The Politics of Identity Politics

by Stuart Rothenberg July 24, 2015 · 9:00 AM EDT

“I’m tired of hyphenated Americans,” complains Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in “We’re All Americans,” a television spot aired by Believe Again, the super PAC supporting the presidential hopeful’s bid.

“We’re not Indian-Americans or African-Americans or Asian-Americans. We’re all Americans,” he continues as the audience applauds.

Jindal thinks the way most conservatives and Republicans do. They generally prefer to focus on individuals (and individual liberty) and decry the Democrats’ interest group view of politics and their emphasis on group membership and equality.

But while railing against “hyphenated Americans” may well resonate with the party faithful, it also shows many Republicans don’t understand how some Americans see themselves and their communities of interest.

In the 1970s and 1980s, organized labor was the Democratic Party’s key “special interest” group, but now the party’s growing electoral strength is based on racial and ethnic groups, younger voters and white liberals. In many ways, “identity politics” now defines the Democratic Party.

Of course, both parties engage in what one Republican political consultant calls “tribalism.”

“The only difference between their tribalism and ours is that we are appealing to different tribes,” he said. “Oh, and they are getting a higher percentage of their tribes than we are getting of our tribes,” he joked, accurately.

In 2012, Mitt Romney’s strongest age group was older voters, age 65 and above. He won 56 percent of them. On the other hand, Barack Obama’s strongest age category was voters age 18 to 29.  He carried 60 percent of those voters.

Romney drew 59 percent of whites, but Obama drew 93 percent of blacks, 71 percent of Hispanics and 73 percent of Asians.

Romney won 59 percent of voters who attended church at least weekly, while Obama received 62 percent of the vote among voters who never attend church. And while Romney carried 60 percent of married men, Obama won 67 percent of unmarried women.

The exit poll numbers from 2008 are even more dramatic. They showed Obama rolling up bigger numbers among core Democratic constituencies than John McCain did among normally Republican demographic groups.

Moreover, while the GOP has its “identity” groups — white evangelicals, pro-lifers, older white males, gun owners, highly religious voters, etc. — a number of Republican tribes are shrinking in political importance. That’s not the case with African-Americans, Hispanics or Asian-Americans.

It’s now obvious Republicans have missed the boat on identity politics. Most in the party have preferred to argue minorities’ views on social issues should make them ripe for the picking by Republican candidates. But that’s not how many of those non-white and Hispanic voters see things.

Hispanics and Asians have not yet melted into the American melting pot the way Italians, Irish and Poles have (though those older immigrant groups retain some of their identity). While it is possible they may do so in another generation or two, they could easily hold onto their group identities for an extended period, as Jewish and African-American people have.

Republican problems with racial and ethnic minorities stem from the perception in those communities that the GOP is hostile to them. The rhetoric of some Republicans on the subject of illegal immigration and immigration policy changes is a big part of the problem, but the party’s generally unsympathetic treatment of “outsiders” is the larger issue.

The more Republicans fight against affirmative action and gay rights while also defending the Confederate flag, the more racial and ethnic minorities see the GOP as the enemy.

Most GOP strategists have finally gotten the message, of course. They see the face of the country is changing and note what that could mean for future elections.

And some Republicans have made inroads with minority communities without changing their issue positions. Exit polls showed David Perdue received 42 percent of the Latino vote in the 2014 Georgia Senate race, while Greg Abbott drew 44 percent of that vote in the Texas governor’s race.

And while exit polls didn’t provide data for the Colorado Senate race, sources close to the campaign of the winner, Republican Cory Gardner, say they believe he drew in the “upper 30s” among Hispanics based on the campaign’s internal polling at the end of the campaign.

But those successes are the exception, not the rule.

Since the party’s base is so white and so angry, and so many GOP members of Congress represent districts and states overwhelmingly white, it’s difficult to convince some Republicans that showing tolerance and being sensitive to the opinions of racial, ethnic and other groups that rarely vote Republican is important.

Democrats are taking advantage of the nation’s changing demographic makeup and have benefited in the Electoral College.

Some states reliably Republican in the 1980s, such as North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, have become competitive, while once-competitive states — including New Mexico, New Jersey, Delaware and even Oregon — have become uncompetitive in federal contests.

Democrats still woo interest groups (e.g., public employee unions) and liberals (on issues such as gun control, Social Security and Medicaid, and economic inequality), but they increasingly can count non-white and Hispanic voters who support them primarily because those voters feel unwanted by the Republican Party.

Columnist Josh Kraushaar might be correct that Democrats may ultimately pay a price for their current brand of identity politics (see his April 7 National Journal piece, “Democrats Have an Identity-Politics Problem”), but right now it is Republicans who are on the losing side of the numbers game because they refuse to understand that some people see events through the eyes of their groups.