Race, Identity, and Polarization

In 2016, race and identity became the central fissure in American politics. This poses a major risk to our democracy. Identity politics is not like other politics. It is divisive at its core. It is about us-versus-them. It is fundamentally zero-sum. And if it is allowed to flourish, it will undermine the shared sense of legitimacy and purpose that a democracy requires. These conflicts are likely to continue to worsen in the years ahead. The Trump administration’s cabinet picks demonstrate a hard-right turn on issues of race, identity, and immigration. And, as several commentators have noted, we should expect Trump to turn to these divisive issues if he can’t deliver on his economic promises or his popularity fails otherwise.

Unlike others who work on racial politics, we view identity politics from structural perspective. Politics involves many issues, across multiple dimensions. But in a two-party system like the one we have in America, there can really only be one primary dividing conflict at any given time, since there are only two parties. The consequence is that our two parties must exist as broad big-tent coalitions, cobbling together a variety of disparate groups and interests into one coherent framework. In a nation as large and diverse as the United States, this is no easy task. It requires a delicate balancing act and careful messaging. And the bigger the party gets, the harder it is to keep all the different groups and factions satisfied. At this moment, identity politics is now the glue that holds the two party coalitions together because both parties are divided internally by class. To raise money, they need to appeal to their wealthiest supporters, which often means championing economic policies most of their voters disagree with. To distract voters from this disconnect, party leaders are left with only one option: identity politics.  

This current alignment is also the consequence of a 50-year shift in party coalitions in American politics, in which non-college educated whites most prone to white identity politics came to nest fully in the Republican Party, and minorities and college-educated whites most supportive of diversity moved to the Democratic Party. Viewing this from a structural perspective helps us to understand that there are both strong incentives that party leaders have to maintain identity-based politics, and long-term historical trends that cannot be easily unwound. This is not a matter of more civil discourse. It is a matter of structural political incentives and demographics.

To solve this problem, then, we need to look closely at the forces pushing to stoke identity politics. Right now, we believe a majority of Americans don’t want politics to be about identity. But that majority is split between the two parties and, therefore, is held captive by the two parties. Solving this problem, then, leads us to solutions that undermine the need for parties to hold together around identity.