A recent Vox article made an excellent point about identity politics. Although those on the Right use the term to label and dismiss what they scorn as special pleading by minorities, Vox’s definition is far more accurate.
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.”
As political scientists all attest, those identities are not only stronger than they have previously been, they are also significantly different than they used to be. Thomas Edsall has taken to the New York Times opinion page to confirm those differences.
Edsell cites several research studies that show America politically divided “by levels of diversity; the emergence of an ideologically consistent liberal Democratic Party matching the consistent conservatism of the Republican Party, for the first time in recent history; and a striking discrepancy in the median household income of white-majority House districts held by Democrats and Republicans.”
Those of us of “a certain age” remember when it was the Democratic Party, then strong in the South, that resisted racial integration and civil rights. Back then, the GOP took pride in being the party of Lincoln and emancipation. Today, the parties have traded places sociologically, philosophically and geographically. As Michael Podhorzer has noted, during the first half of the 20th century, Democrats were solidly the party of the bottom of the income distribution, and Republicans were solidly the party of the top half of the income distribution.
Podhorzer finds the parties have become “mirror images” of themselves. At the same time, America has seen a deepening of the urban-rural partisan schism.
“As recently as 2008,” Podhorzer writes, “40 percent of the Democratic caucus represented either rural or sparse suburban districts, and about a fifth of the Republican caucus represented majority-minority, urban or dense suburban districts. Now, the caucuses are sorted nearly perfectly.”
At the same time, divergent economic trends are compounding the urban-rural split.
In 1996, Democrats represented 30 percent of the majority-white districts in the most educated and most affluent category; by 2020, they represented 86 percent. At the other end, in 1996, Democrats represented 38 and 42 percent of the districts in the bottom two categories; by 2020, those percentages fell to 12 and 18 percent.
In examining these trends, political analysts have cited a growing educational divide, with better-educated — and thus more affluent — white voters moving in a liberal Democratic direction while white voters without college have moved toward the right.
Despite the significant educational divide, scholars persuasively argue that education is not the reason for our polarization. Racism is. The data shows that, as Podhorzer puts it, “racial resentment, does a much, much better job of explaining our current political divisions than education polarization.”
Podhorzer provides data showing that from 2000 to 2020, the Democratic margin among white people with and without college degrees who score high on racial resentment scales has fallen from minus 26 percent to minus 62 percent for racially resentful non-college white people and from minus 14 percent to minus 53 percent among racially resentful college-educated white people.
At the same time, the Democratic margin rose from plus 12 to 70 percent over those 20 years among non-college white people low in racial resentment and from 50 to 82 percent among college-educated white people low in racial resentment.
In other words, in contradiction to the education divide thesis, non-college white people who are not racially resentful have become more Democratic, while college-educated white people who are racially resentful have become more Republican.
Today, Republican districts are among the least ethnically diverse, despite the fact that voters within those districts are quite diverse when it comes to policy preferences–especially economic views. Democratic districts tend to be ethnically diverse–but with voters who mostly agree on social and economic issues.
In today’s GOP, the remaining members of the older, pro-business elite share the Republican label with a white working class that is disproportionately rural and racially resentful. The question is, how long can that uncomfortable partnership last?
Everyone who harbors “racial resentment” doesn’t identify as a White Supremacist (which is fortunate, since 80% of ideologically-motivated mass murders last year were committed by White Supremicsts.)
)In the absence of other shared goals, how strong are the bonds forged only by hating the same people?
I guess we’ll find out.