How the GOP Practices the Purest, Most Obnoxious Identity Politics Ever

For decades now, conservative pundits have long traded on the truism that not only is discrimination against women and racial minorities over, but that in fact having one of these identities is a “card” you can play to earn points in politics—that you supposedly have an advantage over white men simply by not being one. This belief is immoveable in the face of the fact that Congress is 80 percent white and 80 percent male.

It’s all very silly, but this idea of the “race card” or the “gender card” has been repeated ad infinitum to the point where Marc Fisher of the Washington Post wrote a piece over the weekend where, in apparent sincerity, he actually argues, “Republicans face a tantalizing and vexing prospect this year” because the Republican presidential primary slate has one black and two Hispanic candidates. In other words, they have a race card! Three of them, in fact! And, as we all know, the race card is not just the ace in the hole, but the White House’s version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.

But alas, the noble Republicans are unable to play the magical race card, because they are “loath to adopt the identity politics they associate with liberalism, maintain that the focus must stay on conservative ideas rather than the ethnicity of the people touting them.” Weep for them, these noble warriors who refuse the alleged path of ease given to any person of color who will take it (according to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk). They must do the right thing, and eschew this thing called “identity politics,” because that is something only dirty liberals do.

Of course, the whole thing is poppycock. “Identity politics” has always been an ill-defined term, but if we assume it means voting for an identity over voting for preferred policies, then the blunt fact of the matter is that it’s Republicans who play the purest form of identity politics, and have since Nixon made an extremely successful play for the white resentment vote against civil rights activists. The only reason that people don’t see this is that there’s still a sense that “white” is not a race and “male” is not a gender. But if you remember that they are, then it’s clear that the people who play identity politics are Republicans, not Democrats.

If you look past minor issues like the color of people’s skin in leadership and towards the voters themselves, then it’s clear that Republicans vote on identity issues far more than Democrats do.  Republicans vote for a straight white Christian male identity—or specifically, to protect the cultural dominance of men that fit that description—and all other issues are secondary to that, particularly in the eyes of the voters.

Democratic love of diversity is really the opposite of identity politics. It’s about people setting aside differences in gender, ethnicity, and religion and agreeing to join together for the good of everyone. The conservative emphasis, however coded it may be, in protecting white male Christian privilege, however, is the epitome of identity politics.

This fact is borne out by social science research that finds, for instance, that conservatives have higher levels of in-group favoritism (the idea that people “like me” are inherently better than people not “like me) than liberals. And what could be more “identity politics” than the base assumption that people like you are inherently better than people not like you?

To see this in action, look no further than Tuesday’s Washington Post by Stephanie McCrummen where she interviewed the almost exclusively white, Christian Ben Carson supporters at a rally in Mobile, Alabama. The supporters McCrummen interviews don’t cite policies of Carson’s that they support. (It’s not like he has a carefully plotted platform to support, anyway.) Their politics are all about identity, about the belief that Carson is going to protect people like them from oh-so-scary people who are not like them.

Carson supporters routinely hinted at or even outright stated a belief that Obama is a secret Muslim. This myth, popular amongst conservatives, functions mainly as a reinforcer for identity politics, a way to quickly convey their sense that Obama—and his supporters—are not like them. And while Carson is also black, his supporters clearly believe, with their language about how he’s a “man of faith” and their interest in keeping Syrian refugees out, that his priority is protecting the social dominance of people like them.

Obama’s own race really isn’t the main problem for conservatives. If he eschewed other black people and went out of his way to protect white privilege, they’d love him. The secret Muslim stuff and accusations that Obama is deliberately “weakening the country” captures anxieties about Obama’s indifference to their sense of entitlement. They’re not afraid of him because he’s black, but because they think that he wants an end to white Christian dominance.

Same story with Donald Trump, as my colleague Elias Isquith wrote about yesterday. He’s in the lead not because he’s a white guy—they have lots of those!—but because his entire platform is built around protecting white male Christian dominance. That’s why his obvious lack of faith, like Carson’s non-whiteness, isn’t a big deal. So long as he accepts and promotes conservative Christian dominance, they don’t care so much what he gets up to in his own time.

The accusation that Democrats wallow in identity politics doesn’t really hold up to much inspection, either. Take reproductive rights, which is often flagged as an “identity politics” issue. Do women really support reproductive rights out of some rah-rah women rule mindless cheerleading for ladyness in all its forms? Or is it because they have substantive reasons to believe that access to contraception and abortion make people’s lives better? The latter, obviously, as mountains of research showing better health and life outcomes from reproductive health care access will demonstrate.

Anti-choice ideology, on the other hand, is one of the purest forms of identity politics there is. It isn’t just that it’s clearly rooted in a desire to cripple women’s opportunities so that men can continue to dominate culturally and economically, as well as a desire to impose their version of Christianity on the non-believers by fiat. It’s that conservatives are literally willing to reduce their own access to abortion and contraception, make their own sex lives more fraught, increase the rate of STDs and run the risk of their own daughters enduring unwanted childbirth, all in service of this goal.

When preserving male dominance is so important to you that you’ll give up some measure of health and safety to achieve it? Now that’s identity politics.


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