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The Limits of Identity Politics

The Limits Of Identity Politics

After the election, a student came into my office and asked me, “What is my major good for?”[1] The quote perfectly captured the post-election state of my profession as a political scientist of having wrongly predicted the presidential race. There were be several articles and books that will be published about the problems in the forecasting models but for now there appears at least four main issues in the methodology of the presidential polling: 1) an under-sampling of rural, white voters; 2) the late decisions of 10-15% of voters in some critical key states who voted for Trump; 3) not adopting panel modeling which uses the same respondents across a period of time; and 4) not accounting for the Bradley effect.

The under-sampling of rural, white voters was due to pollsters using voter turnout data from the last presidential election, a common practice but could have been corrected by taking into account how many more would be mobilized by the Trump candidacy. The second issue, the late decisions (within the last week of the election) of some voters in key battleground states to vote for Trump is impossible for pollsters to account for and reveals the limits of polling. The absence of panel data is usual because these studies are expensive to conduct, although some campaigns use them. I suspect Trump’s internal polls did use panel modeling which is why they knew something that the rest of us didn’t, with Trump’s visiting Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota in the last week of the campaign.

The Bradley effect is voters not revealing to pollsters their true preferences for fear of being perceived as a racist, bigot, sexist, etc. It is named after Tom Bradley, the African-American major of Los Angeles, who was leading in the polls in the 1982 California Governor race, which he unexpectedly lost. Thanks to the national media and the Democratic Party’s demonization of Trump, his voters were characterized as racist or misogynist so those who were going to vote for Trump wouldn’t admit it publicly. This is not only evident in the white working-class support for Trump, which was expected (67% to 28%), but also in the white college-educated vote for Trump (49% to 45%), a similar margin that John McCain won in 2008 (51% to 47% with Romney in 2012 56% to 42%). Why pollsters didn’t take into account of this – and there are techniques that allow them to do so – is a mystery.

I myself have characterized Trump’s remarks as racist, bigoted, and misogynist – and called the candidate himself a psychopathic – in here. I still believe this to be true; but I don’t think his supporters are necessarily racist, bigoted, or misogynist. A minority of white voters might have supported Trump for racist or misogynist reasons but I suspect that a supermajority did not and they voted for Trump as an anti-Clinton vote; a vote against the “establishment” (whoever they are); or a protest against growing economic inequality, our declining international standing, and the pain caused by globalization. The election data we have thus far disproves Van Jones’ assertion on CNN during election night that Trump’s victory was a “white-lash.”[2]

But Van Jones is not entirely off the mark. From Sarah Palin’s nomination in 2008 to Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, we have seen the rural, white working class galvanize itself into a group identity, similar to how other ethnic minorities self-identify themselves. The economic concerns of the white working class moved them into the Republican Party beginning with Reagan’s election in 1980 but the cultural concerns – same-sex marriage, political correctness, Republican and Democratic support of globalization, and the dominance of the left in academia, media, and entertainment – has made them realize that neither their economic nor their cultural anxieties were being met by either political party. This void was filled with the populist candidacy of Trump.

One of the unexpected outcomes of this past election is the emergence of white working class as a group identity; and perhaps this will be Obama’s lasting legacy: the mainstream acceptance of white group identity, no longer stigmatized as supremacist, nationalist, or separatist. Obama was able to address the economic concerns of the white working class, such as the auto bailout and the Affordable Care Act, but he never spoke to their cultural concerns – whether it was same-sex marriage, transgender rights, legalization of illegal immigrants, gun control regulation – and therefore alienated them. This mistake was repeated by Clinton who took the upper Midwest for granted (Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa) and wasted time and money by trying to expand the electoral map in Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and Utah, running a campaign that never talked about the values of white working class like religion and family and instead calling them a basket of deplorables. This past election has woken up the white working class. Even if someone later is able to put together the Obama coalition of millennials, professionals, and people of color, the white working class will remain as a political force which needs to be accounted.

This past election has shown one of the paradoxes of multiculturalism. Its emphasis on minority identity – be it ethnic, gender, or sexual – has spurred the white working class to form its own in response. Previous demands of equal treatment by minorities are now called for by the majority. The result is tribal warfare and resentment among these various groups with the goal of working towards the common good gone. As the country’s demographics continue to change with whites expected no longer to be a majority by the 2040s, this problem will only get worse, not better. Whites will be able to claim multiculturalism – and its corollaries of political correctness and diversity – for themselves. With the election of Trump, we have seen the politics of identity have been coopted by the white working class and, as a result, have revealed the limitations of identity politics.

Identity politics may be useful for self-esteem and therapeutic exercises, mobilizing marginalized groups for political action, and even creating new knowledge for academic disciplines, but they are ultimately dead-end conversations. If I’m not of your tribe, then why should I care about you? What is required is a post-identity politics – a civic politics – where people are able to share a common language, a civic culture, and a mode of action that works towards a common good. Identity politics – whether the Obama coalition or Trump’s “basket of deplorables” – cannot provide this. Only a new conception of politics – and national identity – can.

This is what a political science major is good for: to analyze what had transpired, predict what will happen, and devise solutions to address these issues. As the past election has shown, we do not always get it right but we nevertheless try; and sometimes trying is enough. Let others sit on the sidelines while we partake in the pressing moments of our days, for it is the attempt more than the success or failure that ultimately shows who you are and what you value.



[1] Special thanks to Lisa Adam, James Stoner, and Claudia Franziska Bruhwile for their comments, criticisms, and corrections on this essay. All mistakes and errors are mine own.

[2] For more about “white-lash” from the perspective of liberalism, as opposed to political science in this essay, refer to Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism,” New York Times November 18, 2016. Available at

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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