Identity should not define political allegiance

Photo courtesy of Evan Gillon

Political parties are often painted as two choices: if you dislike taxes and big government, then you’re probably a Republican. If you want to protect the environment from global warming and pollution, then you’re probably a Democrat. Now, it seems that the labels “Republican” and “Democrat” are no longer adequate ways to summarize an individual’s political views; terms like “Berniecrat” have emerged to describe supporters of fringe candidates, and I’ve heard many conservatives describe themselves as a “GOP Republican” and not a Trump supporter. But it’s not quite that simple anymore. Now, it might be that the two-party system is breaking up. However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that these groups are largely composed of the same types of people, who tend to center upon a common identity, regardless of its validity. This describes a shift into what is called “identity politics”: the tendency for a group of people to self-align based on mutual identity to a particular group, whether it be race, gender or otherwise.

This is not to say that if you’re a black Democrat, you are just a part of the system for supporting that party, or if you are white, you must be a Republican because of your failure to recognize your privilege, though I am sure these cases exist.

What I do find is that in politics and other things, people are steered towards a certain political opinions because they generally fit their identity. More importantly, if individuals break away from their “assigned” political identity, it is met with great surprise and even backlash.

Take Quay Manuel, the 16-year-old black Trump supporter who became widely known after a video emerged of him arguing with a Black Lives Matter protester. The nation was shocked to see a young black man support a candidate seen as xenophobic and misogynistic, especially after Trump’s comments about the black community, and rightly so. But Manuel illustrated a point that is rarely made: political ideology and opinion can be dissonant with race and personal identity. They frequently are not, but they can be, and should be. Manuel’s statements are no less xenophobic, sexist and yes, racist, than any other Trump supporter’s, but they exist separate from his identity.

While all political opinions are not created equal, if we begin to separate people’s political views and social norms from their demographics, it will lead to more individual freedom of thought as a person. Believing in a conservative policy would not necessarily mean you believe in everything the Republican party stands for. Identity politics, as pointed out by David Brooks of The New York Times, inherently breeds cynicism and distrust by presenting people with a binary option for what  they are. More options to express a variety of beliefs would lead to less partisanship.

I admit that it is unrealistic to expect that people will evaluate ideas by considering them purely based on their own merit. Humans are shaped by the environment in which they are raised. To refuse this implies that people are innately predisposed to certain political ideas, which cannot be true. The objective of recognizing the effect of identity politics is similar to that of recognizing implicit bias: to be aware of it during decision making and in relations with others.

Banding together over common identities is not necessarily bad, especially when it comes to minorities. Often times, student unions and similar groups give voices to those who do not have them. Conversely, Trump supporters bond together from ideology, but also from their identity of being white and their attempt to preserve their societal power. In either environment, when the common identity shared by the people governs political thought and opinion, it has gone too far.