The Era of Identity Politics
by Chris Bowers, Thu Aug 04, 2005 at 01:13:00 PM EDT
Race .25 Chruch At .15 Gender .10 Income .08 Union HH .08 Education .02In two different articles this spring, Maybe it is a Battle of Civilizations and There is No Security Gap, Just an Identity Gap I argued that identity had become the primary driving force of American politics. Specifically, I argued that far beyond any given issue, set of issues, o even ideology, gender, sexuality, race and religion (with a particular emphasis on the last two) were the primary forces driving the current and future make-up of the two coalitions. Generally speaking, Republicans can currently be broadly defined as the coalition of the country's white, Christian and straight plurality, while Democrats can be currently broadly defined as the coalition for everyone else. I even argued that "terrorism" voters are just "values" voters in a different energy state.
Of course, like any generalization, it is inelegant and contains numerous exceptions and qualifiers. There are a number of different factors that determine someone's ideology (family, school, work, religion, media, income, etc). However, I think that it still a useful generalization, because of it's focus upon identity rather than individual issues or even economic status.
Why am I bringing this up? Because recent data from Pew, as seen in the table at the start of this post, bears out my thesis that we are living in a political era that is primarily defined by identity. Identity factors, such race, religion, and gender all have a more direct connection to party affiliation than socio-economic factors, such as income, union membership or education. Considering that the GLBT community votes 70%+ Democrat, I'm certain that if sexuality was included in the graph, that it would be at least the equivalent of race. When it comes to voting and party affiliation, identity seems quite clearly to trump socio-economics.
As we speak, I am blogging from the NDN offices in DC alongside Markos, and I know what some of you out there are thinking. Of course identity trumps economics in determining party affiliation---Democrats and Democratic organizations like NDN have abandoned economic populism are are no longer defenders of the working class! For those of you thinking this, you might find the following bit of history interesting:Analyzing NES data, McCarty found that in the elections of 1956 and 1960, respondents in the highest income quintile were hardly more likely to identify as Republicans than were respondents in the lowest quintile. But by the elections of 1992 and 1996, those in the highest quintile were twice as likely as those in the lowest to call themselves Republicans. Pew's 2000 and 2004 election year surveys show that this pattern has persisted.
In short, the familiar "Republicans are rich/Democrats are poor" stereotype is much more true now - at least at the extremes of the income curve - than it was a half century ago when the AFL-CIO was founded. However, when it comes to partisanship and income, the key battleground in American politics is in the middle brackets. And there, after a long slow climb that has occurred mostly in the past two decades, the GOP has reached parity with the Democrats.That's right--during the peak of the New Deal coalition (Democratic self-identification almost doubled Republican self-identification in the late fifties), income was not a determining factor in party affiliation. And this was during both the ultimate period of economic populism in America, and the ultimate period of Democratic dominance in America.
I am not arguing that we shouldn't adopt a more populist and progressive economic platform. I am not arguing that we shouldn't be doing better among the working and middle class. What I am arguing is that while it is important, economic populism is no where near a silver bullet out of the wilderness because identity, not socio-economic factors, are the primary driving forces in contemporary politics. Thus, whatever else we do, we must adopt a political strategy and language that accepts this reality. Even if I am not sure what that strategy and language would be, I just don't think that there is any way to look at this data and draw any other conclusion.