Op-Ed: The 2020 election did not kill off identity politics. Instead, the strategy was reborn–By Khalilah L. Brown-Dean
“Today many conservatives use the phrase “identity politics” as a pejorative to denounce demands from underrepresented groups, but appeals to group-based identities are central to how candidates build support regardless of party affiliation. The latest presidential election hasn’t changed that.
Some people reject identity politics because they believe organizing around group interests promotes societal blame over personal responsibility. President Trump capitalized on this tension by issuing an executive order in September purportedly meant to “combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” by banning diversity training and withdrawing certain research grants and programs. In reality the order was a political strategy designed to counter claims that systemic racism is baked into the American fabric. As various corporations and sports teams affirmed their commitment to addressing issues of bias, the president seized on the opportunity to reject these demands and reassure his base his priorities had not changed.
Amid a global COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately claiming the lives of Black and Indigenous Americans, demands for comprehensive policing reform stretched across the summer following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Daniel Prude and others. Even as Black Lives Matter bloomed into what may be the largest political movement in American history, the failure in September to indict officers in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor motivated voters to express either support or discontent at the ballot box.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, about 60% of white Americans, 75% of Asian Americans, 86% of Black Americans and 77% of Latino respondents said they approved of the Black Lives Matter movement in June. By September, support had significantly dropped among white and Hispanic respondents while holding steady among Asian and Black populations.
The heated dog-whistle appeals from a number of conservative candidates surrounding “law and order” coupled with demands to “back the blue” at demonstrations across the country supporting the police solidified these identity-based divides while overlooking voters who see systemic change as a means to keep law enforcement and the public safe. Early election day exit polls show that more than 90% of people who see racial inequality as the major issue facing the U.S. voted for Joe Biden for president. By comparison, about 70% of voters who believe crime and violence are the major threats cast ballots for Donald Trump. The very juxtaposition of the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter movements reveals the deeply entrenched nature of identity politics in the U.S.”
“In the coming days we’ll have a sharper sense of how these identity-based appeals translated into votes and what change will happen because of them. Not just at the presidential level, but across all levels of government. Republicans’ modest gains among white women, Latino voters, the LGBTQ+ population and Black men from 2016 to 2020 affirm the inherently intersectional nature of identity and the need to better understand the tremendous diversity that exists within communities.
Identity politics is dynamic and contextual. The prospects of a divided government in Washington on the cusp of major redistricting efforts across the states enhance the need to view democracy as a battle over how we see ourselves, how we see others — and the power we have to reinforce those distinctions.”
Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science and senior director for inclusive excellence at Quinnipiac University. She is the author of “Identity Politics in the United States.”