Identity Crisis Politics

Super Tuesday has come and gone. Donald Trump came out the big winner as everyone expected and as most dreaded. The Donald represents a crisis in our politics. His emergence as a serious candidate represents a breakdown in our country. But America’s greatest crisis isn’t any of the ones that the pundits and politicians point to. It’s not a crisis of economics, or homophobia, or family values, or “Islamic” terrorism, or opportunity, or even the walking, hairpiece wearing crisis that is Donald trump. America’s greatest crisis, and the one which is driving our politics, is a crisis of identity.

Identity has to do with the following question: How do I know myself most well? For the past 50–80 years the majority of Americans have known themselves most well as members of the “hardworking American middle class.” This middle class community possesses several traits that define the identity attached to membership in it. Its members have historically (at least since the economic boom following World War II) worked for someone else rather than for themselves. They have experienced relatively stable wages and employment. They have mostly sought to own their own homes and create secure environments in which to raise families.[1] The middle class community, and the identity that accompanies membership in it, is inherently conservative. This declaration of conservatism is not a proclamation of political allegiance however, it is a claim to temperment. Whether any given middle class American tends to vote Republican or Democrat, the community as a whole thrives on social and economic stability, political honesty, and perceived fairness. Their identity demands a conservative approach and a paradigm of governance which does not rock the boat too much.

The economic and social upheaval of the last decade has thrown the American middle class into tumult. The stability which undergirded the community’s identity has been taken away by successive and persistent economic downturn. The expansion of civil and social rights to groups that fail to fit into the tidy boxes of middle class identity has called into question the community’s simple understanding of identity. The revelation of long concealed racial and economic injustice has rendered their understanding of honesty and fairness meaningless. Everything upon which the collective identity of America’s vast middle class depends is being challenged.

The economic attack has been especially pernicious. Quietly and over a long period of time, the foundations which have undergirded middle class stability have been eroded. The community has shrunk as a result. The figures on wage stagnation and income inequality tell the story of a community which has had chunks of itself torn away by the forces of globalization, economic liberalization, and corporate greed. The shrinkage of the community caused by economic stagnation, combined with the new identities taken on by the ripped away pieces, have challenged the identity held by middle class Americans.

It’s no secret that the recent and current political revolts are closely tied to the depressed economic fortunes of the middle class. Keeping in mind the connection between economic stability and community identity, we must come to realize that the rise of the Tea Party, and now Donald Trump as a “viable” candidate for the Republican nomination, has little to do with finance and everything to do with the multiple, intersecting assaults being levied against the middle class identity. Democrats are no less susceptible to the politics of identity crisis. Bernie Sanders is a leading candidate for precisely the same reasons that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are leaders. All of them are promising to restore, through either liberal or conservative policy maneuvers, the conditions that once guaranteed the identities of the middle class.

Of course, none of the candidates are actually capable of restoring those conditions. The post war boom happened in the context of strong industrial economics. American (and every other industrialized nation) made stuff because there was no other way to make money. Digital technology changed that paradigm. In 1960 it was prohibitively difficult to design a product in the United States and manufacture it in China. That handshake now happens with a few keystrokes or screen swipes. The Internet and the economic globalization which it spawned have shifted us into a new and less table phase of economic being. Unfortunately the broad swath of the middle class has yet to understand and adapt to this new form of being. Their identity is still connected to an economy based on iron and plastic rather than one based on ones and zeros. Is it any wonder that anyone who claims to be able to restore those old cornerstones of the American identity will get the ear of the American middle class?

At some point a new quasi-equilibrium will develop, one that is capable of sustaining a new and stable middle class identity. Social upheaval will smooth out, the hills and valleys of the economy will settle. Around what-quasi-equilibrium they settle is a mystery. The only guarantee is that it will be radically different from anything that we have known. Until then we will have to suffer the Trump’s and Cruz’s, politicians who thrive on identity crisis. We will have to live with those who to pander to old and broken identities for a while longer. But once the realization sets in that these brash, angry men (and they are mostly men) can’t deliver on their promises, that they can’t shore up the identity of an in crisis middle class community with their xenophobia or their marginal economics policies, the pendulum will swing back. Until then we must all work to overcome the fear of identity crisis and seek leaders who are able to guide us forward into new understandings of identity and community.

Previously published at Living Connections

[1] Though there has been some variation in emphasis, these traits have held true across the last three to four generations.