Why Identity Politics are Killing Our Democracy

Photo by Sara - https://flic.kr/p/tdaFC

About this time last year (give or take a few weeks), my husband got an unplanned two week paid vacation. As a federal employee, he was not allowed to work until Congress managed to pass an appropriations bill to fund the government. While it was a nice break for my husband, others did not fare as well. Families who live paycheck to paycheck had to make do (some people tried to cover bills by mowing lawns and performing other minor services) while “essential” employees were required to work without pay, all without knowing how long the shutdown would last or if they would receive back pay. Millions of lives were disrupted as national parks closed, some social services were temporarily halted, and our standing in the international community was hurt. After all, most countries only shut down the government because of revolutions or disasters, not because of political tantrums.

Republicans shouldered the vast majority of the blame for the negative effects of the shutdown (as they should have given it was their idea of a Photo by Mike Hiatt - https://flic.kr/p/9peSEGgood negotiation tactic). Many people were disgusted with their refusal to compromise, their tone-deaf handling of people’s livelihoods (even though they too are government employees, all of them got paid on time) and their constant emphasis on things that were not going to happen, like defunding “Obamacare.” Yet here we are, a little more than a year later, and the latest election just gave them control of both houses of Congress. It makes no sense.

It is a particular head scratcher when you read polls and talk to people – even those who voted Republican – and realize that they do not believe  in what the current crop of Republicans espouse. The vast majority of people are in favor of protecting the environment, upholding women’s rights, maintaining a strong public education system, providing access to affordable healthcare, safeguarding civil rights, and giving assistance to families. For example, many PTA mothers at my son’s school (located in the reddest county in Texas) are furious with the state legislature for cutting funds for public education and believe firmly in access to birth control for women. Yet they eagerly go to the polls to vote Republican and re-elect people like Sam Johnson (who, at age 84, is probably no longer in his prime) who does not stand for what they believe.

I could continue ad nauseum in this vein (just take a look at Kansas where they re-elected the governor who even moderate Republicans have noticed is running the state into the ground!) but hopefully you see my point. People are voting against their beliefs and their self-interests. This is not a new phenomenon, so the issue I am pondering is not whether it is occurring but why and the answer is identity politics. Identity politics is a useful phrase that explains that how people vote depends upon the group to which they think they belong. This is especially true for conservatives who often believe strongly in group membership. Liberals tend to be more diverse which, as the recent election just demonstrated, comes with its own problems.

While group membership can be great, in the case of identity politics, it is dangerous because it tends to be done without much critical thought. There is a ton of research to support this. Instead of analyzing the issues and seeing which candidate supports their self-interest and vote accordingly, people automatically align with the group they believe describes them. And once they’ve done that, it is over. Their minds are made up and no amount of facts or rational explanations will sway them, so you might as well not argue. That is why some people who identify as conservatives refuse to accept climate change even though they see the result of it in, for example, increased childhood asthma rates and extreme weather. It is why conservatives lean toward equating Obamacare with socialism, believing voter fraud is actually a problem, and thinking religious freedom only applies to Christians.

So what is to be done? If there is no convincing people to look at actual facts (and, indeed, some of them are anti-science to boot which is just mindboggling), then how are we to get them to actually vote their self-interest? I don’t have all the answers here – I wish I did – but one of the ways researchers found worked in getting around identity politics was to discuss facts without labeling them as conservative or liberal. In studies on evolution, they found that if the facts weren’t characterized as proof of evolution, people would agree with the details and eventually come around to accepting the big picture.

I also think you have to make it personal. People can agree with things theoretically but when they realize how it impacts them, then their views can change. I once pointed out to someone that her outrageously high hospital bill (which she was blaming Obamacare for) would not happen if we had universal healthcare and she thought it over and agreed. Similarly, people who support cutting funds for education will suddenly change their minds when they realize this means their children will not get the services they need or that their sister will lose her teaching position. Socialism doesn’t sound so scary when people realize that they’ve been enjoying the benefits of our libraries, fire departments, police departments, and Social Security for years.

In other words, instead of having general political conversations, we need to have more intimate ones. We must stop painting everything with such broad strokes and put issues into personal context. Instead of initially pointing to a particular candidate (who belongs to a specific group), we should talk about the issues and find areas of agreement and consensus. Only then should the discussion turn toward particular candidates to determine who would be best. Yes, it would be a different way of doing politics and it will mean a lot more hard work but the potential benefits could be tremendous. When people feel heard, they are more likely to become engaged which, in a democracy, is essential. Besides, the alternative seems worse.

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