There have always been conflicts in American politics around identity — race, gender, sexuality, etc. To resolve tensions between states during the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the framers wrote a provision declaring that a slave counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation and taxation, at a time when the overwhelming majority of blacks in the United States were slaves. Nearly 500,000 American soldiers (on the Union and Confederate sides) died in the Civil War over the slavery of blacks, close to the combined death totals for American service members in both world wars.1
So we are nowhere near peak identity conflict in America. But nor are we at a nadir; “identity politics” are all over the place. Indeed, talking about the role of identity in our contemporary political conflicts is important for many reasons.
To start with, Americans are increasingly “sorted” (to use a political science term) between the political parties along identity lines, with nonwhites, urban whites and agnostics, atheists and people who practice non-Christian faiths (Jews, Muslims) largely in the Democratic Party; while white conservative Christians and rural whites are concentrated in the Republican Party.2 So a partisan conflict in America is often an identity conflict too.
At the same time, people taking action in politics often have an incentive to mask the role identity is playing. Many of these issues are sensitive and can be inflammatory, and the political class (elected officials and media) may just feel more comfortable avoiding them. It is more in the norms of American culture today, for example, to say, “I support this policy because it would benefit the most people,” versus, “I support this policy because it benefits Latinos, who I think are marginalized and need policies directed at them.”
The result is that too often issues of identity are driving one news story or another but going unmentioned. So we are launching a FiveThirtyEight column that will use data and other tools of political science to look closely at questions of identity and how they are shaping politics. The goal here is not only to mention them but also to better understand them.
A couple more notes: First, you might think this column is simply a response to President Trump’s tendency to say racially charged and at times flat-out racist things. Not totally. Every president has done things that nod at their views on issues around identity.3 There probably should have been more coverage of how previous U.S. presidents navigated identity, although I will concede that Trump has focused our attention on the subject.
Second, I will emphasize that this is an identity column, not a race column. We all have multiple identities. I, for example, am African-American, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual, college-educated, male, Southern-by-birth/upbringing (I’m from Kentucky), urban (I live in Washington, D.C.), and a lot of other things. One of the most important dynamics to understand about politics and people is how these identities intersect and are at times in tension with one another.
Each week (except for this one), the column will include:
- A central topic.
- A few recommended stories with an identity focus.
- A number or set of numbers (this is FiveThirtyEight, after all) that will capture some story or controversy around identity.
Please reach out with ideas. I will be the main writer of this column, and you can reach me via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@perrybaconjr). I look forward to hearing from you.
Stories you should read
- Life is full of surprises, like this: The leader of the College Republicans at Stanford University is the son of Susan Rice. (Yes, that one.)
- I enjoyed the new, all-female edition of the “Ocean’s” movie franchise. But perhaps I shouldn’t have: Amanda Hess of The New York Times has a very compelling piece on the shortcomings of “Hollywood’s gender flips.”
- I’m not sure “Scandal” aged well, but my wife still watches “Grey’s Anatomy.” Whatever you think of her shows, Shonda Rhimes is a force in the entertainment business. Read about what she’s up to at Netflix.
By the numbers
New York officials are proposing to overhaul admissions policies at some of city’s most selective public schools to address the lack of black and Latino students. But that proposal is getting strong pushback, particularly from some Asian-American leaders. Less than 1 percent of students at the renowned New York City math and science high school Stuyvesant are black, and less than 3 percent are Latino. About 73 percent are Asian. The students in the New York City public school system overall are about 41 percent Latino, 23 percent black and 17 percent Asian.
I know I’m talking about one 3,300-student school in New York City, where FiveThirtyEight is based. Typical media East Coast obsession, you might say. Fair enough. But I’m watching this debate closely for two reasons. I think we are going to see more identity-based debates like this in cities where ostensibly everyone is liberal on racial issues (or least votes in presidential elections for Democratic candidates who are liberal on racial issues) and the population is heavily nonwhite, so people of color are contesting issues with other people of color. And I think these kind of debates over admission to elite schools are happening in other settings as well, pitting two competing goals — a kind of “objective” entrance system, like the test Stuyvesant uses, vs. having a student body that reflects the community.