After five tumultuous months, the 2016 presidential primaries finally ended this week. There is plenty to regret—the elevation of insult comedy, racial polarization and angry populism. But there’s also a little noticed silver lining that’s worth celebrating.
For all our talk about the resurgence of identity politics in American culture—from college campuses to newsrooms – they have not driven political attachments in this dark circus of a campaign season. And to the extent identity politics is a factor, it has ironically surfaced primarily on the right.
Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign to become the first female president didn’t automatically translate to the support of millennial women in the primaries, who supported Bernie Sanders by a 2-to-1 margin. Gender politics didn’t drive their support as much as Bernie’s authenticity and ideas.
Likewise, Bernie Sanders deserves a mark in the history books as the first Jewish candidate to win presidential primaries. But Jewish voters did not flock to Bernie’s side out of religious pride. Instead, Hillary won the Jewish vote consistently, perhaps in part because of her stalwart support of Israel in contrast to Bernie’s policies, which he elevated in the New York debate and subsequently lost the state badly.
On the Republican side, it went almost unremarked that Ted Cruz became the first Hispanic candidate to win a caucus. And the final four GOP candidates contained only two white men, with Rubio and Cruz winning 34% and 21% of Hispanic Republican support, respectively.
To some extent, these gains are made possible by the precedent of President Obama. The fact of a black president no longer seems extraordinary except to the most reactionary—read, racist—Americans, though of course it has revolutionary importance when seen against the backdrop of American history.
Not incidentally, when then-Senator Obama ran for president in 2008, he made a point of saying that he wasn’t running to be the president of black America, implicitly dissing the more identity politics-based past candidacies of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. His campaign was predicated upon a rejection of the idea of “two America,” famously arguing in 2004 that “there are no red states, there are no blue states, there is only the United States of America.”
This in turn has paved the way for Hillary Clinton’s bid for the oval office to seem more like a natural progression based on individual qualification in a way that wasn’t as self-evident in 2008, only eight years after serving as first lady. For all the Trump slurs that say she’s unqualified for office, its worth remembering that our founding fathers considered Secretary of State a logical stepping stone to the presidency—elevating Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams successively to the executive mansion. And if there was a comparative lack of celebration when she clinched the nomination it was because we had been expecting this for years.
So is identity politics an overstated force in American politics? Social media has helped quasi-mainstream terms that previously languished in academic ghettos and the activist left that is largely motivated by grievance is for the moment ascendant.
But the larger irony is not that identity politics doesn’t seem to drive votes—it’s that identity politics is flourishing primarily on the right.
To his supporters, Donald Trump’s campaign seems refreshing because of its full-throated rejection of political correctness. But Donald’s real juice comes from tapping into the white identity politics of conservative populism, a combination of cultural and economic resentment fueled by the sense that their birthright is being taken away by demographic changes in a fundamentally more diverse America. When the economic promises fail there is always a cultural “other” to blame.
The uncomfortable fact that the GOP base remains almost entirely white is a problem that the nomination of Con Man Donald will do nothing to solve. But his repeated attacks on whole categories of demographic difference in America—from the Muslim ban to Judge Curiel—could doom the Republican Party from rebuilding its once-big tent by presenting a more modern, inclusive face for its party.
The good news is that we are more willing to call out racism in its hydra-headed forms, recognizing that Bull Connor isn’t the standard for bigotry any more. The divisive, discriminatory notes are often more subtle, more insidious. Identity politics often presents itself as a pushback on prejudice but by elevating superficial differences among fellow citizens it degrades the ultimate transcendence of tribalism, which is to see someone as an individual first.
Forming a more perfect union is a never-ending process. Our gains are fitful but measurable. And the fact that identity politics doesn’t seem to drive most votes in a season of historic firsts is a welcome sign for our evolution as a democracy.