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Is ‘Human Identity Politics’ the Solution to Polarization?

The golden era of bipartisanship was (not coincidentally) an age of authoritarian white supremacy.

The tension between America’s white-supremacist foundations and its democratic ideals is not new. But for the bulk of our republic’s history, it was suppressed by the latter’s subordination to the former. The golden age of unpolarized parties and bipartisan comity that prevailed in the mid-20th century was underwritten by the subjugation of most African-Americans to authoritarian rule. The North’s abandonment of Reconstruction had moved the civil-rights question to the margins of our nation’s political life. And this enabled the two major parties to form socially and ideologically heterogeneous bases of support. The Civil War’s long shadow kept the white-supremacist South beneath the Democratic tent, even as the Donkey Party’s strength in northern cities brought immigrants, labor unions, and — after the onset of the Great Migration — African-Americans into “blue” America. The Republican Party meanwhile brought many secular urban professionals, Bible-thumping Western farmers, and reactionary financiers into a motley coalition. This state of affairs was terrible from the perspective of democratic accountability. But the demographic and ideological incoherence of the two-party system also barred America’s most wrenching intergroup divisions from the realm of partisan conflict.

In the early 20th century, a white, Christian, conservative Republican farmer did not experience the election of a Democratic president as an affront to the social standing of all of his identity groups: A victory for the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Strom Thurmond did not signify the triumph of a multiethnic conception of American identity over a white ethno-nationalist one, or of secular social liberals over Christian conservatives, or of urbanites over country folk. The two parties were simply too heterogenous for most Americans to view elections as clear referenda on the relative status of us and them. This enabled voters to toggle between partisan allegiances with relative ease, and allowed each party’s congressional leadership to form bipartisan alliances around transactional legislative compromises.

But the Democratic Party’s big tent eventually collapsed beneath the weight of its contradictions. As African-Americans migrated North in greater numbers, and the civil-rights movement forced Jim Crow into the spotlight, Democrats caved to their better angels — and thus, forfeited their stranglehold on Dixie. Over the ensuing decades, the South slowly but surely seceded from blue America. During the same period, the ascent of feminism and the Evangelical right turned questions of sexual morality into sources of partisan conflict, thereby cleaving America’s secular liberals and (white) religious conservatives into separate coalitions. And all the while, the unintended consequences of the the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 were gradually transforming the nation’s ethnic composition and dramatically increasing its foreign-born population. This would ultimately bring disputes over immigration policy — and between a (tacitly) ethno-national conception of American identity and a multicultural one — to the forefront of U.S. politics, where they would further divide college-educated urbanites from non-college-educated rural dwellers, and whites from nonwhites. Today, America’s most invidious social divides — and its most salient partisan divisions — are nearly identical; those who belong to an identity group on the “right” side of any one partisan divide are unprecedentedly unlikely to identify with a single social group on the “left” side of a different partisan dispute.

Read entire article at New York Magazine