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On Identity Politics

By On

Human identity is a complex thing - we self-identify in our social interactions and institutions on various scales and using different badges of identity. At the most basic, we self-identify as humans using physical descriptors - young, old, male, female, short, tall. Further forms of self-identity denote membership in groups important in our lives. Religious affiliation - Christian, Jewish, Muslim, e.g. - is historically a strong identity with fervent and deep associations of community and celebration of significant life passages. Religious affiliation is frequently intertwined with tribal affiliation - even forming the basis of tribal affiliation. Consider the deep conflicts between religious adherents within the same tribe - Protestants v. Catholics in Ireland (or earlier pretty much all over Europe) or between Serbs and Croats, united by a common tribal language but separated by alphabet and religion - Orthodox Serbs use Cyrillic; Catholic Croats use the Latin alphabet. And affiliations are strong glue - they are persistent over the generations.

So the idea of tapping affiliations for political gain makes sense - politics is the art of the sell, which requires an emotional reaction - how better to trigger and use this emotional reaction than to use what is most important to people in their lives? Further, affiliations make it possible to tailor a message for an identifiable group, and ensure the message is heard in terms meaningful to that group.

Now we are fortunate to live in a country that is in its supreme law prohibits the establishment of religion - the founders being mostly offspring of dissenters to the established religions of Europe. And this has been extended over the years to make political appeals to religion a forbidden tactic - can you imagine a political campaign in America that openly courted Catholics: “every good Catholic should vote Republican”? Or, every Protestant needs to vote Democrat? Despite Mr. Trump’s stated aim to eliminate the restrictions on politicking from the pulpit for IRS-registered 501(c)3 churches , and other ethnic and religious provocations,appeals to religion in politics are generally verboten. We shall see where Mr. Trump and his anti-Muslim rhetoric take us - he is clearly aiming to create and court an in-group that doesn’t contain Muslims. And he did win the election.

As an immigrant, it seems strange to me how deep people’s political affiliations are in this country - generations of families are Democratic or Republican, to the extent that for a sizeable chunk, it’s effectively a tribal identity. But for the political parties, these people are a given, a loyal quantity. It’s the unaffiliated, the independent, that needs to be reached through other identities. And both parties practice it, or at least losing candidates do! Mitt Romney famously stated “47% of Americans pay no income tax” to an audience of millionaires and billionaires, further stating

“All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it”.

Clearly, he was pandering to the self-identities of his wealthy supporters as hard-working wealth and employment-creators, by contrast to the parasitic underclass that lives on handouts from the government. That his statement was false, an insult to all the working poor who don’t earn enough to pay income tax (but they do pay Social Security and Medicare Taxes) probably cost him the election. And deservedly so - this is a man who pays a lower rate of income tax on his 30 millionth dollar than his secretary pays on her 30 thousandth dollar - and sees nothing at all wrong with that. (Note that the Democrats have done NOTHING to end the carried interest loophole - popular as it is with their Goldman Sachs alumni).

Similarly, losing candidate Hillary Clinton, speaking to a group of LGBTQ voters, called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables”, pandering as she was to her own supporters’ political identities. And Labor Secretary Tom Perez advised Clinton campaign manager Tom Podesta to divide Sanders’ supporters by dividing them by race:

“Emmy and the team have a good plan to attract all minority voters. When we do well there, then the narrative changes from Bernie kicks ass among young voters to Bernie does well only among young white liberals—that is a different story and a perfect lead in to South Carolina, where once again, we can work to attract young voters of color.”

So what can we conclude? Perhaps identity politics, at least as practised to pander to an in-group and insult an out-group, is not a winning strategy? Divide and Rule is not the best strategy for a democracy? Especially when the dividing is done based on identities that are racist, and sexist? To the Clinton campaign, the intersectionality represented by the South Asian female engineer had great allure - person of color? Check! Female? Check! Highly-educated? Check! Good to go - the basket of deplorables, racist troglodites, can be dismissed and insulted because they are the wrong color, wrong gender, and no education? Great strategy!

About David Camp

Writer • Member since Jul 12, 2009

David Camp is a cpa (Canada'86; USA'96) and MBA (Schulich'88) who toiled thirty years in the corporate salt mines, counting beans and telling stories to the auditors and whatnot. Now [...]

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