US identity politics leads to tribalized society

By Diao Daming Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/30 18:33:41

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The 2018 US midterm elections will be held in one week. The Democratic Party still has an edge, but the question is how much actual impact the so-called blue wave has, the key momentum of which is identity politics - a popular concept in US politics.

According to recent experience, the Democratic Party or the Republican Party that outruns the ruling party in midterm elections would in time put forward a national election platform. Interestingly, the Democratic Party doesn't have such a platform. It chooses to change the composition of the party. According to statistics, among all the Democratic candidates in the Congress and state legislatures, white males only made up less than half - the lowest in history, while the number of female Democratic candidates in the Congress and for state governors marks the highest on record. In other words, the Democratic Party's secret weapon in 2018 is women and minority candidates, and so it calls itself a party that promotes multiculturalism.

The Democrats' identity strategy may have something to do with the painful lessons learnt in the 2016 election. It's hard to fix the policy shortcoming of losing the lower-middle class blue-collar voters in one stroke, but it's relatively easy to increase the vote rate of women and minority candidates. Young people, women and minorities, whose vote rate was relatively low, are the focus of the Democratic Party in drumming up support. The party adopts such a strategy to get instant results, which shows that its edge in 2018 midterms doesn't necessarily mean that it can still come back to power in 2020. The current Democratic Party isn't focusing on pulling back the blue-collar workers who are of great importance, but is diversifying the composition of its voters. Such choice is decisive, changing US political ecology from polarization to fragmentation and eventually to tribalization.

US political scientist Francis Fukuyama's new book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, encountered challenges in theory and practice as soon as it came out. But the description of identity in the book does help people understand the two parties' actions. Because of globalization and rapid technological development, people seem to possess standardized material conditions, but they are gradually losing their characteristics. Today, ordinary people can benefit from the internet, but they have to be more and more dependent on it. Such dependence doesn't change most people's circumstances in reality.

As people are losing their sense of existence, they feel discriminated against, neglected and marginalized by unfair economic and social policies. This is especially true of the minorities and women and the lower-middle class which was most influenced by globalization.

In this sense, US President Donald Trump's dependence on blue-collar voters also represents identity politics. Standing against Trump, what the Democratic Party can flaunt is the identity tag of women and minorities. When politics is divided by identity, it undergoes solidification and fragmentation at the same time.

Identity is not only what drives Trump to the lower-middle class. But the Democratic Party's identity politics depends on some tags that can hardly be changed. When sex, race and ethnicity become tags defining political stance, the Democratic and Republican parties can only balance different interests instead of integrating them. These interests that need balancing turn to tribalization.

To maintain or win support from some tribalized groups amid the dominance of identity politics, the US government will only choose the political agenda that is in line with these groups' interests irrespective of which party is in power. For example, the Democratic Party keeps relaxing the immigration policy with the support of minority groups. To win the presidency, the parties have to win blue-collar votes. Thus, the two parties have quickly focused on the interest of blue-collar voters, even adopting short-sighted policies. For instance, the Trump administration is waving the trade stick; the Democratic Party may return to protectionism after it takes control of the Congress and even comes back to power. In the protectionism that the Democratic Party proposes, there will be the neglected groups' aspiration for rules and rights. With twisted electoral politics, the US' national interest is deconstructed into a complicated combination of different tribalized groups' national interests. When US foreign policy tilts toward some specific internal interest, rationality hardly helps to communicate with Washington anymore.

In that case, winning or losing the midterm elections and even the 2020 presidential election is not that important. US politicians who want to maintain their political presence have to get involved in identity politics. It seems that TIME Magazine's "Person of the Year" in 2016 was the appropriate choice - announcing Trump to be "President of the Divided States of America". A tribalized country is divided, and Trump will not be the last "President of the Divided States of America".

The author is a US studies expert and an associate professor at the Renmin University of China.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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