Identity politics keeps American society healthy

Flyer of South Asian American Voters Association announcing Census 2020 drive event. Photo: Jenifer Rajkumar Twitter

“Suburban women, would you please like me,” pleaded Donald Trump in the latest and weirdest twist to identity politics – the idea that what really moves people is their race, religion, sex or education rather than membership in a broad party coalition.

Across the spectrum, critics blast the pandering: From “Black Lives Matter” to “MeToo” to Trump’s truculent appeals to whiteness, identity politics is said to be ripping the nation apart. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown, D, warned against getting “caught in the maw of identitarian feelings.” It is one of the “chief threats” facing democracies, according to political philosopher Francis Fukuyama.

But there is another side to the story. Identity politics springs from a dynamic society in constant motion. There is always a group on the margins, pressing for a proper place at the American table: Irish, Italians, Catholics, Jews, Chinese, formerly enslaved people, Latinx, Muslims, civil rights activists, same-sex partners, transgender individuals and many more fired up by identity politics. Yes, each group rattles the establishment and provokes culture clashes. But they add up to a vibrant, changing, open society. New groups constantly inject fresh energy and new ideas, and they all faced grumpy pushback from the powers (and the identities) that were.

The creative tumult goes all the way back to the founding of the republic. In the 1790s, for example, conservatives panicked about the “Wild Irishmen” and “French Refugees” coming ashore: “They will corrupt our elections and tear us to pieces,” fretted President John Adams. On the other side, Thomas Jefferson’s party was pressing ballots on the immigrants almost before they had recovered from the sea voyage. Those early immigrants clung to their disruptive ways, promulgating French politics and practicing Roman Catholicism. At the same time, the Jeffersonians were terrified when Adams tried to normalize relations with the formerly enslaved people who had overthrown their masters in Haiti. What message would this send our own enslaved people? they asked one another. Already the debate over the role of Black Americans was beginning to percolate into national politics. Africans, Irish, Frenchmen and more: The first generation fought bitterly over the most profound American question – who are we? Across American history, the answer would come from the rich legacy of identities on the move.

But agitation by one group ultimately benefits others. When one group claims new rights, for example, they often spread to everyone. Take the 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to protect the formerly enslaved people. It boldly granted citizenship to anyone born on America soil – still unusual outside of the Americas – and guaranteed citizens “the equal protection of the laws.” Over time, courts used the 14th Amendment to extend rights to women, to immigrants, to people accused of crimes who could not afford lawyers, and even to White men who felt harmed by affirmative action.

Or take the Civil Rights Act. Passed in 1964 to break segregation in the South, the benefits keep spreading to others. This year, the Supreme Court deployed the act to forbid employment discrimination against transgender individuals. The same lesson springs up time and again. When one group wins new rights, they eventually expand to other Americans.

Identity galvanizes our politics because the alliances themselves are always in flux. Take a group for granted and watch its members slip away to the other party. Black Americans offer the most striking example. They had always voted Republican. African Americans won seats in Congress a total of 45 times over more than 60 years – and every one of them was a Republican. But by the turn of the century, the party had given up on Civil Rights. In the Northern cities, Democratic politicians began to recruit Black voters, newly arrived from the South. By 1936, thanks to both local parties and the New Deal, a majority of northern Black voters punched the Democratic ticket for the first time.

Newspaper columns chuckled over the naivete of Black voters joining a party dominated by Southern segregationists. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not even condemn lynching – he couldn’t afford to lose the South, he told Black leaders. But by the final convention of the New Deal era, in 1948, the liberals had grown strong enough to challenge nervous party leaders, and narrowly approved a rousing civil rights plank that went far further than FDR could have imagined. Southern delegates, reported H.L. Mencken in the Baltimore Sun, “rose to their legs and began to howl.” They walked right out and formed the Dixiecrat Party.

The consequences reverberated in every direction: Black voters eventually became solid Democrats. Republican liberals in the North had been reliant on those Black votes and began to disappear. Republicans conservatives started conquering the South. And Whites eventually made their own switch: Between 1968 and 2016, the Democrats averaged just 39 percent of the White vote in presidential elections as Republicans evolved into the party of White identity. Slowly but surely it lost (or drove out) every other group. A gender gap appeared by the 1980s. Immigrants left too – Asian Americans were the last to defect, sticking to George H.W. Bush (in 1992) and Bob Dole (in 1996) before moving across the aisle. The results are inscribed in the House caucuses – Republican House members in 2020 are just under 90 percent White males; in contrast, Democrats counted just 39 percent White and male.

For a long time, the White voters could be kept in place with little winks and whistles. But as national demographics evolved, Donald Trump resorted to full-throated racial cries, squeezing those last, hard, White votes out of the electorate.

That’s precisely what worries critics. As the racial divide emerged (yet again) in the 1960s, the New York Times served up the conventional wisdom we still hear today: “It is not a little depressing to read that . . . Americans vote only their bloodline, church, neighborhood, and caste.” The clash of group vs. group injects tribal animosities into our politics. It runs from groups reaching for the American Dream to bigots reacting against them.

Why isn’t this a cause for worry? Because identity politics always keeps right on changing. Groups evolve, parties shift, new coalitions emerge. The flux – and the clash – break the old status quo, refresh the culture, and prevent stasis. They are essential to an open society. The 2020 presidential election is just the latest example. White voters, who had anchored the Republican coalition for 50 years, began dramatically resorting themselves all over again – well-educated Whites to the Democrats, low-education Whites clinging fast to Republicans. Meanwhile, liberals stand incredulous as polls show Latinx voters are beginning to slip away from them. Their complaints sound eerily like those of the Republicans as they began to hemorrhage Black voters in the 1930s. Always the same lesson: Take a group for granted and watch it trickle away from your coalition.

Rather than lament the identity politics that has always been central to the American experiment, we ought to address their true gravest danger: the eternal temptation to suppress rival voters. Neither the Constitution nor any of its amendments ensure the right to vote or specifies clear procedures. The result has been constant mischief. From John Adams, who repressed votes from foreigners, to Southern Democrats who feared Black equality, to Donald Trump and his groundless blasts about voter fraud, politicians confront rising new majorities by finding ways to strip their right to vote. The answer to our restless clash of tribes lies not in trying, somehow, to suppress identity politics but in ensuring every side gets heard on Election Day.

American history offers us a clear lesson. Go on and embrace identity politics: It sits at the dynamic heart of the American way. Simultaneously, it’s time to end the long, national tradition of voter suppression. Give everyone the ballot, once and for all, and then celebrate the creative flux of American identity as it shapes and reshapes our politics, our culture and our nation.

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Morone is a professor of political science at Brown University and the author of “Republic of Wrath: How American Politics Turned Tribal from George Washington to Donald Trump.”

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