Identity Politics: Good, Bad or Inevitable?

by: hawkgrrrl

January 8, 2013

In the 2012 election, 78% of Mormons voted for Romney (fewer than the 80% who voted for Bush in 2004), but 93% of blacks voted for Obama (down from 95% in 2008).  71% of hispanics backed Obama.  Whites voted for Romney more than Obama by 20% (more than the 12% disparity when McCain opposed Obama in 2008).  Men preferred Romney by 7%.  Married men preferred Romney by 22%.  Married women preferred Romney by 7%.

Is it identity politics or self interest?

Do we vote for a candidate simply because their appearance is familiar or because we assume that familiarity (being “one of us”) will equate to empathy for our situation and more likelihood that our unique needs will be given preferential treatment? Is it accidental bias or savvy self-interest?  On the flip side, is it prejudice against the “other,” the one we assume would be less likely to have our back because, just maybe, we would be less likely to have his or hers?

When we judge the “rightness” of others’ voting, there seems to be a graduated scale:  at one end, we decry the craven selfishness and bigoted bias of the identity voter, the person so narcissistic that only the candidate that resembles him or her is attractive enough.  We criticize politicians who lazily pander to their constituents, using the public coffers to bestow unwarranted gifts on their favorites.  Theoretically, we prize only the seemingly disinterested voters who deliberately vote for the candidate with whom they least identify.  We admire the Mormons who vote for Obama and the blacks who vote for Romney, assuming they must be special to rise above their bias and first inclination, finding qualities to evaluate beyond the obvious.  We conclude they must have been very thoughtful to break the stereotype of the identity voter.

In reality, how much are any politicians like the rest of us?  Despite our egalitarian rhetoric, being comfortable drinking a beer with someone isn’t really a qualification to rule the free world.

Which identity?

Like everyone else, I have yet to be confronted with a candidate who is just like me:  a politically independent white, upper middle class, married Mormon female executive who has lived abroad.  Whenever I consider the candidates, there are aspects with which I identify and ones with which I don’t.  Factors other than identity always come into play.  Is it identity that I chickened out over a Sarah Palin vice presidency because I thought she was too stupid to govern and McCain too old to guarantee she wouldn’t?  (I have a “smarter than me” rule about POTUS, and she didn’t make the cut).

In some ways, I identified with Romney.  He was articulate, fit, smart, and straightforward.  He was always composed.  You could see a sangfroid guy like this pushing the button if needed, then getting eight hours of sleep.  To me, that seemed presidential and executive-like.

When it came to Romney, I identified with him more on the basis of being a business person than being a Mormon.  Our mutual religion just made me understand him better and not be taken in by some of the criticisms that seemed based on a misunderstanding of Mormons.  For example, I never bought Romney as a Thurston Howell III type.  He’s a Mormon, and Mormons are cheap to the bone no matter how rich.  This is a man with hundreds of millions in assets who spent hours searching the ocean floor for a lost anchor that cost less than $50.  If that’s not a Mormon trait, I don’t know what is.  I also understood his extreme reluctance to talk about his faith or to tell others about his service and don’t find it suspicious.

How identity informs our views

Recently, it has been observed that ALL the heads of all the Congressional committees are white men.  Although the committees include females and other races, will non-diverse leadership result in outcomes that are biased or lacking in diverse perspectives?  Even the general authorities of the church have more racial diversity than this bunch.  As any woman who has ever used stood in a really long queue for a public toilet knows, when female input isn’t considered, women suffer. I imagine this to be the case for any ignored group with unique needs.  Diversity leads to creativity and more effective solutions with a broader application.

Let’s discuss the key points:

  • Is it pandering to focus on identity politics?  Is it necessary?
  • As voters, is it possible to avoid identity voting?  Does identity voting protect our interests?
  • Do you like a candidate more the more you identify with that person?


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23 Responses to Identity Politics: Good, Bad or Inevitable?

  1. Jenn on January 8, 2013 at 7:31 AM

    I think a lot of this is a case of “correlation does not equal causation”. for instance, if single women were less likely to vote for Romney, is it because they identify less with him, or because Romney’s politics don’t jive with a lot of the interests of single women? If more whites voted for Romney, is it because they identify with him, or is it because statistically whites are in life situations that lead them to have conservative interests?

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  2. Will on January 8, 2013 at 8:45 AM

    The problem is not identity as much as it is low information. Coming from someone that has hired a lot of people in my day, I clearly see a pattern in our society. The new recruits are largely dumb and lazy. For trades, I won’t even look to hire anyone that is not Hispanic. I think this is true with respect to the Honey boo Boo crowd that elected Obama; largely dumb, lazy and immoral – Helaman 5:2

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  3. Jenn on January 8, 2013 at 9:02 AM

    Will, have you ever considered that if you presented your opinion in a way not intended to offend, you may be able to get more people to give your argument a chance?
    The assumption that all of those who voted for Obama are dumb, lazy or immoral is not only offensive, it is easy enough to disprove. Anecdotally, I’m a college-educated, upper-middle-class, and never been on govt assistance, and I voted for Obama. I’ve also never watched Honey Boo Boo and never will.
    Nationwide, while yes, many of the poor did vote for Obama, so did a lot of the well-educated and hard-working. CNN exit polls show that 44% of those making over 100k voted for Obama, and college graduates voted 50% for Obama, 48% for Romney- postgraduated was 55% Obama. In other words, just because someone does not agree with you, does not automatically make them stupid or lazy. Please broaden your world view a bit.
    Back to the post at hand, the exit poll link shows a lot of interesting trends, but I still think you can’t confuse correlation with causation: does a white upper class mormon vote for Romney because he is familiar and identified-with, or does a white upper class mormon agree with romney on issues because he’s pulling from similar life experiences? We have no way of knowing another person’s thought and shouldn’t discount anyone’s vote as simply an “identity vote”.

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  4. aerin on January 8, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    What’s important is having a mixture of people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives who are also capable. Just being diverse isn’t always the best outcome, also, not recognizing that people may have different educational or life backgrounds and still be a good fit for a job. (Moms who worked at home re-entering the workforce, combat vets returning and not being able to use their wartime experience as an EMT, a student who graduates from a state school because they can’t afford the ivy league, etc.).

    I read that people think they are without bias, but subtle bias creeps in. What about the orchestras that started auditions behind a screen…they found that the conductors were taking gender and race into account instead of finding the best performer (I think that was in Blink).

    Identity politics are inevitable. I believe Obama’s popularity also has to do with being raised by a single mom (like Bill Clinton). That narrative speaks to many Americans, who may have been raised in single parent homes or in poverty. It’s unfortunate that the Republican candidates with those backgrounds focused on social issues in the primaries…otherwise there may have been more of a contest. I suspect it has more to do with socio-economic background than race or gender at times.

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  5. Will on January 8, 2013 at 12:41 PM


    By the time Obama is done with his 2nd term we will have over 20 trillion in general obligation debt; and, from 55 to 110 trillion in UNFUNDED pension obligations.

    It is stupid and immoral to have more debt than you can possibly pay back. Thus, anyone that voted for this is dumb and/or immoral.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on January 8, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    The right’s not immune to immoral levels of spending. They just prefer spending it on unnecessary levels of defense rather than on enabling failure among the citizenry. (just speaking Will’s language, which is actually pretty easy). Personally I agree that we lack discipline in spending.

    I question whether we are aware of our own identity politics at times. At face value, it’s voting based on personal similarities with the candidate, but I’ve also wondered how much party identification has changed over time. For example, conservatives used to be the well educated wealthy land owners. Somehow that’s morphed over time to include aspiring Walmart republicans who are in fact poor, but don’t want a govt handout or whatever they tell thmselves about the left. And the academic elite have become almost entirely left leaning over time.

    Personally I think these shifts are due to the narratives around socially conservative values. The narratives are far more black and white than the views of most citizens are. The left tells it better because they have the academic elite and journalists as spokespeople whereas the right, which used to have some brilliant minds representing it, now has an even higher number of vocal idiots.

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  7. Jeff Spector on January 8, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    One always has hope that people will fairly evaluate the candidates based on the face value of what they say, who they are and how they have conducted themselves and not on the hype and spin surrounding them.

    Then, there are people like Will who completely dash that hope.

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  8. el oso on January 8, 2013 at 4:18 PM

    Good topic. My self-interest includes business. It is obvious that Mitt Romney understands market forces and can get things done at high levels of business. President Obama was a professional politician and understood campaigning and ideology, but has not displayed deep understanding of anything else.
    His accomplishments outside of the presidency include some lobbying and not much else. He is dedicated to government programs. Business minded people only want the government out of their way, unless they want to get some special breaks (solar panel manufacturers come to mind).

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  9. Mike S on January 8, 2013 at 5:44 PM

    #2 Will: I think this is true with respect to the Honey boo Boo crowd that elected Obama; largely dumb, lazy and immoral

    Yep. You pegged me.

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  10. Mike S on January 8, 2013 at 5:47 PM

    Just wanted to say that comment #7 (Jeff Spector) is the best comment I have read in months.

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  11. Roger on January 8, 2013 at 5:49 PM

    I’ve watched some identity politics from close range. My DW is an elected state official — although her stance on many issues is quite conservative (well, at least more conservative than mine), she has enjoyed wide female support from across the political spectrum because these female supporters and donors want to break the glass ceilings with her vicariously. And, on Election Day, she accepts all votes, regardless of the motives.

    To the extent that some common experience with followers lends legitimacy to leaders’ authority, I can see where that might be a bit scarce when the women membership gaze upon the vista of the several dozen GAs seated before them during General Conference.

    Oh, rave on, Will.

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  12. Will on January 8, 2013 at 5:56 PM


    I find your statement ” One always has hope that people will fairly evaluate the candidates based on the face value of what they say, who they are and how they have conducted themselves and not on the hype and spin surrounding them. ” to be ironic.

    It was Obama that said Bush’s deficit spending was immoral and he then spent more in 4 years (by a long ways) what Bush did in 8. If spending continues as planned, Obama will have put more debt on the public than ALL of the previous presidents combined. Yep, he will acquire more debt than from George through George and in the process put us in a worse credit position than Poland.

    When this deficit spending completely collapses the dollar, the people that will be hurt the most will be the very people he is claiming to represent. It is this case it is cruel to be kind; and, it would be kind to be cruel.

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  13. hawkgrrrl on January 8, 2013 at 7:27 PM

    Roger, great comment, although I feel a lack of identity with many of the female leaders in the church also. I would be very tempted to vote for Hillary Clinton to break that glass ceiling that so many nations before us have broken.

    Ultimately, do we want leaders we can look up to and aspire to be like or leaders we identify with who will represent our interests? I think both those options can be appealing, but when we can’t really look up to a candidate, identifying with someone might be the most we can hope for.

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  14. Douglas on January 8, 2013 at 10:13 PM

    I would HOPE that something that men and women have made sacrifices at home and abroad in the service of this (once) great nation wouldn’t be exercised in such a frivolous manner. Since I was just one of some two hundred million eligible voters (of which only about a hundred a ten millions actually voted at all), I’m surely only speaking by my lonesome. My decision was based solely on two factors. (1) Was the race effectively decided in my state? If so, I would vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, who had less than a snowflake’s chance in a blast furnace of garnering one electoral vote. If you’re going to protest, PROTEST. See if anyone pays attention. Or..(2) did I feel there was actually a contest in my state? Yes? Then it goes to Romney, whom though I had some issues with, could arguably do less damage than the incumbent. Yes, it’s the evil of two lessors, but it’s my duty to do what I feel is the best good with my vote rather than use it as a personal forum (again, WHO’s paying attention?). Well, we know how it all turned out.
    Hawk, there are positive attributes even about the one I didn’t wish to see win (again). Give credit where it’s due, the man’s not a dummy. Likewise with Mitt he seems inspiring as a fellow LDS, but sometimes when he opened his mouth in the campaign I just groaned and lamented that this was the best the Pachyderm Party could do? With former Gov. Johnson, I felt far more ‘inspiration’ in his ideals, but big whoop, he got the same amount of electoral votes as his predecessors – zilcho. Judge by results, not by visions through the rose-colored glasses.

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  15. Geoff - A on January 9, 2013 at 12:48 AM

    Hawk, Perhaps you might be able to identify with the present Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard.

    Born in 1961, working class parents, attended state school, degree in law and arts, worked in industrial law, became a partner, elected to parliament 1998, became PM in 2010.

    Douglas, We have compulsory voting, so everyone eligible votes, but we also have preferential voting. So you number your voting card from 1 to the last. You can vote for a minority party, if your first preference is not elected your vote then goes to the second of your preferences, and continues to be distributed until one of the field of candidates has a majority.

    There are ways the American system can be improved. We do not elect a Presiden/PM, so avoid the incredible expense,and voter exhaustion you have. We vote for a local member, knowing that the leader of his party will be the PM if he/she has a majority they will be the government.

    One of the things that amazes me is that most memebers of the church see it as a duty to vote conservative even though the conservatives usually do not benifit the socio economic group the memeber comes from. So not self interest or identity, but a percieved duty. Against their self interest.

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  16. hawkgrrrl on January 9, 2013 at 3:33 AM

    Actually, Julia is killing me! I have a lot of employees in the great nation of Australia, and she makes doing business there very inflexible. However, I am continuously impressed with the quality of workers. Whether I identify with her, her policies frustrate.

    As for conservatives voting against self interest, it always seems to be the so-called values voters (a misnomer since everyone votes based on their values ultimately). The social conservatives vote against their economic interest but also either 1) aspire to better socio-economic status than they possess or 2) will live and die on principles of self-reliance so long as nobody else gets a hand out either.

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  17. Douglas on January 9, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    My brother in the “land of Auz…” just vote what you perceive is the best use of your vote, especially since your participation is compelled. It’s private down under as well as in the States, right? If so, you don’t then owe an accounting of your vote anymore than I do here. I’ve had fellow members wonder if I was in league with ol’ Scratch himself for some of my Libertarian views…put a “yes on 19” (a marijuana legalization initiative in California in 2008) and suddenly you’re ‘giving aid and comfort to the enemy’. Not being familiar with Aussie politics, I wouldn’t know what constitutes for an LDS there voting to fulfill some ‘duty’ versus self interest. I don’t feel ‘commanded’ to vote a particular way on anything, not even the infamous Prop 8 back in ’08 which SOME members, not the Church itself, believed commanded to both campaign for AND vote ‘yes’…my support wasn’t unqualified. For myself, often I vote what would seem to be against personal interest as a matter of principle or simply that I see long-term pain isn’t worth the short-term gain. All this, IMO, is why the Lord gave us both agency and a brain. Often there is no clear “right” choice, only an intelligent decision.

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  18. Roger on January 9, 2013 at 10:35 AM

    At the end of the day, elections mean that everyone gets what the majority deserves—a sobering thought. And while I won’t denigrate the sacrifice of those who fought and bled for “freedom” or other notions; to further sober us up, I suggest that attending a couple of voir dire sessions; preferably for criminal trials. One will gain disturbing insights into the intellects and values of the typical voter–as they jury panel is chosen from the voter rolls.

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  19. alice on January 9, 2013 at 2:48 PM

    Another Obama voter here and I don’t even resent the cartoonish stereotyping because I think it displays itself as hopeful and self-serving rather than any constructive contribution to the national dialogue.

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  20. FireTag on January 9, 2013 at 5:08 PM

    I will agree with Will so far as identity politics flourish among low information voters since determining identity takes little information, though I’ll stop there. I doubt the margin in electing Obama over Romney came from voters who believed that before Obama’s second term began he would enforce a fiscal cliff deal that would raise social security taxes on all workers. The notion that only the rich would (and should) pay more was never plausible, but that was the only information many voters had heard. (I have several Obama voters in my family, and they are certainly expressing shock as they see their first 2013 pay checks.)

    Well, I guess we’ll be fine if we just keep minting a trillion dollar platinum coin every nine or ten months and let all our creditors fight themselves to death trying to possess one. :D

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  21. Douglas on January 9, 2013 at 11:49 PM

    Firetag – to your relatives that voted for Saint Barry, thinking he’d ‘stick it to the man’…SUCKERS!

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  22. FireTag on January 10, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    Douglas, nowhere in my copy of the Scriptures — be it in the NT with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, in the D&C/JST where Enoch sees God weep, or in the BofM where Moroni looks out over the destruction of his people — do I see any indication that “Suckers” is a proper response to what we’ve done to our economy (and the world) by spending today what it will take our children and grandchildren their lives to produce.

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  23. Douglas on January 10, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    Firetag – “Suckers” is but lighthearted banter for those deluded fools (whether you consider your relatives to be ‘deluded’ I leave to you) that ought to have known better than to vote for that snake-oil salesman in the White House that sold the electorate on class envy while intending all along to stick it to the rank and file. Look at the greater bite coming out of paychecks for higher taxes and health costs driven up by ObamaCare…for those that still earn them. All over, restaurant owners and retailers are trimming staff hours in order to avoid mandated expenses for ObamaCare. The effect is to lessen the employment prospects of those that can least afford it. Of course, Saint Barry and his I’ll will succeed, with connivance of the media, in deflecting blame on the “rich”

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