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'Identity Politics' Play a Role in US Elections

WASHINGTON -- It is human nature to identify with others who look and act like us, and share our values. The political process in the United States - and nearly everywhere else on Earth - taps into that self-identification as a means of motivating voters.

While many voters would say they cast their ballots on the basis of where the candidates stand on key issues, some of them are swayed by a candidate’s color…or ethnicity…or other factors. And that's called "Identity Politics."

"When people vote, they like to vote for people [who are] like them. Someone who has the same race, someone who has the same sex, someone who has the same religion, or someone who has the same political views," says Mark Rom of Georgetown University.

Rom and other analysts say that before the 2008 South Carolina primary, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had some support from African American voters. Then, her husband, former President Bill Clinton, compared then-Senator Barack Obama’s bid to that of another, earlier black candidate.

"Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice in 1984 and 1988, and he ran a good campaign," Clinton said. "And, Senator Obama has run a good campaign here."

Analysts say that remark polarized black voters because it was seen as diminishing. That sent them overwhelmingly into Obama’s camp. And, in 2012, that support is expected to be equally strong.

While race and ethnicity are traditional elements of identity politics, the term encompasses far more.

Religion has been an identity factor in America since the early days of the country. In the 20th century, Roman Catholicism was an issue for 1928 Democratic presidential candidate Al Smith, and 1960 Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy. In 2008, and again in 2012, the Mormon faith of Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been polarizing to some voters.

There is also ideology, as noted by Rothenberg Political Report's Nathan Gonzales:

"I think that when it comes to the Republican party, the biggest 'Identity Politics' identifier is 'Conservative.' "Who is conservative? Who is the most conservative? Who is the purest conservative?"

To one political scientist, identity politics will continue so long as people are regarded and treated according to their skin color and other involuntary factors.

"There is no such thing as being in a post-racial era unless we can get rid of the inequalities and inequities that we see in American society along the lines of race, ethnicity, and gender," says Darryl Harris of Howard University.

Identity politics is not an exclusively American phenomenon. It influences political decisions in countries worldwide - in some places, such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Sudan, to the point of bloodshed.
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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.