You don’t have to watch the full video above but the first half highlights the identity-focused dynamic of modern political news
Last year CNN was running on my living room tv and while I wasn’t paying particular attention to their usually breathtaking and earth-shattering reporting one thing caught my focus: 2020 Democratic Power Rankings. I began to watch as Chris Cilizza announced, as if from God, the official and irrefutable 2020 power rankings for the democratic primary. Among the list, Cilizza chiefly placed Senator Kamala Harris in first, Joe Biden in second, Beto O’Rourke in third and Elizabeth Warren in fourth; notice anything odd here about these candidates chances at victory now in 2020?
Oh right, all their chances are slim to none.
What caught my attention the most though was Cillizza’s reasoning, he based his conclusions almost exclusively on identity, citing that Harris’s liberal Californian past, African American identity and female gender would all but assure her the nomination. The same goes for Beto O’Rourke, his young energetic multilingual identity was going to draw voters in or Booker who was explained in part as a potential “Obama 2.0” as if he is the younger new model fresh off the political assembly line. Last I checked though, even before the first official votes were cast in the primary these three candidates had dropped out seeing little to no path to the electoral victory. Where was this elusive “identity factor” now? Where were the mountains of supporters for these candidates when they needed them in polls or for donations?
The reality is that identity, in our current political moment, is an accessory factor at most and only truly matters to the extent that it informs one’s own political ideology.
Looking to the primary results from Iowa and New Hampshire it is clear to see that Bernie Sanders is ahead both in total votes and in the polling of states moving forward. If identity is so key then why is a 78-year-old white Jewish man dominating a mostly younger multiracial coalition of voters? The fact is that ideology is more important in the minds of voters than one’s raw identity. Sure there are voters that will prioritize an Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren because they happen to be female, or a Pete Buttigieg since he’s openly gay, or even Andrew Yang (rip YangGang) due to his Asian heritage, but these voters are mostly in the minority. In fact, Bernie Sanders is leading with women nationally, leading with young non-white voters in every category, and leading among the broader LGBTQ+ community (poll) (article).
This isn’t just to puff up Bernie Sanders though, it is more to highlight that identity doesn’t entitle you to a block of voters as the media would suggest. Ideology is what attracts support nowadays. Voters don’t want to hear or vote for you based on arbitrary personal characteristics, they want to hear what you will do for them and how you will fight for them. When thinking back to the failed campaigns of Harris or Booker or Beto there is one central through-line, they all focused their campaigns around themselves and not policy. When thinking of their campaigns I, along with what I assume would be many Americans, can’t think of a policy or a set of policies these candidates championed, but instead just a person – themselves. Look even to their campaign slogans: Harris was “Kamala for the People”, Beto was “Beto for America, Beto For All” (which sounds oddly authoritarian), and Booker was “Stand with Booker”. These candidates bought into the identity-based media narrative and as such only built coalitions that mostly aligned with that narrow media perspective. Candidates like Sanders and Warren or even the almost zero-name recognition underdogs like Yang and Gabbard have maintained and grown support over more traditional candidates by first championing a message that people can get behind instead of just blind identity.
Outside of candidates and campaigns though, this pseudo-identitarian media logic only further misinforms the public and creates fundamentally false suppositions about certain populations of people.
Reporting “key factors” like identity in such a substantial way has a real concrete impact on our elections and our social consciousness. Exit polls from New Hampshire mirror the national polls in that Democrats care above anything about their candidate’s ability to beat Trump in 2020. Along with this, national polls have cited a record number of people who’s voting behavior self-reportedly is based in a large part on who they think their neighbor would vote for rather than just themselves independently. Democrats are making an interesting calculus in 2020 by factoring in not only their opinions but in a large part what they believe are the opinions of others as well into their eventual voting decision. In this kind of situation reporting on factors like identity as almost correlative to electoral victory, as they have been reported in the past, results in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. People may start to believe that this hypothetical “identity factor” may matter to others even though it does not matter as much to them, this then results in similar voting outcomes as if one did highly value a candidate’s identity. Essentially, people may think “identity” matters to others and may change their vote to align with that rather than doing their own personal analysis.
In addition to the electoral harms, reporting on identity in such a way reduces the true calculus and behaviors of millions of people in this country to basic association. Simply assuming that Harris or Booker has the “black” vote due to their identity or that Warren or Klobuchar has a lock on the female vote due to their gender is just reducing the complex voting behaviors of these groups to nothing but child-like analysis. These are the types of facts that aren’t explicit but are ingrained into our social consciousness and help reinforce unjust structures like racism and sexism within our society. To a degree, implicit in this type of “identity analysis” is the fact that women and/or minorities aren’t intelligent enough or not engaged enough to do a deeper dive into the candidates.
Analyzing the impact that a candidate’s personal identity may have on their electoral chances is not a practice that should be all-out banned or wholly looked down on though. These are factors that are important to many voters, the fact is they just may not be the number one factor or even top factor in determining someone’s vote. Reporting on identity as such an important metric in elections ultimately robs voters of media time where candidates could actually be substantively analyzed, misinforms audiences of electoral trends and reinforces inaccurate assumptions about groups of people that have been created by unjust historical systems. Reporting on elections, not just presidential, needs to move to a more investigative, objective and policy-based discussion rather than just a surface analysis of external arbitrary characteristics.
6 thoughts on “Identity vs. Ideology in Modern American Politics”
Hi Satya, I appreciate you bringing this important discussion to light. I too believe that identity has been emphasized over ideology on sometimes dangerous levels. In my own experience, at least, I have to put in extra effort to learn what different candidates actually stand for in terms of policy and am surprised by what I find out. Though I am sure many public supporters of different candidates have done their research and do actually agree with their ideology, I’m afraid that a lot of voters probably do not know what they are voting for but mainly base it on surface-level factors as you mention.
If anyone was curious, here’s a quiz I found that made me realize how much I actually didn’t know about different candidates’ proposed ideologies! https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/policy-2020/quiz-which-candidate-agrees-with-me/
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I completely agree with you that the media seems to overemphasize identity over ideology with elections these days. I think that due to Barack Obama’s high amount of black support in his ‘08 and ‘12 campaigns, people in the media have been operating under the faulty assumption that identity is enough to win elections. Any media personality with a decent knowledge of Kamala Harris’ background as a prosecutor should have known that Harris would have trouble courting the black vote.
While identity is important, insofar as political parties need to prop up candidates that demonstrate that they understand or are attuned to the issues of people of various identity groups, it is not the end all be all.
The more that the media props up bad candidates who just happen to have certain demographic characteristics, the more they will end up with egg on their face as their prized candidates lose to people that actually understand what their voters want.
– Brandon J.
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I definitely agree that assuming a female candidate will pull a majority of female voters or a black candidate will pull a majority of black voters is dangerous. I especially resonate with the idea that portraying identity as such a sure-fire way of predicting voter outcomes will undoubtedly affect how voters perceive the success of each candidate and likely even persuade their vote in the future. I noticed that you specifically mention a CNN news report. While I agree that identity politics might not have a rightful place on national news, I wonder if there are other areas of media that it could be helpful? For example, it is not helpful to present identity politics on CNN as fact or evidence-based theory, but the makeup of individual candidate’s identities might still be beneficial to many voters if it came in a different context.
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I also agree with your argument that considering candidates based solely on their social categories is not only foolish, but dangerous as well. As I read the article, I was reminded of recent backlash I have seen against Lilly Singh and her late night show. She bases the majority of her content and jokes on her identities as an Indian bisexual woman and even on her wealthy lifestyle. While this can be entertaining the first few times one hears it, viewers have criticized the fact that she rarely talks about anything else. As a counterexample, Chrissy Teigen is a half-Thai, half-Norwegian television host who is generally well-regarded for her professional work and humorous, sometimes political tweets, both of which have little to nothing to do with her social categories. Singh and Teigen are not politicians of course, but their cases show that celebrities and other public figures also cannot rely on their identities to gain regard in the eyes of the public and should instead focus on their ideologies.
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Thank you for this piece. For someone who is hopeful for, yet skeptical of the future of our country while entering into this year’s election. This facet of identity in politics adds another dimension to my analysis of the Democratic primaries. I think you are correct in believing that the politics of this age are based more on the promises made by candidates, rather than who they are as people. I think this theory holds true when looking at the overwhelming support of Donald Trump in our society, people who disagree with him as a “person” – a person who is a rapist and xenophobic bigot… – still are able to get behind his message and his political campaign, due to the promises he makes to the voter and how he will change life for them.
This seems to hold true as well when looking at the support for Bernie Sanders. His platform is built on sweeping leftist statements about ways he will change our political scene in America, and these messages are enough for people to get behind. His claims for what he will do for his voters seem to overrule hesitancies toward putting another white old man in office and sways young minority voters to still back his campaign. Curious to see how this election cycle turns out and if this theory rings true once again!
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Thank you for writing this piece! I agree that solely relying on identity in politics is rather dangerous. While some voters may be overjoyed to see representation from their community in politics—and that is natural, and understandable, considering the number of marginalized groups in this country who have faced or continue to face voter suppression—representation is no guarantee that someone who holds a certain identity acts in the best interest of that identity. For instance, Audrea Lim’s “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish” notes that there are number of Asian women who are married to white supremacists. Additionally, communities may disagree on what their biggest concerns are and how to best address those concerns.
Identity provides a gateway to researching and understanding the issues that face a community—but it is not a guarantee. I am also curious as to whether identity politics considers intersectionality; a female, nonwhite voter can be part of the LGBTQ+ community, and in that case, at least three aspects of their identity face oppression. Hence, identity politics can possibly ignore the individuality of identities.
One way in which identity is helpful in political reporting, however, is that they can possibly draw media attention to groups that are historically ignored. Still, we have to be careful to not assume that an individual’s ideologies are representative of a whole group.
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