Voting & Identity 2016-2020

Election graffiti in conjunction with racial violence protest signs. Photo by Koli Mitra

When I voted earlier today, I had an eerie feeling. There were maybe five other people in my polling place, which is odd, given the high-voter turnout predicted this year, despite the pandemic. On the other hand, mail-in ballots and early voting are a thing this year, so who knows?

There’s a November chill in the air, and I was breathing through a face mask, fogging up my glasses. I was trying to remember if I had any errands to take care of before heading home. These days, I always try to do as much as I can on each trip outside the house, because of heavy disinfecting protocols I’ve put in place for coming back in.

So, I’m thinking about these mundane things, but what’s really at stake today, in this quadrennial ritual of anointing the top boss in America’s much vaunted, and lately much maligned, act of popular sovereignty… representative democracy… consent of the governed, or what you will? How will it really affect me, if at all? If you believe the media frenzy, the life and death of the world, literally, hangs in the balance. Yes, the pandemic, lockdown, economic free fall, and civil unrest have rocked the world in 2020. But the truth is, our political orientations and energies really have not changed since 2016, but merely grown in intensity. We seem to have had one long, screechy, tumultuous campaign season now for the entire four years since Donald Trump was elected.  In 2016, hardly any professional election watcher thought he would get the Republican nomination, much less win the presidency. The media treated his loss as practically a foregone conclusion. Almost all polls were calling it against him. Perhaps most importantly, the betting markets – where people actually put their money on things – were against him.

No one was prepared for the outcome which came to pass. But more to the point, there was something qualitatively unsettling about it. Many layers of the civic fabric seemed to be ripped, yanked, balled up, thrown in a dumpster, and set on fire. Protests broke out. People were actually crying. Op-ed pieces and radio talk shows had trauma and panic in their tone. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) put out a release promising to sue the new administration if it played fast and loose with the Constitution, which everyone seemed to expect. I admit, I was rather upset myself, in a way that felt oddly personal and intense.

What is it about this guy, that touches such a raw nerve in just about everyone, and ignites their fervor as intensely for him in some camps as it does against him in others? The answer is a complicated soup of mounting American anxieties that have only intensified in the last four years and have become very explicitly center stage in this election. 

One lightening rod for these anxieties is identity politics. Now there’s a contentious phrase, if ever there was. Not so long ago, the term “identity politics” was mostly used to dismiss less powerful segments of society –women, racial minorities, LGBT people, members of insular religious groups– who highlighted their identities as part of their politics. People in a dominant position, of course, had the luxury of denouncing these concerns as somehow fractious or “divisive” – pretending that a socio-political environment centering their own demographic is somehow “neutral” or objective. People engaging in the politics of marginalized identity tended to avoid that description.

All of that has changed. Whether it grew as a backlash against America’s first Black president Barack Obama being elected in 2008 or something that was always present just became amplified by social media, which came of age around the same time, identity politics suddenly became loudly espoused by hostile white nationalists out for blood and for reinstatement of a faltering identity-hierarchy.

Enter Donald J. Trump, a garish, loutish reality TV personality and real estate mogul who had been a staple of gossip columns for decades. Many people enjoyed his kitsch, many others found it distasteful, but opinions about him never fell along any discernable racial lines. And, FYI, he used to be a Democrat and a supporter of both Clintons. Yet, he made a sudden inroad into politics by taking up the “birther” movement, questioning whether President Obama was really born in America, a rumor mill that hummed along throughout Obama’s time in office, always suggesting something “foreign” about him, something “not quite American.” This became Trump’s trademark of sorts. Trump’s whole campaign and much of his presidency, is filled with nationalistic rhetoric with racist/sexist undertones and dog-whistles that seem to solidify and energize his base, while alienating lots of other people.

Oddly, though, there is something in Donald Trump – quite apart from his obnoxiousness – that also seems to resonate with many of his supporters. Despite his wealth, ostentation, and apparent lack of compassion or even basic civility, they “identify” with him… precisely because he is an outsider to the Washington power establishment. And many, many Americans of all races are sick and tired of the Washington establishment and feel like outsiders in their own country, which is supposed to be governed by people accountable to them. Of course, for some disaffected white Americans, this feeling of alienation gets lumped in with resentment of those seen as “other” because of some demographic characteristic (and this resentment gets egged on by political factions looking to capitalize on it). But there are others, who have looked to Trump – not because they like him or even accept his brand of perverse charisma, but – because they wanted an outsider, ANY outsider, to come in and shake things up in government.

Obama had also been seen as an “outsider” candidate, which was part of his charm. But he seemed to have become the establishment after coming to power and some of his supporters felt disillusioned by him, because he adopted policies and postures for which he once criticized his predecessor George W. Bush: protracted military engagements, domestic surveillance/erosion of privacy, lack of transparency in government, fostering of corporate cronyism. But others forgave all of this because he greatly expanded the welfare state they love (despite this being paid for with staggering new debts) but also many of them felt comfortable with him precisely because he seemed to be able to get along and work with other powerful people and be reassuringly “presidential” – in other words, “establishment” but in a good way. Trump’s persona seems to project the opposite. If you look at the finer details of his policy, it’s not at all apparent that Trump’s “outsider” status has led to more transparency or accountability, but his perpetually hostile relationship with many of the Washington insiders –  establishment politicians, intelligence agencies, the career-bureaucratic arms of the state – keeps alive this image of him as a no-nonsense maverick to his supporters, and an unstable, narcissistic madman to his enemies.

Therein lies the secret of both Trump’s cult-like followers and his cult-like detractors.

Meanwhile, more traditional “identity politics” have also kicked into high gear, more openly than ever, now becoming opportunistically excused in its newfound extremism, justifying every outrageous claim as a response to the teeth-baring on the white nationalist front that it opposes.  

But here’s the thing about “identity politics” – while sometimes important to address the problems of those who have been treated unfairly by  a purportedly “neutral” system, it is also true that identity politics can harm individuals (including, especially, the very individuals who make up the “identity” group) and the larger society, often exactly in the ways that dominant segments cynically complain about. I submit it is possible to make the argument in good faith, without the cynical ulterior motive, and without dismissing the aspects of identity politics that are legitimate.

The best identity politics are liberation movements. The shining of a light on segments in society whose lives, safety, and freedom are threatened by the state with impunity or threatened by other citizens without recourse to justice because of unequal enforcement of laws. Such movements are more than political, they are social. While using politics for legal freedom and equality, they begin social conversation and invite fellow citizens to recognize their experience.

But identity politics very often gets coopted by institutional interests –government and corporate — and serves to accrue more and more power in such institutions, nominally in the name of “protecting” or “advocating” for the members of the disadvantaged identity group. When this happens, it almost always short-circuits individual needs, values, and aspirations, by using their group identity as a stand-in and allowing purported “leaders” to speak for them. To me this defeats the whole purpose of representation. Ultimately, each person choosing a representative must get to decide who best represents them and based on what criteria.

When Joe Biden claims that if you don’t vote for him “you ain’t black” it is, in addition to being deeply insulting, simply wrong. He does not get to decide whether an individual thinks he represents their interests or the interests of their race or even whether that person counts their own racial identity as a factor in choosing whom to vote for.

What’s worse, identity politics has not only become generally accepted in our political culture, but it is now insinuating itself in every aspect of politics – and, increasingly, in every aspect of life. It is now trendy to read “white supremacy” or “misogyny” or “homophobia” or “transphobia” into anything one dislikes or finds difficult. Capitalism has been accused of being all those things. Math, science, rational thought… these things are now routinely labeled as bigoted and indicative of some kind of “supremacist” tendency. People making such pronouncements are not social media riffraff. They are “thought leaders” who write columns in prestigious publications and occupy endowed chairs in elite universities.

How did we get here? I think, in part, it’s been building for a while. In the last two decades, American politics has become increasingly polarized. So much so, that the “left” and the “right” have essentially become the caricatures of themselves that the other has always painted. And Trump’s persona has been like gasoline on that simmering fire. For their part, Democrats have developed a habit of reflexive of anti-Trump response – even when he says or does something they would normally approve of. The late Charles Krauthammer coined a term for this habit: Trump Derangement Syndrome (“TDS”).

I am one of those voters for whom any Democrat would have been preferable to Donald Trump, once upon a time. It’s astonishing that they have managed to lose their collective mind to such a degree that I now think their man would be absolutely no better.

Maybe this is what happens in an entrenched duopoly. They take the voters completely for granted. Worse, they blame the voter for their party’s failures. And they take easy refuge in shortcuts, like promising to “represent” our group identity instead of our interests and preferences.  

I voted a third party candidate this year. Maybe, hopefully, it will play a small part in building a movement away from the duopoly, in the long run. Because the most important elements of my political identity are rationality, honesty, and individual rights/freedoms. Neither major party seems to have the likes of me in mind.  

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