The GOP Loses By Misunderstanding Identity Politics

Reactionary surrender of the concept of identity will only make things worse

Sarah Quinlan
Dec 19, 2018 · 11 min read

The 2018 midterms ended with the number of female Democrats in the House of Representatives increasing from 54 to 89, while the number of female Republicans in the chamber fell from 23 to just 13. Come January, the GOP will seat the fewest congresswomen in over a quarter century.

In response, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) announced her intent to help women win primaries, declaring,

I want to play in primaries, and I want to win big in primaries. … [W]e need to support those women earlier and learn the lessons of how effective the other side was in getting women through these competitive primaries.

That’s an idea that unfortunately rubs some Republicans the wrong way.

The newly-elected chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), pushed back, telling Roll Call, “If that’s what Elise wants to do, then that’s her call, her right. But I think that’s a mistake.” He added, “It shouldn’t be just based on looking for a specific set of ingredients — gender, race, religion — and then we’re going to play in the primary.”

Hovering in the background here is the notion of identity politics. Emmer’s rejection of what he perceives to be electoral identity-scouting, i.e. “looking for a specific set of ingredients,” is the right’s standard complaint against “identity politics.” And this intra-party debate is one we will continue to see. Emmer and others in the party want to avoid engaging in identity politics because they view it purely as a negative. Yet this attitude will inevitably result in the Republican Party hamstringing itself.

Representation matters. The more one party places a priority on ensuring its ranks are representative of the public while the other wantonly dismisses — or actively avoids — this idea, the more pronounced the disparity in representation will get. Furthermore, if one party fails to promote or encourage diversity in its own ranks for the sake of avoiding identity politics, the party will, to no one’s surprise, become less diverse.

Of course, whether wittingly or not, the GOP’s capture of rural and non-urban voters involves many of the same dynamics they decry on the left as “identity politics.” And part of what it means to play identity politics in this context, in the context of the Republican Party, is to maintain a kind of exclusivity on the concept of “real America.” Yet as Kevin Williamson recently observed, we cannot continue to see rural Americans as the only “real Americans” while ignoring the America that exists elsewhere, including cities. Doubling down on “rural voters” and “real America” might be a beneficial short-term strategy, but it is a sure loser in the long run as cities continue to expand, rural America continues to shrink, and the country’s diversification continues apace.

Repeated warnings of “demographic destiny” haven’t done much to alter Republican strategy. Nor have they really needed to. Trump won the White House not despite his appeals to white voters but partly because of them. This is its own form of identity politics—yet it’s one that cannot hope to last. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Unfortunately, the loudest voices on each side are the most extreme, with some on the right disparaging any attempt to encourage diversity and some on the left seemingly reducing people to nothing but their skin color, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. So we stop listening to each other, and words become loaded that shouldn’t. When that happens, our most important concepts, such as identity, become captive to a political moment that is hostile toward discussing them. The proxy terms we use in political debates, such as “identity politics” and “intersectionality,” get stripped of their capacity to be fairly and judiciously explored. We then very quickly lose any hope of negotiating how identity itself ought to feature in political decision-making.

One aspect of intersectionality worth dwelling on a bit more is the idea that our various identity categories are not factors in competition with one another, each striving to be accepted as the driving force behind marginalization. Trying to pinpoint which aspect of one’s identity happens to be the most significant cause of a lack of opportunity gets the interlocking nature of social-identity categories all wrong.

Instead, each identity category is a unit that affects the fuller, more comprehensive identity profile. And each unit (e.g., being a woman) has, all on its own, real implications; each unit is subject to certain social and political realities that are often very different from those of other identity categories.

For example, a white man and a white woman may have similar experiences based on their shared race but different experiences based on sex. Or a straight white couple may be able to hold hands or kiss in public without fear of adverse reactions from others, whereas a gay couple of color may not.

Some on the right believe, and not without reason, that people use intersectionality as a technique to set up an inverted social hierarchy using marginalization as the metric: the more oppressed boxes you can tick, the greater your wisdom, or status, or whatever. As a result, arguments stop being about the merits of the positions but about who has endured the greater measure of suffering. Certainly, people exist who twist intersectionality for their own benefit. Yet UCLA law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw initially coined the term “intersectionality” to describe a real issue facing real people. In her paper outlining the concept, Crenshaw brings up DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, a 1976 employment lawsuit against General Motors by black women alleging discrimination. The court ruled against the black women because General Motors was able to show it hired black men and white women; unfortunately, it did not recognize how race and sex combined or intersected to form an altogether distinct identity profile subjected to greater scrutiny.

We see in history many examples of this. Take Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony on the 15th Amendment. Though the two were united in supporting universal suffrage and opposing slavery, Anthony opposed the 15th Amendment because it did not simultaneously grant women the right to vote, whereas Douglass thought it important that black Americans obtain some power and representation, even if at first that meant only black men. Meanwhile, black women were doubly disadvantaged, due to their race and their sex.

With that in mind, consider political commentator Allie Stuckey’s claim that women before the 1960s were not oppressed; this is historically inaccurate but particularly so for women of color. In the run-up to the ’60s, black women were restricted from fully exercising rights such as voting or owning a firearm, which under any definition I’m aware of constitutes being oppressed. When Stuckey referred to “women,” she dismissed the experiences of black women and spoke only in terms of white women (which is still inaccurate, but that’s a discussion for another day).

Identity politics, for its part, involves the taking of political positions and the forming of political alliances based on the interests and perspectives of social groups characterized by attributes such as race, sex, social background, and religion, among others. Many on the right take this to mean attributes such as skin color and genitalia should be seen as more important than qualifications, skills, and principles — and they can usually pick out some example of this in society. But there is a difference between the mentality of “vote for unqualified people based solely on their race/sex/et cetera” and “it benefits us all for our qualified legislators to be diverse, because people have different experiences and therefore can provide different but valuable perspectives.”

The right acknowledges — really, insists — men and women are different. It should naturally follow, then, that we conclude their experiences are different. Ethnic groups are not equally represented across the income spectrum. It should follow, then, that their experiences are not all of a piece. The American Psychological Association covered a study that found people perceived black men to be more threatening than white men:

Wilson and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments involving more than 950 online participants (all from the United States) in which people were shown a series of color photographs of white and black male faces of individuals who were all of equal height and weight. The participants were then asked to estimate the height, weight, strength and overall muscularity of the men pictured.

“We found that these estimates were consistently biased. Participants judged the black men to be larger, stronger and more muscular than the white men, even though they were actually the same size,” said Wilson. “Participants also believed that the black men were more capable of causing harm in a hypothetical altercation and, troublingly, that police would be more justified in using force to subdue them, even if the men were unarmed.”

Such studies have shown people do treat others differently based on certain factors. So a group of individuals with a diverse array of experiences may be better able to understand issues in ways a more homogeneous line-up of representatives can’t. For example, someone who has never been poor may not be able to understand how poverty can be expensive or the trade-offs a poor person must weigh when making decisions. Thus, a legislator who grew up in poverty may help write more effective legislation regarding welfare than one who didn’t. A black judge who grew up wary of the police may have a better understanding of how abuse of power can occur. One example that showcased the benefits of diversity occurred during the 2016 election, when Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) spoke poignantly about being pulled over for being a black man driving an expensive car in a wealthy neighborhood; he was able to identify with people of color who have faced racial prejudice in a way that a white legislator may not have been able to.

Scott is the only black Republican in the Senate, and he and former Representative Mia Love (R-Utah) are examples of how complicated identity politics can be. It’s often wielded as a nasty weapon: Some on the left have frequently, unfairly, criticized Scott and Love for supposedly betraying their race or scorned them as “props,” which of course reduces them to their skin color rather than seeing their qualifications and accomplishments.

However, Love and Scott, as well as outgoing Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), have also been open about the GOP’s need to appeal to minorities. Love wrote: “Republicans should not be so afraid of identity politics that we refuse to seek out the unique experiences that actually do contribute to people’s individual identity,” while pointing out, “Republicans who accept that some Americans will inevitably vote Democratic simply because of their physical features or where they live are buying into the identity politics they so stridently object to.” Meanwhile, Scott has also been in the news this year as the sole Republican to shoot down the judicial nominations of both Ryan Bounds and Thomas Farr. Scott opposed Bounds due to the way he wrote about race during college, and POLITICO reported a July meeting with Bounds and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) left neither Scott nor Rubio convinced Bounds’ views had changed since college. Scott (with Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona) voted against Farr, who worked on the controversial 1990 campaign of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and who defended a 2013 voter ID law that a federal court later ruled was intended to disenfranchise minority voters, not prevent voter fraud.

The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted that “it should not fall to [Scott] alone to conclude that a man who spent his career trying to prevent his fellow citizens from voting does not belong on the federal bench.” Serwer urged non-minority Republicans to defend all Americans’ constitutional rights — but his piece also served to highlight the lack of diversity among Republicans in the Senate. The nominations of Bounds and Farr demonstrate the value of diversity: If the Republican Party were represented by more people with varied experiences and perspectives, others might have opposed Farr’s nomination; without Scott in the Senate, Farr might have sailed through. Scott himself later urged the Republican Party to “strive to do better” with race.

Moreover, much of modern politics is identity politics these days. We have, for quite some time, examined age, sex, religion, race, and how those attributes affect voting behavior. We have adjusted our outreach strategies depending on the group we’re targeting or speaking to. We create elaborate models of voters based upon similar characteristics and microtarget ads tailor-made to reach them.

Figuring out what’s important to communities and then using that to reach them is basic democratic politics. Republican Governor Larry Hogan recently won re-election in the blue state of Maryland and demonstrated how Republicans can benefit from identity politics. His campaign used a focus group of 110 women who do not like President Trump and adjusted the campaign based on these women’s responses, helping him to become the first Republican governor to win re-election in the state of Maryland since 1954.

The right occasionally does concede, whether intentionally or not, identity politics can be good. Sometimes the right pushes legislation based on identity markers conservatives would otherwise dismiss as “identity politics.” Trump’s campaign intended to capture large swathes of particular identity groups. Conversely, when black Americans voted for Obama, some on the right concluded this was identity politics run amok. When it benefits our side, it’s democratic responsiveness; when the other side does it, it’s rampant voter ignorance, it’s voters motivated by feelings and not facts.

I have always believed the Republican Party was more willing than the Democratic Party to see the world as it actually is and possessed a more realistic view of human nature. Understanding identity and grappling with how that affects experience should be no different. Identity politics and intersectionality aren’t inherently negative, and the GOP puts itself at a significant disadvantage by outright dismissing them and forfeiting the valuable perspectives gained through diversity.

Earlier this year, National Review published my essay regarding feminism and conservatism that off-handedly praised intersectionality, and some readers tweeted they’d stopped reading upon seeing intersectionality mentioned positively. We should be willing to listen to all viewpoints and come to our own conclusions, not adhere to our preconceived notions and close ourselves off from debate.

Republicans have long declared that conservative policies cut across gender and race and benefit every American. However, we will not get a chance to prove that if we seem unwilling to understand or embrace the value of different perspectives. There have been countless warning signs — with the 2018 midterm elections being just one of them — and we cannot continue to ignore them. If Americans increasingly feel that Democrats do a better job of representing them, listening to their concerns, and offering solutions, the Republican Party will not survive.

Sarah Quinlan is a columnist at Arc Digital. Read more of her work and follow her on Twitter.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Sarah Quinlan

Written by

Conservative • Feminist • @ArcDigi columnist • Formerly @RedState • “Because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Sarah Quinlan

Written by

Conservative • Feminist • @ArcDigi columnist • Formerly @RedState • “Because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

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