Identity politics may have taken root in the American political vernacular during the civil rights movement of the 20th century, but it has grown into a mode of political combat by and for the white people many assume it inherently targets in modern political discourse.
As two years of the Trump presidency have exposed the fault lines in the body politic, Americans are retreating into their own ethnocultural silos, according to expansive new research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic. More than a fifth of Americans say they "seldom or never interact with someone who does not share their race or ethnicity or religion," according to the survey of 1,073 citizens, while nearly one quarter (23 percent) rarely interact with members of the opposite political party.
"[Americans] dislike interacting with people who don't share their political beliefs," Emma Green notes in The Atlantic, "and when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference."
Prizing sameness appears to be a uniquely conservative trait, according to the data: (mostly white) Republicans are more likely than Democrats to, among other things, worry about their child marrying someone from the LGBT community or a different ethnic or religious background; prefer Christian and Western European majorities in the United States; and see ethnocultural diversity as a weakness to America broadly.
Democrats, generally, were more likely to support a pluralistic society, with 54 percent in favor of religious diversity and 65 percent in support of racial and ethnic diversity. Indeed, the only identity category that Democrats rejected more for their child's potential spouse than Republicans did was, well, Republicans.
All of this data affirms the thesis of Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2017 essay on the first year of President Donald Trump's administration: that Trump's norm-shattering run has allowed "whiteness" as a unique and discrete ethnocultural identity to metastasize within the American body politic. And, more importantly, the survey confirms that it's white, conservative Americans who have embraced the visceral power of the identity politics they claim to despise.
So what is this "whiteness" they embrace then? This is well informed by the responses to the question of what it means to be "truly American" in the PRRI/Atlantic data—responses that overwhelmingly reject the the concept of America as a melting pot. The basics are fairly universal: Americans of all parties purport supporting free speech (90 percent of respondents) as a key element of American-ness; 86 percent emphasized accepting people from "diverse racial and religious backgrounds"; and 83 percent emphasized speaking English. Finally, slim majorities emphasized believing capitalism (56 percent) and in God (52 percent).
But divvying up the importance of those "American" traits by political party helps trace the contours of American whiteness as seen by those who embrace it: a belief in birthright citizenships built on love of God and rooted in Western European culture.
The new survey supplements earlier findings by PRRI on Republican identity politics. A May of 2017 PRRI/Atlantic report indicated that fears of "cultural displacement" were a central influence among Trump supporters on issues ranging from immigration to the economy. Earlier, a 2016 PRRI analysis indicated that resentment regarding multiculturalism and demographic changes facing the American electorate were prevalent among the white working class (62 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (70 percent).
There is now mainstream ethico-political identity, coaxed into the forefront by Trump's norm-breaking campaign. And this isn't captured merely by unrepentant white nationalist Coast Guard officers stockpiling arms, but a realignment of politics around identitarian lines that "dramatically changes electoral stakes," as political scientist Sheri Berman wrote in the Guardian. "Previously if your party lost, other parts of your identity were not threatened, but today losing is also a blow to your racial, religious, regional and ideological identity. ... Once the other party becomes an enemy rather than an opponent, winning becomes more important than the common good and compromise becomes an anathema."
The strains of white anxiety have always revealed themselves during periods of tumult in American political history; Trump's presidential campaign merely brought them out of the shadows and into the light. And though conservatives may decry identity politics, they have embraced the personal as politics in American political life more than any political faction had done in decades—and effectively won.