Polarizing politics squash the moderate middle

The definition of identity politics: Political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of social groups identified mainly on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation” (American Heritage Dictionary 4th Edition).

According to Francis Fukuyama’s September/October “Foreign Affairs” article entitled, “Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy,” there has been a shift from 20th century emphasis on economic issues of concern to those on the left for marginalized groups: ethnic minorities, immigrants, refugees, women and those who are LGBT.

The right has copied this trend by redefining its core mission to protecting the traditional patriotic national identity – whites, Christians and the descendants of northern and western Europeans. In reaction to the left’s emphasis on political correctness, it has “stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right” (Fukuyama).

Both sides have emphasized that their “dignity has been affronted and must be restored.”

Fukuyama has offered ways to reframe America’s thinking on this issue.

In the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement arose from police killings of African Americans. Women have risen up, angry at sexual harassment and brutality by males. The #MeToo movement demands an end to injustice against them.

Many of Trump’s supporters yearn for a past when their race, culture, and religion were more secure. The American working class – those with a high school diploma or less – have not done well economically and have demanded attention due to feeling invisible.

Globalization and technological change have reduced the status of the white working class. The opioid crisis has hit this demographic especially hard. The number of single-parent families in this group has risen from 22 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2017, fragmenting this group (Fukuyama).

President Trump has played on the feeling that the power elites have ignored the white working class in favor of the poor and immigrants. White working class Americans have played by the rules and been ignored, while illegal immigrants broke the rules and benefited.

The religious right feels they have been betrayed by nonbelievers. “This betrayal has led to your impoverishment and is a crime against God,” according to Fukuyama.

This polarization on the left and right has led to the hollowing out of the moderate middle, as both groups have pushed their demands for more attention and recognition. “The Republican Party is becoming the party of white people, and the Democratic Party is becoming the party of minorities” (Fukuyama).

Fukuyama has offered several solutions to identity politics that bear consideration. He recommends a shift in focus in democracies to what political scientists call “creedal national identities.”

This means there should be a reframing to emphasize values and beliefs rather than focusing on race, religion, personal characteristics or lived experiences. Examples include:

• Focusing on ending injustice rather than emphasizing victimhood.

• Returning to teaching civics and government to our nation’s youth. Constitutionalism, rule of law and human equality would be stressed. These deeply held values were created at the foundation of our nation and are still deeply imbedded in our culture.

• Requiring universal national service for youth. This would underline the perspective that commitment and sacrifice are requirements for U.S. citizenship. Such organizations would also expose different races, ethnicities, religions and classes to each other and teach them to work toward common goals. These could be accomplished either by joining the military or by working in civilian roles. Such programs would help immigrants integrate into American society.

• Putting sanctions on companies who hire illegal immigrants. Those on the right object to this because they get cheap labor. Those on the left object for fear of government overreach. These concerns should be addressed for the common good.

Fukuyama concludes by saying people will always see themselves and their society in identity terms. But identity can be used to divide or it can be used to unite. Focusing on ways to reframe the thinking of Americans to unify us seems to be a necessary remedy for the plague of identity politics. As educator Mac Bledsoe has noted, “The ideas in our heads rule our world.” So, change those ideas and reframe our thinking.