The expression of identity within American politics is rife with controversy and conflict. Liberals generally embrace its role in the lives of individuals and social groups, instigate public discussion around the nuance of experience and support candidates from underrepresented demographics. Conservatives argue that aspects of a person’s identity should not be at the forefront of political conversation, that factors such as race, gender and sexuality should not determine a person’s political affiliation — and that allowing it to is identity politics at its worst.
“Identity politics” refers to political positions that speak to the general experiences of distinct social groups. Depending on how people identify, they may find that they share a majority of priorities and policy preferences with people who are similar to them. Identity politics acknowledge oppressions specific to certain demographics, validating their struggle and uniting them in a meaningful way. Many people have found that the American Dream is not “one size fits all” and that their own side of the story has been severely neglected — so they file to run for office and center their own stories while on the campaign trail.
It’s clear that there is a marked break between partisan groups over the value of diverse representation. As the Blue Wave surged through the 2018 midterms, several significant Democratic candidates found themselves buoyed over the finish line. The Democrats led the way in a strong year of historic firsts — including the election of the first Native American and Muslim congresswomen in the history of the country. Nationwide, a record-high ninety-nine women were elected to Congress, truly heralding another “Year of the Woman.”
Or at least, this is only at first glance. At only 13, a disturbingly low number of those female candidates are Republicans. While this Year of the Woman placed Democratic women on the path to victory on their journey to Congress, Republican women are set to drop from 27 percent to 15-19 percent in the 116th Congress. For some added perspective, the GOP had 12 congresswomen when Nancy Pelosi first entered Congress as a freshman… in 1987. Now, 31 years later, they have only added a single woman to their total.
Conservatives try to argue that it’s only character that counts. Candidates may take many forms, but what earns them the vote is their commitment to the values of the American people. While true, the demographics of conservative circles hardly reflect a liberation from identity politics so much as the deprioritization of different groups.
Conservatives bemoan identity politics as if it were the plague. Some consider it an annoyance, such as the many conservative women who resented the idea that they should vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election because it was “in their best interest.” The chagrin doesn’t stop there, as rising conservative media stars criticize any appeal to identity as insincere, lazy, misguided and even racist — though to claim that, their definition of racism is subject to a bit of creative interpretation.
Yet, conservatism has room for the practice of a fair amount of identity politics, as long as they are the right ones. They invest a significant amount of energy into fighting this amorphous boogeyman, conveniently forgetting that they are right alongside the Democrats in their shared use of the same cynical tactics.
In the past, Senator Ted Cruz avoided discussing his Cuban heritage as much as possible — until he decided to run for president. As soon as the campaign trail led him to Miami — home turf of opponent and fellow Cuban Senator Marco Rubio, Cruz started emphasizing his roots as much as he could. It seems a little hypocritical for Cruz to have waxed so poetic in 2016 about two sons of penniless, hardworking Cuban immigrants when he would later go on to mock his 2018 Democratic challenger for using a Spanish-sounding name. Just a little hypocritical.
Representative-elect Ilhan Omar is currently facing criticism from the right after announcing her efforts to remove the ban on headwear on the House floor. Omar is one of the two first Muslim Congresswomen, and she considers her right to wear a headscarf as an extension of America’s well-protected religious freedom. On social media, Omar stated “No one puts a scarf on my head but me. It’s my choice — one protected by the first amendment.” Omar’s statement emphasizes her agency, an acknowledgment of the very individuality that Republicans claim is incompatible with identity politics.
Deliberation individuality versus identity aside, conservatives must be experiencing a selective amnesia as they rail against Omar. They may not afford her the same praise, but conservatives have long supported the intersection of religious identity and politics. A prime example is Vice President Mike Pence (from his lofty perch at President Trump’s side) who has built his entire brand upon his religious convictions — pitching himself as a politician whose decisions are dutifully informed by the values of his faith. When it comes to religious freedom, according to Pence’s beliefs in gay conversion therapy and a refusal to dine alone in the presence of women, the Vice President has been showcasing his religious identity to his constituents throughout his entire political career.
I’d wager that conservatives support their own version identity politics as passionately as Democrats do. Due to an over-representation of older, wealthy, straight, cisgender, white men, their efforts continue to beget more of the same. They may not emphasize the same identities or use the same rhetoric as the Democrats traditionally have and do, but they are absolutely participating in what they publicly condemn. Whether it be a mere prioritization of different demographics or pure, passionate opposition, conservatism is still politics through the lens of identity and experience.
Regardless of partisanship, leadership that more accurately represents what the general electorate looks like should be considered a positive step forward. Ideally, a team of people possessing diversity in life experience, cultural backgrounds and personal values will create legislation that will better addresses the needs of more Americans. Many communities feel left behind by out-of-touch politicians and their petty politics. Unfortunately, the legislative process will always produce adverse and unexpected consequences — through a better representation of America’s diverse culture, they will hopefully be minimized.
Considering the success rate among Democrats in the midterms this year, it would appear that these candidates resonated with voters because of the fresh perspective they brought to the table. They are part of an incoming generation of politicians who are spirited and driven, and they will become leaders who are as diverse as the districts and states that elected them.
At this point, it seems fairly obvious that both sides “pander to identity politics,” but perhaps it shouldn’t be framed as pandering or preaching at all. Everyone has a rich identity that is informed by their upbringing, culture and the way their family and friends form a community around them — it is only natural that voters respond to similar stories about who their elected representatives are. People want leaders who feel relatable — if a politician can’t understand the struggles of those in their district, how can they ensure that their voice is heard? Instead of treating it as a craven weapon, we should acknowledge the desire to inject humanity and expression into politics. Everyone comes from somewhere, and candidates telling their stories should be used to further strengthen their bond with the American people.