All politics is identity politics in one form or another. But we’ve come to associate “identity” exclusively with physical traits, when it actually comes more from personal experiences.
Politicians have always known the latter, though they haven’t stopped people from conflating it with the former. It’s why the majority have disassociated with the issues. Instead, they submit to the impassioned, radicalized few who get larger say in the outcomes.
Those few who steer our politics are what political scientist Benjamin Bishin calls the “tyranny of the minority.”
He argues the “subconstituency theory of politics,” his formal label for the tyranny, means politicians rarely appeal to what most people like on a policy basis. Instead, they prefer to use abstractions that touch upon shared parts of how we view ourselves.
In his words, those could be mutual interests, backgrounds, or experiences that lead them to have similar outlooks on life. And they can do that without needing to appeal to a formal group where people regularly organize.
“Neither a membership card nor an organizational hierarchy is needed for individuals with common identities to become politically active on visible issues,” Bishin wrote. “Reagan Democrats and soccer moms are two examples of groups that lack formal organization, membership, and interaction, but their shared socializing experiences led to shared attitudes.”
Clearly, it’s the kind of identity politics we like. The kind where we base it off our judgment and our own self-perception. Examples abound of this taking place today.
Minorities who think they haven’t gotten a fair shake because of their race join forces with white people who feel they’ve unjustly benefited from theirs.
Voters who believe the last election’s outcome was a conspiracy get together with those who want to revisit voting laws and processes.
Immigrants who’ve experienced our slow naturalization system team up with American-born citizens who want to streamline that process to help others get better opportunities.
However, the problem arrives when the issues tether people to deal in extremes. For example, you can’t just want to raise awareness of racism, you have to pathologize whiteness. Nor can you be skeptical of the voting process, you have to riot at the U.S. Capitol. Also, you either want the border to be completely open or closed without argument.
We respond by disassociating from the issues because we can’t see ourselves as a part of it, at least on the surface.
FiveThirtyEight said we’re self-declaring as independents more than ever. Additionally, independent voters also tend to be less open about their politics. Even with that knowledge, the article said people still vote for the party they lean toward about 75% of the time.
That’s a silent consent to the radicals on both ends of the spectrum. It also encourages politicians to keep harvesting that voting bloc.
Now, I don’t blame politicians for being politicians. I blame us for forfeiting control over an issue’s image to the smallest, most ardent faction just because it’s the easier thing to do.
Abortion helps illustrate this point because it’s a serious and controversial issue that loses people with how its presented.
A 2018 Gallup poll said most people (61%) are in favor of first trimester abortions, or abortions taking place in the first three months. But, support plummets when it comes to the second (28%) and third (13%) trimesters. According to Gallup, those margins have been consistent for the past two decades.
Even how abortions are funded have been fairly consistent. Conducted now over a six year period, a 2021 Marist poll found that nearly six out of ten people (58%) don’t support taxpayer funding for the procedure.
So, it appears most Americans see abortion as a valued option, but one with a time limit and a need to make it happen out of pocket. Yet the avatars of this movement remain cartoonish.
On one side, we have the conservative women who want to ban abortion entirely. National Review has a stable of writers who play the right-wing hits on this topic.
Alexandra DeSanctis cites a horror story where an abortion doctor kept thousands of fetal remains in his basement as evidence that the media suppresses abortion news. The moral, according to DeSanctis, is that no matter how safe or clean abortions may be, they always end with “an empty womb and the death of an unborn child.”
A pro-life guest contributor hammered the pro-choice movement’s euphemisms about abortion, saying, “no amount of twisting of the English language will change the fact that abortion kills a preborn life.”
Kathryn Jean Lopez observed how a black teenager that couldn’t be dissuaded out of an abortion was “not free choice. That was enslavement to something dark in our culture that is suffocating and strangling the possibility of joy.”
On the other side, you have the liberal women who seem to relish in using abortion as a contraceptive.
Take this TikTok video that, if legitimate, seems to shred much of the high-minded rhetoric around the pro-abortion crowd being about “women’s rights.”
It starts with a girl sobbing to the camera. “Oh my God, guys, I’m freaking out,” she says, flashing a positive pregnancy test. “What am I going to do?”
She then breaks character and chucks the test behind her. “Just kidding, I already scheduled the appointment,” before following it up by pouring a big glass of wine while cackling “I am what conservatives fear!”
Other people who tow the pro-choice line literally promote their abortions. There’s an organization called Shout Your Abortion, where women submit short stories about their abortion experience.
One of the women titled her essay as “#2 in 10 months,” with a final sentence that read “I have NO regrets and I would do it a third time if I had to.” Another woman described the sensation of becoming pregnant as “My entire body felt like it had been invaded by alien parasites.”
Neither of these positions should sound relatable to a normal, well-adjusted person. But that’s also because we’ve let the eccentrics become the poster children for the causes they champion. Worse, those people determine how an issue evolves publicly.
Participation is the only antidote to this, though it’s in the way Bishin alluded to before. You don’t need to join your city or county’s local party committee or go around wearing a MAGA hat. You just need to speak your mind, even when it’s uncomfortable, to show people exist outside of the far-left and far-right camps.
All it requires is that we don’t succumb to apathy. Or as W. B. Yeats puts it in “Second Coming” —
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
We’re well aware the worst of us are full of vigor. We see it all around. We suffer the consequences for it. The least we can do is assert our personal identity into discussions and not adopt the identity of a larger group. Finding the stomach for that challenge is the first step toward reclaiming our politics from the extremism it loves so much.
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