US President Donald Trump greeted by former US President Barack Obama after delivering his inaugural address. Xinhua/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Identity politics has become the driving force of US politics and it has brought along the scourge of ethno-nationalism. But to many of us living outside the United States, it’s nothing new. Take a look at Europe. It’s riddled with ethno-nationalistic populism in such places as Hungary, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and many more: all inundated by politicians betting on ethnic identity politics to court the masses.
Or take my home country as an example, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, ethno-nationalism is engraved into the constitution, primarily reflected in stringent ethnic quotas put on public offices. As a result, identity politics is the only form of politics. Almost every party has an ethnic prefix; the presidency consists of three members representing major ethnicities; and the country is thoroughly Balkanized so that every ethnicity is politically autonomous, with some cities being in an apartheid-like state. Each policy is judged through the ethnocentric prism, and weighed on the principle of how much it affects the standing of one’s ethnicity compared to the others. And when ethnic affiliation becomes the sole criterion for political office, the more radical you are, the more authentic you appear.
Needless to say, in all the aforementioned places identity politics favours the political Right. Sheri Berman notes that identity politics is “more powerful and efficacious … for right-wing populists” since they are trying to win over a more homogenous group. But more importantly, that homogenous group is almost always the country’s ethnic majority, whose ethnocentrism is easily stoked by presenting them with a paltry minority as a bogeyman.
The US hitherto seemingly had a bulwark separating it from the abyss of the institutionalized tribalism of my country, called the two-party system, where both parties had a laissez-faire approach to ethnic and racial identity, so to speak. It is true that since the mid-twentieth century, minorities have had a leaning towards the Democratic Party, and the white majority towards the Republican Party. But they were drawn in by the economic ideas espoused by the parties, with minorities generally being less well-off.
However, since the mid-twentieth century, income inequality has persisted across racial and ethnic groups, in some cases being even worse than in the 1970s. Indeed, race and ethnicity are now the best predictors of income inequality, rather than class. That has created the opportunity for the ethnic distribution between parties to solidify, entrench itself, and eventually culminate into contemporary identity politics. As Francis Fukuyama lucidly puts it, “The Republican Party is becoming the party of white people, and the Democratic Party is becoming the party of minorities.”
In all fairness, that was somewhat the case ever since the Democratic Party supported the Civil Rights Act. But now, income is not the litmus test of party affiliation. It’s race. It is getting increasingly harder for whites to see themselves as Democrats, and for minorities as Republicans.
The good news
That isn’t to say that identity politics hasn’t had positive effects. The current 115th Congress of the United States is the most ethnically diverse in history, after a steady increase in minority representatives. There seems to be no indication of reversing course. Just last month, the first Muslim women were elected to Congress and a number of African Americans have made history by becoming the first black gubernatorial nominees in their states. There are many more milestones to come. It comes as no surprise that the Democratic Party is doing all the heavy lifting in that field, perhaps owing to their embrace of identity politics. No doubt, it’s a more innocuous type of identity politics than its white ethno-nationalist counterpart.
But sure enough, identity politics still favours the homogenous ethnic majority, as seen by a president exclusively pandering to his mostly white voter base. Not only that, but his unwillingness to decry white supremacy and his sole goal of erasing the first black president’s legacy led Ta-Nehisi Coates to aver that “he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.” In the end, the US has come to bear an eerie resemblance to the institutionalized tribalism of my country: economic issues such as income inequality, which are inextricably tied to race, leave no clear alternative to identity politics; and ethnicity is being seen as a sole claim to political office. Then identity politics seems unavoidable. It’s just a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.
As is now commonly known, the US is on a one-way track to becoming a minority-majority nation. Although a conglomerate of ethnicities won’t be as homogenous as a single one, they will certainly be a majority. Neither paltry, nor in the minority any longer, they will become a potent political force and a coveted voter base. In that case, might the Democrats’ identity politics play out in the long haul, making them one of the few cases of successful left-wing identity politics? Indeed, the great question seems to be: will the Democratic Party rein in identity politics for short-term gains, or reap its latent harvest?