Despite reports to the contrary, identity politics isn’t dead — it’s been born again. Identity politics is both an electoral strategy and a governing strategy designed to protect power. Even as a newly emerging nation affirming its freedom from the British crown, the United States restricted citizenship based on race, gender and religious identity. Today many conservatives use the phrase “identity politics” as a pejorative to denounce demands from underrepresented groups, but appeals to group-based identities are central to how candidates build support regardless of party affiliation. The latest presidential election hasn’t changed that.
Some people reject identity politics because they believe organizing around group interests promotes societal blame over personal responsibility. President Donald Trump capitalized on this tension by issuing an executive order in September purportedly meant to “combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” by banning diversity training and withdrawing certain research grants and programs. In reality the order was a political strategy designed to counter claims that systemic racism is baked into the American fabric. As various corporations and sports teams affirmed their commitment to addressing issues of bias, the president seized on the opportunity to reject these demands and reassure his base his priorities had not changed.
Amid a global COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately claiming the lives of Black and Indigenous Americans, demands for comprehensive policing reform stretched across the summer following the deaths of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude and others. Even as Black Lives Matter bloomed into what may be the largest political movement in American history, the failure in September to indict officers in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor motivated voters to express either support or discontent at the ballot box.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, about 60% of white Americans, 75% of Asian Americans, 86% of Black Americans and 77% of Latino respondents said they approved of the Black Lives Matter movement in June. By September, support had significantly dropped among white and Hispanic respondents while holding steady among Asian and Black populations.
The heated dog-whistle appeals from a number of conservative candidates surrounding “law and order” coupled with demands to “back the blue” at demonstrations across the country supporting the police solidified these identity-based divides while overlooking voters who see systemic change as a means to keep law enforcement and the public safe. Early Election Day exit polls show that more than 90% of people who see racial inequality as the major issue facing the U.S. voted for Joe Biden for president. By comparison, about 70% of voters who believe crime and violence are the major threats cast ballots for Donald Trump. The very juxtaposition of the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements reveals the deeply entrenched nature of identity politics in the U.S.
Uprisings in Los Angeles as well as Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; and Washington, D.C., among other cities, overlapped with heated debates over whether to remove monuments and rename buildings that served as tributes to the Confederacy. In Connecticut, incumbent U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro was accused by her opponent of abandoning her Italian heritage after she suggested a Christopher Columbus statue be replaced. The attacks by her challenger, who is Jewish, led to a show of support from prominent members of the state’s Italian and Jewish communities and an unexpected endorsement from a local police union.
Two weeks ago in Rhode Island, 52% of voters decided it was finally time to remove the word “Plantation” from the state’s official name — State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — after nearly 80% of voters had rejected a similar effort 10 years earlier. Mississippi voters approved a new flag design that traded Confederate symbols for a magnolia flower and the words “In God We Trust” while overwhelmingly electing a U.S. senatorial candidate who publicly stated her willingness to attend a public lynching if invited by a supporter. Change always comes in fits and starts in American politics.
One hundred years after some women gained the right to vote, Kamala Harris emerged as the first woman of Black and Asian descent to run on a major party ticket. Even as 2020 produced the largest and most diverse cadre of women pursuing elected office, the president’s direct appeals to suburban housewives rested on old tropes related to race, gender and class by stoking fears of declining home values and increased crime targeting defenseless women.
Fifty-five years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — and seven years after it was gutted by the Supreme Court — the U.S. saw unprecedented voter registration and turnout despite allegations of voter suppression in Texas and Florida. Many young people channeled their protests into voting and heeded the admonition by the late civil rights activist and late civil-rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to “make good trouble.” And yet the images of angry residents descending upon election centers in Phoenix and Detroit earlier this month were eerily reminiscent of civil rights era fights over whose ballots should be counted.
In the coming days we’ll have a sharper sense of how these identity-based appeals translated into votes and what change will happen because of them. Not just at the presidential level, but across all levels of government. Republicans’ modest gains among white women, Latino voters, the LGBTQ+ population and Black men from 2016 to 2020 affirm the inherently intersectional nature of identity and the need to better understand the tremendous diversity that exists within communities.
Identity politics is dynamic and contextual. The prospects of a divided government in Washington on the cusp of major redistricting efforts across the states enhance the need to view democracy as a battle over how we see ourselves, how we see others — and the power we have to reinforce those distinctions.
Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science and senior director for inclusive excellence at Quinnipiac University. She is the author of “Identity Politics in the United States.” She wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times.