Using the 2016 Election to Illustrate the Problem With Identity Politics

© Josh Sager – March 2016

In politics, it is easy to get bogged down in identity and partisan politics, leading otherwise rational and policy-focused individuals to vote against their own interests. People become attached to a candidate personally and lose the ability to detach their favored candidate’s identity from the policies they support.


Once a person attaches to a politician on identity grounds—including, but not limited to, race/ethnicity, gender, party identification, religion, age, geographic origin, class, or speaking style—it is possible for that politician to subtly drag that person to accept or support policies that they would never support if proposed by another candidate.

To fully illustrate this problem, I will describe a candidate for president and ask my readers to think about whether they support him/her:

  • Governing Philosophy: They describe their policies as “practical liberalism” and want to make government smaller, more efficient, and less intrusive.
  • Campaign Finance: They have taken large amounts of secret money from corporate interests and wealthy individuals. Despite this, they argue that they are not corrupt or engaged in illegal influence peddling.
  • Taxes: They oppose increasing taxes on the middle class or corporations, but are okay with raising taxes on the wealthy if there is a compelling national interest.
  • Health Care: They oppose single payer, but want to use mandates, subsidies, and a federal safety net fund to ensure that all Americans have some access to care.
  • Trade: They have supported free trade deals and argued that these deals can help workers, both in the USA and elsewhere.
  • Foreign Policy: They support regime change in anti-democratic nations and consider Henry Kissinger to be a close friend.
  • Entitlements: They do not support expanding Social Security, nor do they support cutting it significantly.
  • Welfare: They have supported welfare reform, which incentivizes work and imposes caps on benefits to limit dependence.
  • Abortion: They have called a constitutional amendment to ban abortion a “non-starter” and see abortion as a right that can only be modestly regulated.
  • Immigration: They support some sort of immigration reform which combines more border security with an eventual pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.
  • Environment: They support federal regulations to protect the environment, but also support a comprehensive energy program which uses a mixture of oil, gas, and renewables.

If you would support and campaign for the candidate described above, congratulations, you are now a proud supporter of Richard Nixon. Most of you probably thought that you were reading a description of the Hillary Clinton 2016 platform, and to an extent, you aren’t wrong—these are all policies that both Clinton and Nixon share. While Nixon and Hillary differ dramatically on a host of other issues (e.g. Nixon was a racist who championed the Southern Strategy while Clinton has actively courted the black vote, Hillary supports the death penalty, Nixon supported prayer in school, etc.), that doesn’t mitigate the fact that they do share all of these very important positions.

If, while reading these policies, you found yourself agreeing with them and believing them to be Hillary’s, only to feel a little unnerved when you realized that they were Nixon’s then you have experienced this type of identify politics being washed away. There is no rational reason to be uncomfortable with your support for this policy platform once the person who is championing it changes—the policies are still the same, after all—but it is human nature to feel a little uncomfortable when you realize that you support the ideals of somebody who you likely associate with your opposition.

It is very easy to do similar exercise with other presidential candidates—Bernie Sanders could easily be confused with FDR or LBJ (on domestic issues), Donald Trump has many parallels with Mussolini, and Ted Cruz bears an absolutely uncanny resemblance to Joseph McCarthy, both politically and in physical appearance.


Just substitute “communist” for “Islamist” and read some McCarthy quotes–they are classic Cruz.


If it weren’t attributed to FDR, it would be easy to confuse this quote with one in Sanders’s stump speech.


Always on the nose, Trump has actually retweeted Mussolini quotes which were sent to him by a protest account called @ilduce2016 (“Il Duce” was Mussolini’s nickname).

The important lesson to take from this exercise is that it is absolutely vital that you look at the policy platform of your elected officials objectively. Don’t get bogged down in identity issues like physical appearance, race/gender, or party label. Do everything in your power to look at each policy under its own merits and detached from the personalities you like or dislike. Only by doing this can you come to as close to an unbiased conclusion as possible, and begin to support candidates who truly share you own policy opinions.

3 thoughts on “Using the 2016 Election to Illustrate the Problem With Identity Politics

  1. And understand two more very important concepts when voting.
    1. There will never be a candidate that you agree with 1005 of the time. Don’t expect or demand perfection.
    2. Every election ends up being a choice. See which candidate most closely approaches the vision and personality and experience you want to see. No matter how bad one candidate might seem, the other guy might be even worse!


  2. I knew we were closing in on a past POTUS as I read. I also knew we were looking at something close to Hilary, who I find problematic (at best). This election is truly going to be a choice between the Devil and the deep blue sea.


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