20 Aug 2017 Politics of identity: Right or wrong?

There is a theory doing the rounds in US politics at the moment which goes something like this: the rise of white supremacists is all the fault of the Democrats, because they have focused on the ‘politics of identity’, also sometimes called the ‘politics of victimhood’ or the ‘politics of hate’.

Kinder analysis simply says it is a vote-loser and the Democrats should focus on something else instead.

Below I explain why the vote-loser argument might have some merit. But the logic of blaming the Democrats for white supremacists seems wobbly.

Let’s start with the assumption that to create a free, fair and democratic society, you need equality of opportunity. If schools, employers or networking clubs either deliberately or inadvertently exclude you on the basis of religion, class, race, sexual orientation, identity and so on, then this automatically puts you further down the ladder.

Poverty levels

One indication that the US suffers from inequality of opportunity is the State of Working in America website, which finds that “Workers earning poverty-level wages are disproportionately female, black, Hispanic, or between the ages of 18 and 25”.

Just in case you are tempted to put this down to genetics, another paper from the Equality of Opportunity website, which measured the impact of moving young children to better neighbourhoods, found “no systematic differences” by gender, race or location.

“[T]he effect of the experimental voucher on earnings are positive for all five experimental sites, for whites, blacks, and Hispanics, and for boys and girls for children below the age of 13 at RA [random assignment],” it said.

Another paper from the Equality of Opportunity website showed that upward income mobility (earning more than your parents) has deteriorated. It says: “rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s”.

The researchers found that unequal distribution of economic growth was a key factor.

“We find that most of the decline in absolute mobility is driven by the more unequal distribution of economic growth rather than the slowdown in aggregate growth rates.”

The research found that a more equal distribution of GDP, even at today’s lower growth rates, would have reversed more than two-thirds of the mobility decline.

Focusing on the causes

Equality of opportunity does not come out of thin air. As a woman a hundred years ago, I would not have been able to vote in Britain. Two hundred years ago, as a Catholic, even if I were a man I would not have been able to sit in parliament. Within my adult lifetime, British police spent resources chatting up gay men with a view to arresting them as soon as they made a pass.

All of these stopped because a group of people organised and made ‘an issue’ out of it. Was that divisive? Probably. Does that mean we should forget about those whose opportunities are more restricted than ours? Only if you believe in the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest.

But even that philosophy is self-destructive. A world in which only the rich can afford healthcare is one in which you might get struck down by a nasty infectious disease.

A world in which even a significant minority are poor or angry is one in which the wealthy have to restrict their movements, living behind big gates and spending a fortune on security.

If we are to ensure that everyone gets the same chance at life and that we can all live peacefully in our neighbourhoods, we have to focus on what holds people back. This means looking at issues such as race and gender, where there is plenty of data to show there is a problem.

Looking more broadly

But it also means looking more broadly, at all groups and all issues, including those faced by vulnerable whites. The abovementioned research on mobility found that “Absolute mobility fell particularly sharply in the industrial Midwest, where rates of absolute mobility fell by 48 percentage points in Michigan and approximately 45 percentage points in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio”.

All of these states also have more whites than the national average. According to the KFF website, the population of Indiana is 80% white, compared with a national average of 61%. Ohio is 79%, Michigan is 76%, while Illinois is a little higher than the national average, at 63%.

Although the abovementioned paper did not say so explicitly, the demographics suggests that everyone from these states, regardless of race, gender, etc. is at a disadvantage.

With the exception of Illinois, these are also states with higher than average mortality rates from drug overdoses (mainly opioids) in 2015. Ohio is in the top quintile and Michigan and Indiana in the second highest quintile.

You can see why these voters might have felt ignored and switched voter allegiance. All of these states were traditionally ‘blue (Democrat). Only Illinois stayed blue, while the other three switched to ‘red’.

The need for regional focus

Another potentially relevant statistic relates to relative incomes. The US Census Bureau shows that whites have been earning less than Asians ‘alone or in combination’ since at least as far back as 1988.

Whites still earn on average far more blacks or Hispanics, with mean income of $82,226 per year in 2015, compared with $63,612 for Hispanics and $55,805 for ‘black alone or in combination’. (Asians ‘alone or in combination’ earned $105,132).

However, since the crash of 2008, whites’ incomes have risen less quickly than others, by just 4.9% compared with 12% for Hispanics, 10.6% for Asians and 6.7% for blacks.

The US Census Bureau also produces statistics by age and sex. However, what it does not show (unless I failed to find it), is how incomes are distributed across different states. We cannot see how incomes of whites have compared with others in specific states over time, for example.

This is where those criticising the politics of identity might have a point. If you are not even measuring what is happening to whites in vulnerable states, you will not see the problem until the torches are already on your lawn.

By Fiona Mullen, Director, Sapienta Economics Ltd