Identity, Causal Beliefs, and Partisan Competition

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides and Michael Tesler argue that “white resentment” explains support for President Trump. This is a particularly timely observation given recent news that the Justice Department plans to investigate higher education institutions for allegedly discriminating against white people, and (2) a new Senate bill to restrict immigration, especially among low-skilled immigrants. Here is their key graphic.

Source: John Sides and Michael Telser, The Monkey Cage

On the face of it, this is an important result about white identity politics in the United States. Assuming that Sides and Tesler are correct, its first order implications are that candidates who speak to white identity issues should gain support from voters who hold such views.

But the second order implications are more interesting, and more consequential for partisan competition in the United States. The statement “I think minorities are taking jobs from people like me” is more than a statement about identity politics. In addition to being a claim about “who I am and what I want” it also implies a set of causal ideas or beliefs—claims about “how the world works.” In this case, the causal belief is about how labor markets work. Someone who holds the view that “minorities are taking jobs from people like me” will respond differently to low wages, economic difficulties, or unemployment than someone who does not hold this view. The latter may interpret low wages, economic difficulties, or unemployment as a sign that something is wrong with how markets function. The former may hold the belief that markets would function perfectly were it not for “the minorities.”

As a result, identity suffuses the broader structure of partisan competition, even in domains in which a party may not wish to address it. It may be the case white identity politics may be defeated by assembling a larger coalition of people who do not hold such views: this is the promise of anti-identitarian progressivism. But this is a different task than unmaking identity politics. Doing this means defeating the causal beliefs associated with identity, such as the welfare queen and images of the “deserving” poor. This has proven a hard task in American politics.