the polling booth, they make their decision based on what helps and hurts Americans, rather than what helps and hurts white Americans or black Americans. This goes against the zeitgeist, which derides (not without reason) shallow notions of “colorblindness” as harmful idealism which distracts from the real disparities between groups. However, in a society where there is a true colorblindness and not just empty rhetoric calling for it, the views of a person calling for division would not be tolerated for very long.