Identity Partisanship

A recent Vox “explainer” by Ezra Klein rebuts some post-2016-election punditry–while confirming emerging political science research on partisan identity.

Klein’s article began with an important point that is often overlooked: the term “identity politics” is too often used to diminish the importance or legitimacy of political demands made by historically marginalized groups. It is a handy way to dismiss demands by African-American voters for action on police brutality, for example.

Corporate CEOs asking for tax cuts or suburban voters demanding action on health care costs, well, that’s just normal politics.

This narrowed definition obscures the true might of identity politics. Virtually all politics is identity politics, and the most powerful political identities are the biggest political identities — Democrat and Republican, which are increasingly merging with our racial, geographic, religious, and cultural groups to create what the political scientist Lilliana Mason calls “mega-identities.”

These mega-identities influence the way we interact with reality. Who we are influences not just our policy preferences, but what we believe is true. The column quotes from a recent, important book titled “Identity Crisis.”

  • During Barack Obama’s presidency, polling showed Republicans making more than $100,000 a year were more dissatisfied with the state of the economy than Democrats making less than $20,000 a year. Economic anxiety was “in large part a partisan phenomenon.”
  • It was also a racial phenomenon. Prior to Obama, measures of racial resentment didn’t predict views on the economy. After Obama, they did. It’s worth stating that clearly: The more racially resentful you were, the worse you thought the economy was doing, even controlling for your party, circumstance, and so on. This flipped as soon as Donald Trump was elected: The more racial resentful you were, the more economically optimistic you became.
  • Among Republican primary voters, Trump did not do better with Republicans who worried that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” or that the system “unfairly favors powerful interests.” Nor did he routinely lead the field among Republicans who felt betrayed by their party. There’s little evidence, in other words, that Trump voters were registering outrage with the political system as a whole.
  • Trump destroyed the rest of the Republican field among primary voters who were angry about immigration. He did 40 points better among Republican voters with the most negative views of immigration than among those with the most positive views. Trump’s success, in other words, was that he ran an issue-based candidacy on an issue where he was closer to the Republican base than the other candidates were.
  • The same was true with attitudes toward Muslims: “Trump performed significantly better with Republican voters who rated Muslims relatively unfavorably in 2011 than he did with Republican voters who rated Muslims relatively favorably.” By contrast, views of Muslims did not affect support for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.
  •  And so it went for race too. Republican voters who attributed racial inequality to a lack of effort among African Americans rather than past and present discrimination were 50 points likelier to support Trump. Similarly, Republicans who told pollsters they felt coldly toward African Americans in 2011 were 20 points likelier to support Trump than Republicans who said they felt warmly toward African Americans.

There was much more along the same lines. It adds to the steady accumulation of evidence that has emerged in the wake of the 2016 election, that Obama’s Presidency moved less-educated, more racially-resentful Americans to the GOP, and widened the attitudinal and cultural gap between the parties.

In Pew Research Center surveys from 2007, whites were just as likely to call themselves Democrats as Republicans (roughly 44%-44%). But whites quickly fled the Democratic Party during Obama’s presidency. By 2010, whites were 12 points more likely to be Republicans than Democrats (51%-39%). By 2016, that gap had widened to 15 points (54%-39%).

This, um, white flight was concentrated at the bottom of the education ladder. “Whites who did not attend college were evenly split between the two parties in Pew surveys conducted from 1992 to 2008,” write the authors. “But by 2015, white voters who had a high school degree or less were 24 percentage points more Republican than Democratic.”

The conclusions of the study were unambiguous, and debunked both the theory that economic anxiety drove Trump’s voters, and the theory that a weak economic recovery catalyzed the racial resentment that drove Trump’s voters.

The correct synthesis is the reverse: Racial resentment driven by Obama’s presidency catalyzed economic anxiety among Trump’s voters.

As other studies have documented, racial resentment has been stoked–“activated”– by growing White Christian realization that America’s demographics are changing. As Klein says,

 Politics is increasingly revolving around fights that activate the Democratic-diverse America identity and the Republican-white America identity.

We shouldn’t expect Trump to be the terminal point of this kind of political appeal, which means we need books like Identity Crisis that help us understand it.


  1. How account for a black neighbor older than 75 who voted for Trump because he would oppose abortions (which are decreasing); and one of the women accusing Kavanaugh lied.

  2. Facts and evidence aren’t everything…just ask the alt-right.

    Is it possible that the USA needs to redefine “politics” and the “political spectrum”?

    The majority of definitions include “gaining” and “holding onto power”.

    In an Oligarchy, the people have no power. They are oppressed. Therefore, the political spectrum is really what brand of oppression or oligarchic power you support.

    a. Let the billionaires rule without government interference (GOP) or
    b. Let Wall Street rule without government interference (DNC).

    So, where exactly do people power or democracy come into play?

    We just watched an amazing surge from populists on the left (democratic socialists) winning major congressional seats. This will quickly be dismissed by forcing a chief strategic DNC player (Nancy Pelosi) on them.

    Let’s see, the progressives refused to take corporate cash so they could make rulings against Wall Street and the Billionaires in favor of the people. The Wall Street owned DNC actors will resist, obstruct and deny.

    You must understand that when any oligarchic politician is referred to as “our most strategic player”, they are really saying manipulator. They make you think you are getting power when you’re not.

    Every progressive cause like single-payer, free tuition, raising the minimum wage, etc. will be quietly defeated and the oligarchic media will tell us it’s best for society. “We couldn’t afford with the deficit so high.” BLAH, BLAH, BLAH…

    When the people have no power, there is no democracy. When reps from Indiana receive monies for their campaign from entities outside their district, there is no such thing as “representative republic”.

    We need new terms because politics and it’s most often used spectrum are no longer relevant. It assumes a balance of power between people and rulers. We don’t have balance and I’m not sure we ever did except for a decade around FDR but that period scared the hell out of the oligarchs. They’ve been working ever since shatter unions and democracy so it would never happen again.

  3. Wayne,

    Misogyny exists in all races. It is not solely them realm of white males. In your neighbor’s case, his dislike for women spoke louder than his race.

    Nobody should be shocked by the numbers here. We have experienced backlash after every positive social movement. In this case the backlash has given us whiplash.

  4. Todd,

    Where do you think the billionaire Republicans reside? Podunk? THEY are the moguls of Wall St. THEY operate the money machine. Democrats merely are driven to where the money is, or they would have none. The idea of the oligarchs is to starve the opposition until they have complete control. Surely even you can see that.

    Meanwhile, we all have friends and acquaintances who fall into the identity categories. Each of us does, to a certain extent, have some sort of identity. Most of my high school classmates still living (class of 1960) are staunch Republicans and will NOT listen to anything but the right-wing memes. They have complained mightily how painful their endurance of the Obama years was even as their stock portfolio grew. Ostriches. Racists? You bet. It’s about their tribe. End of story.

  5. I worked opening early voting absentee ballots on election day with a older black man, self-identified as a Democrat, who voted for DT because he was so impressed with his business success. This man was college educated but had fallen on hard times due to medical disability and the huge bills resulting from serious, long hospitalizations. I was stunned when he told me who he voted for in 2016. He still supported his choice.

    My husband and I both came to the conclusion that DT was successful in winning election because the vast majority of his supporters were racists. McConnell and other Republican politicians, who are racists themselves, cynically used that rising race-based anger to push through their own agenda, enriching the corporatists and oligarchs who pay for their services, rolling back as many of the New Deal social programs as they could while deregulating to allow more and more wealth and power into the pockets of the greedy and powerful.

    Sad to say, 40% of the country is racist, selfish and un-Christian as clearly demonstrated by their continued vocal and aggressive support of DT/Pence and their enablers. I fear it will take a serious economic crisis (coming sooner rather than later?) to force a change. Unfortunately, DT will blame failures on the opposition, the courts, immigrants, ANYONE other than himself and his fellow haters and they will believe him.

  6. I think people choose parties because they either have empathy or they don’t.

    Dems have empathy for all humans and their policies show it. Rep don’t have any empathy unless it happens to them. For example, the GOP doesn’t want anyone to have healthcare especially if they don’t. Like I said yesterday or the day before, they got theirs, you get yours without my help or tax dollars.

    Those that graduated in 1960, their time is about up and once they are gone, (well most of them because not all of that class are idiots), a new world will emerge. Hopefully, one with more compassion and empathy.

  7. Many Democrats do not like it that the party has become ONLY a coalition of identities: black identities; brown; female; LGBTQ; immigrant; cultural; and has done so at the sacrifice of its previous coalition of egalitarian (almost populist) identities. And it is the sacrifice of egalitarian issues that galls the most, especially because egalitarian ideals automatically benefit all the above.

    The everyday manifestation of that tragedy was Hillary Clinton’s speeches and stump comments. When speaking of identity groups, especially women and children, passion and long elaborations flowed into her statements, but when (rarely, if at all) she spoke of class struggles, employment, jobs, living wages, manufacturing, blue-collar issues, etc., passion wilted noticeably. She often said coldly about egalitarian issues that it’s all in the platform.

    Egalitarian souls out in the cold noticed their expulsion from the party.

    And so did Republicans. They were happy to pluck for their own use the treasure chest of egalitarian issues left in the frosted weeds by Clinton and the DNC. Even in his lies and ignorance, Trump expressed something that looked a lot like passion for issues that used to belong to the egalitarian, and the abandoned egalitarian desperately clutched onto a new champion. Sad!

    If all the disappointed egalitarians in the Democratic party had moved to Trump, he would have won by a landslide, perhaps as large as he imagines. If Hillary Clinton had held onto them, an easy task, really, the landslide victory would have been hers.

  8. Racism and abortion – winning issues in this 21st century? Well, yes, so far, but better times are coming. The millennials in the main aren’t having it and that’s the good news as the rest of us unhappy warriors go our way. Backlashes work both ways and while many if if not most of us will not see it happen, the Brazilian future of a mixed society in the process of tanning out is well on its way, a demographic that is currently exploited as a negative by politicians on both sides to scare up the votes from those of us who vote the status quo – as though we can stop or even slow the coming demographic of a racial and abortion-free society. The new society will probably find new means of dividing one from another in that future, but at least it won’t be the issues that presently divide us, whether classified as identity politics or God-ordered rules for society.

    All of the foregoing by your village Nostradamus assumes that we survive the present holocaust visited on us by Trump, of course, and the jury is still out on the possibility that millennials will be the serfs who serve the denizens of the castle if terminal asset-gatherers like Trump, Kochs and Mercers have their way. Time (and our perseverance) will tell. Meanwhile, let’s preserve our democracy so that at least some of the choices of social order and economic isms in the future remain with us as citizens – not serfs.

  9. Trump brought ” white identity ” politics out of the closet in a way we haven’t seen since George Wallace.

  10. Now this:

    Europe must get a handle on immigration to combat a growing threat from rightwing populists, Hillary Clinton has said, calling on the continent’s leaders to send out a stronger signal showing they are “not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support”.

    “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame,” Clinton said, speaking as part of a series of interviews with senior centrist political figures about the rise of populists, particularly on the right, in Europe and the Americas.

    “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

    Interesting Hillary wants to close the borders in Europe to refugees and migrants. The most recent Middle Eastern and North African refugees and migrants can be traced back to Bush the Younger’s invasion of Iraq, which Hillary voted for and the assassination of Qaddafi in Libya which the Obama – Hillary team instigated.

  11. Todd @ “Every progressive cause like single-payer, free tuition, raising the minimum wage, etc. will be quietly defeated and the oligarchic media will tell us it’s best for society. “We couldn’t afford with the deficit so high.” BLAH, BLAH, BLAH…”

    I would add the McMega-Media will also tell us, we must now be “pragmatic”, that is principles will need to be sacrificed on the altar of centrist politics.

    As Bernie Sanders has written: “is not good enough for Democrats to just be the anti-Trump party.”

    Sanders has a plan for Democrats and Progressives:
    1.) Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and indexing it to median wage growth thereafter.
    2.) A path toward Medicare-for-all.
    3.) Bold action to combat climate change.
    4.) Fixing our broken criminal-justice system.
    5.) Comprehensive immigration reform.
    6.) Progressive tax reform.
    7.) A $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
    8.) Lowering the price of prescription drugs.
    9.) Making public colleges and universities tuition-free and substantially reducing student debt.
    10.) Expanding Social Security.

  12. Today, lack of empathy (“I got mine. What’s wrong with you?”) and racism go far to explain political preferences. Another attitude I would rank at the same level of importance is an affinity (or lack thereof) for critical thinking. Many Republicans (like Ted Cruz) did brilliantly academically, yet couldn’t win a juried debate with a six year old because their minds are impervious to facts and evidence. Worse, they deny the relevance of data-driven arguments to reality. This cuckoo’s- nest mentality is meant to drive the rest of us to the brink when it is supported by 40% of the population.

    That’s not to say that critical thinking will win most arguments. It simply points out that when thought is distanced from reality, as for example in people’s attitudes toward climate change, the ultimate price will, as Stephen Covey liked to point out, be paid. Reality has not yet lost an argument and never will. In the long run, Democrats may end up in the unfortunate position of being dead right.

  13. One way to look at “identity politics” is as a manifestation of who each of us choose to grant credibility to in reference to all of those in the public eye who let us know what’s going on in politics. I have to admit in addition to serious reporting one such person for me is Jimmy Kimmel who fills every monologue with a hilarious take down of Trump as our naked king.

    Another family who will always have the most profound credibility as far as I am concerned are the Obamas. To me they will always exemplify who we should be as families and people.

    Expanding my personal beliefs out to include all my fellow residents of the US though it’s clear that we as a country were and are not ready for the racial reality that a half black President represented. There are questions as to how receptive we would be to a female President.

    I am absolutely incredulous at those who grant Trump or Pence or any of the clown cabinet or Mitch McConnell credibility when it’s clear to me that none of them have any idea how to do their jobs and lie often and magnificently to try to cover up that reality. Apparently though among the inclusive “we” are many people who do trust what they say.

    Politics used to be the skill with which people could become credible among the greatest variety of citizens. Now it’s strictly who can become credible among only the groups that are demographically sufficient to get elected, the heck with the rest.

    There’s a name for that, “branding”, and it’s no coincidence that it has consumed the entire world of marketing not just politics.

  14. im a blue collar,trucker, and theres always been a imagination how we think. im progressive,and never heard that word related to my belief in people,and goverment. ive watched both sides in congress,and the president since i was 10, and with some conversation with my grandfolks,,demos, was led into a liberal society. i can make a vison,no, i made a look,at all around me,who I,was associated with. home town,newark n.j. kids who, were mainly of ethnic backgrounds,mostly african americans,and puerto ricans,but,in the white side, intalians,jews,germans,and some eastern europeans,who,came here after ww2. few asians,but, they have been here for many generations as i remeber. we all had working class famlies,and many were union,non union or goverment hired. but we all had jobs.seems we walked the same street,talked the same about most subjects,and,even the cop who actully stood on a corner,would talk to you about anything.the barber shops,on the street (there was a time when we actually talked to each other face to face) in the local park,we had the retired,the vets,and i may have been the kast genertaion that remembers grass field where the locals bowled on the greens. my grandad didnt mince words when racial tensions were happening, he didnt like people being targeted for repression by the local cops,who, seem to have some accounts to be diffrent. he could see,where the society alone left many out to dispare so others could have jobs,or, seek another way of life,which the courts had the final say. too many times ive watched people railroaded to extinction because of thier socioeconomic status,in America. when we talk here about party affiliation,its no matter what party you hail too, the people represneted are denied something,and with both parties agreeing to it. seems parties believe we all think the same,and they act accordingly,,BS,, its a parties own needs first,no diffrent than corprate to defend to the so called end,(that must mean eat everyones invested money,and say its o.k.right?) when we start a new congress in january,if pelosi is reelected again as speaker,is it the same ol, same ol? we elected this time on facts,and the hard earned truth,the working class is now the economic slave to wall street,and the republicans supprted it. (all the way to the bank,without regard to the people) party affiliation sould now be a party of the real majority,the working class. even the trumpers cant deny,as working class,were screwed otherwise. though they allow a bigotry based thinking to override the subject,and present itself in media,and social media,its been more propaganda,and reenforced by media. sure i deal with trumpers all day,and they avoid me,i do not allow anyone to overlook who they are,and the responsability they must have to be ahead of this working persons game. i keep them thinking,and i dont even care if i call them a bigot,and why…. if identity is defind in todays bigotry,then the republicans would have added 40 more seats to congress nov 6. they didnt, we all have seen what idenity has done now in trumps train wreck. ( train wrecks,we have federal investigations for that,wheres this one?) if the problem and propaganda,as i hear it,those demos are going to tax us!!! no,get the word out,we want our money back from wall streets greed,and a goverment by the people again. seems were still being hammered by party idenity in the media,i call it propaganda.
    best wishes,,, and dont stop at the republican station enroute..
    a fun note,i bought three used bicycles the other day at a thrift store,and i have ageement with the manager,they are to be given away to a single parent,who,needs a gift for thier kids. paid in full,, my bicycle was my freedom for a few hours everyday. remember?

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