Identity Politics Makes a Comeback in America

Forces are agitating American politics in ways that were not anticipated by most of the liberal elites.

When the Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, he defined his constituency as a “rainbow coalition” of racial and ethnic minorities—blacks, browns, yellows, reds—as well as women. Few noted at the time that Jackson’s colorful coalition included everybody in America except for one group—white men. He would accept white women so long as they were willing to separate themselves politically from their husbands and fathers.

Jesse Jackson was ahead of his time. There was little indication in 1984 that white men felt particularly beleaguered by the reverend’s sly locution aimed at isolating them and implicitly identifying them as the enemy. Jackson lacked the political force to generate that kind of unease. But now, three decades later, white men do indeed feel beleaguered by a host of social, cultural and political trends that are transforming the country more rapidly and forcefully than it has ever experienced before. And this feeling is agitating American politics in ways that were not anticipated by most of the liberal elites, though they were entirely predictable.

This feeling of anxiety is particularly intense among working-class whites, which has some commentators scratching their heads. After all, they reason, these are people who should welcome big governmental programs aimed at providing largess for citizens such as themselves, at the expense of people who are richer than themselves. As New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter puts it, “What’s going on with working-class whites?”

Porter explored that question in a recent Times article entitled “Racial Identity, and Its Hostilities, Return to American Politics.” The piece manifests a fair amount of ignorance and a lot of underlying bias. In seeking answers to his question, he looks at the white working-class rather as an entomologist might inspect an insect under a microscope—such a fascinating specimen posing such a research challenge.

His conclusion is that racial and ethnic animosity has grabbed these people and directed them toward embracing presidential candidates such as billionaire Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, both a far cry from the kinds of liberals that Porter apparently thinks would be the more appropriate recipients of working-class support.

Porter notes that President Obama and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have speculated that job and wage stagnation have contributed to blue-collar support for Trump and other conservative populists. But he finds this explanation “not quite satisfactory.” He’s more inclined to attribute white Americans’ support for Trump’s “xenophobic, anti-immigrant” message to anxiety over the loss of the country they lived in fifty years ago, when non-Hispanic whites made up more than 83 percent of the population compared to today’s 62 percent.

Porter is not entirely unsympathetic to this sentiment. “Their fear is understandable,” he writes, noting that Hispanic and black Americans “often care about different things than white voters do.” But he adds that the “reaction of whites who are struggling economically raises the specter of an outright political war along racial and ethnic lines over the distribution of resources and opportunities.”

In other words, it’s all about race—more specifically, the racial attitudes of whites. Race, after all, he notes, has shaped American politics for a long time. The GOP, he says, captured the South politically because of whites’ “sense of betrayal” over Lyndon Johnson’s desegregation policies. And it was race, he avers, that led to the “unique mistrust of government among white Americans.” Indeed, he declares that America’s “unusually minimalist state” is attributable “in large measure to racial mistrust.”

Here’s where Porter’s line of reasoning gets squishy. Yes, race is ever-present in American politics. And Johnson’s civil rights initiatives no doubt made possible the Republican “Southern strategy” that followed. But does that mean that race dominates the political consciousness of whites in the South today? If that’s the case, how is it that the South currently has two Hispanic senators, a black senator, and two Indian-American governors. Clearly, many white voters in that region are comfortable voting for people of color.

And the idea that America’s tradition of limited government is attributable primarily to racial sentiments is ludicrous on its face. Porter needs an immersion course in American history, which would reveal to him that this political philosophy is a product of the Western heritage. It was a fundamental philosophical underpinning of the Constitution. As the debates of the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia attest, they were obsessed with the challenge of keeping in check a government that they knew would seek to aggrandize its power whenever possible.

Porter devotes a considerable part of his article to a pastiche of studies purporting to establish that race drives the politics of white Americans. He quotes one paper as saying, “Racial animosity in the U.S. makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters.” He quotes another as saying that white taxpayers oppose welfare because they don’t want to be “forced, through taxes, to pay for stuff for blacks that many of them could not afford for their own families.”