How Republicans embraced identity politics

SOME Democrats blamed identity politics for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016. Mark Lilla, a historian from Columbia University, suggested in the New York Times that Democratic identity politics “encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group.” But new research suggests that identity politics is not a phenomenon primarily connected to the Democratic Party. Social and cultural identity is more closely tied to partisan support among Republicans.

Republicans and Democrats have become increasingly polarised in terms of their racial, religious and ideological makeup. Blacks, Hispanics and the non-religious have sorted into the Democratic Party, while whites, evangelical Christians, and conservatives have tended to join the Republican Party. Between 1992 and 2016 the percentage of white men registered to vote who identified as Republican rose from 48% to 61% and the share of those who were registered Democrat fell from 44% to 31%, according to the Pew Research Centre. 

Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland and Julie Wronski of the University of Mississippi found that a white, Christian Republican is much more attached to his party than one who doesn’t have these features. A supporter of the more racially and culturally diverse Democratic Party, meanwhile, is more open to different religious or racial members than are supporters of the Republican Party. The link between particular religious or racial markers and intensity of support for the Democratic Party is also weaker. “Put plainly, there exist no black, atheist, liberal Republicans, nor many white, Christian, conservative Democrats who feel close to their groups and identify weakly with their party,” write Ms Mason and Ms Wronski. “Still, Democrats appear to navigate cross-cutting identities within their party more frequently than Republicans.”

The emergence of a belief among Republicans that white Christians are a forgotten, oppressed group has been one result. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in February last year found that, among supporters of the Republican party, 43% felt there was a lot of discrimination against whites and 48% thought there was a lot of discrimination against Christians. Only 27% thought there was a lot of discrimination against blacks. (Among Democrats the percentages were 19%, 21% and 82%). 

Republican partisans’ views of who is more discriminated against are belied by the evidence. Just as people tend to judge their economic wellbeing based on recent change rather than an absolute level, white males’ sense of persecution may be based on (somewhat) diminishing privilege. But an analysis of field experiments covering hiring discrimination published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that in experiments run since 1990 white job applicants received, on average, 36% more call-backs than black applicants and 24% more call-backs than Latino applicants with identical résumés. While there was a trend over that period towards less discrimination against Latinos, there was no significant change in discrimination against blacks over 25 years. There is similar evidence of resilient discrimination against women in America’s workforce.

It may be that Democrats pointing out discrimination against minorities was one factor encouraging a Republican electorate that increasingly identifies as white, Christian and male to conjure up the idea of widespread discrimination against white Christian men. But until the Republicans return to ideological politics over identity politics, it is not obvious what to do about that problem. Simply ignoring America’s ongoing struggle with racism, sexism and nativism is an inadequate response.

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