Just a year a so ago, the phrase “identity politics” had a musty and arcane air to it, redolent as it was of early 1990s campus battles over issues of gender and racial representation. Yet very quickly and unexpectedly, identity politics has gained a new urgency—not just because of the renewal of campus activism at places like Yale and Mizzou, but even more importantly because national politics has become infused with issues of group definition. In a time when the economy is still struggling to escape the Great Recession and where Middle Eastern turmoil still dominates the headlines, it would be natural to assume that the next presidential election would be about the economics or foreign policy. Yet in both the Republican and Democratic debates, identity politics has increasingly shaped and colored all other topics.
Economics and foreign policy haven’t gone away, but they are increasingly being talked about in terms of identity. The debate over accepting Syrian refugees has been a prime example, with Republicans citing not just purported security fears but also playing up the idea that America’s supposed Judeo-Christian identity is under threat—as evidenced by Ted Cruz’s suggestion that only Christian refugees be admitted. On the left, the strongest argument for accepting refugees is also rooted in a conception of identity—that as a pluralist nation with international moral obligations, the United States has a duty to accept these refugees. Identity is the inescapable prism through which American national politics is now viewed.
Donald Trump has made a hardline stance against undocumented immigrants the central topic of debate on the Republican side. Trump’s advocacy of deporting all undocumented immigrants isn’t just a matter of economics or even of the supposed criminality he attributes to Mexicans immigrants (who he famously described en masse as “rapists.”) Rather, immigration for Trump is fundamentally a matter of national identity: A county that doesn’t have absolute control of its borders is for him a non-entity. “We either have a country or we don’t have a country,” Trump insisted in the fourth GOP debate, hosted by Fox Business. “But we have no choice if we’re going to run our country properly and if we’re going to be a country.”
This issue of national identity is firmly linked with race, which is why Trump hasn’t hesitated to draw attention to Jeb Bush’s Mexican-born wife or to suggest that Marco Rubio favors amnesty because he is the son of Cuban immigrants. A similar racial cast could be detected in Trump’s suggestion that Ben Carson was unfit to be president because of his “pathological” temper—which, as Dara Lind rightly noted on vox.com, carried with it undertones of the “black savage” trope.
But Republican identity politics isn’t confined to Trump’s savaging of his rivals. It is also taking the form of candidates implicitly arguing that they can present a more congenial image of the party. A large part of the appeal of both Carson and Rubio is that they have inspiring life stories that are proof of the conservative ideal that individual drive and talent can overcome social barriers. Moreover, Carson as a black man and Rubio as a Latino can present a face of the Republican Party that makes it more welcoming to a multiracial America. Part of Carly Fiorina’s pitch is also based on identity—on the idea that as a successful female executive, she both offers an alternative model to Hilary Clinton’s brand of feminism and helps shield the GOP from “war on women” accusations.
On the Democratic side, the crucial issue isn’t who counts as an American but who can best further feminism and civil rights. Much more than in 2008, Hillary Clinton is playing up her status as a path-breaker who would vault a major barrier if elected as the first female president. When challenged in the second Democratic debate by Bernie Sanders about her Wall Street funding, Clinton won avid applause by saying, “I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small. And I’m very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent.”
Sanders might have wanted to run an old-fashioned bread-and-butter social democratic campaign based on economic issues, but he has become, perhaps inevitably, entangled with issues of identity. As Sanders supporter Kathleen Geier noted in a shrewd article at Salon, there’s a feminist divide in the Democratic camp. “There are serious feminist cases to be made for both candidates,” Geier writes. “In fact, the feminist divide on the 2016 election reflects a classic feminist dilemma between liberal feminists and socialist feminists, and the politics of representation vs. the politics of redistribution.” Unfortunately, this feminist divide often devolves into a battle of competing caricatures, with “Bernie Bros” accused of being know-it-all sexists and feminist Clinton supporters portrayed as (to use Geier’s words) “dumb, shallow chicks who care only about dumb, shallow chick stuff.”
Beyond the feminist divide, all the Democratic candidates have had to grapple with the challenges of the new civil rights movement and learn to say “black lives matter.” The failure of Jim Webb to get on board with this message was one prominent sign that his old-school centrist Democratic politics no longer had a place in the national party.
Why are issues of identity dominating the 2016 campaign? Partly it’s a sign of how transformative Barack Obama’s presidency has been. As the first African-American president, he has shown that the White House doesn’t have to be the preserve of white men. This has both opened politics to a wider array of candidates and also produced a deep anxiety among conservative Americans about the changing demographics of the country. The rise of Donald Trump, who first gained traction as a political figure because of his Birther questioning of Obama’s citizenship, has been part and parcel of the continued right-wing backlash against Obama. Conversely, the enthusiasm generated by figures like Carson and Rubio is an attempt by the Republicans to show that they also have non-white politicians who can win in post-Obama America.
The nature of national politics has also changed since the pivotal election of 2000. During that election and the subsequent one, Karl Rove showed how a national party could win not by appealing to the center but by revving up the base, a lesson that the Democrats applied with great success in 2008 and 2012. Getting out the vote is now seen as more important than winning over swing voters, which creates a strong incentive for parties to energize core voters by appealing to issues that define their identity (and make it impossible for them to vote for the other party). The logic of identity politics has been building for a long time in national politics, and in this election cycle we see that a polarized political landscape also means a heightening of identity politics.
National politics is merely the crest of the deeper social movements that flow through society. With the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter and the new feminist energy that pervades popular culture and the online world, it is natural that identity issues (and the backlash they provoke) would echo loudly in presidential politics.
There’s a tendency among a certain class of pundits to act as if identity politics were a distraction from more fundamental matters like economics and foreign policy. What this line of thought ignores is the fact that economics and foreign policy are themselves saturated with questions of identity. Donald Trump is right in emphasizing the question of whether “we’re going to be a country.” Politics is inevitably about not just policy but people: who is included, who gets excluded, who has power, and does not.