And now identity politics are back, too.
In this election, as in those during the last era when identity politics thrived, politicians are desperately trying to prove they’re a Star-Belly Sneetch, or else a Plain-Belly Sneetch, on the presumption that Sneetches always vote for their own.
But rather than appealing to voter identities based on race, gender or class (or even tattooed tummies), today’s pols are citing ideological labels to incite herd-mentality voting: “conservative” and “progressive.”
In recent weeks, presidential candidates have thrown themselves into semantic parsings arcane enough to make a linguist swoon.
In Thursday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, for example, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tussled repeatedly over what it means to be “progressive,” whether one could be simultaneously “progressive” and “moderate,” and whether Clinton’s views on banking, capital punishment and foreign policy could be shoehorned into the true definition of “progressivism,” whatever that is.
Clinton fought back with etymology, declaring that “the root of that word, ‘progressive,’ is progress,” which she implied she has a near-monopoly on. She suggested Sanders’s strict-constructionist definition of progressivism would require purging nearly everyone from the Democratic Party. Then she went on to list all of Sanders’s votes over the years that had tainted his own progressive purity.
Viewers were apparently so confused by this exchange that online dictionary look-ups of the word “progressive” spiked.
Days later, in a separate televised debate, Republican presidential contenders had an eerily similar verbal shootout over who and what counts as “conservative.”
Among the key points of contention: Is supporting eminent domain “conservative”? What about providing services to the mentally ill? What about spending more money on national defense? What about being “smart”? (Smartness was, unsurprisingly, a key part of Donald Trump’s definition of the word.)
Echoing the Democratic debate, there was even a halfhearted attempt at etymology: “I view the word conservative as a derivative of the word ‘conserve,’” Trump explained.
Lest you blame these semantic antics on the debate moderators, note that elsewhere on the campaign trail and in social media the candidates have also tried to weaponize these terms. Jeb Bush in particular likes to get riled up about his competitors’ “true conservative” bona fides, or lack thereof.
“If people think Donald Trump is a conservative, prove it to me. I mean, really,” he fumed last month.
I honestly don’t get this fixation, among Republicans and Democrats, with their ideological marques.
Both terms seem so elastic as to be pretty much meaningless. Given the standard-bearers of such labels in the past, the terms encompass a wide and often inconsistent bundle of beliefs. Ronald Reagan, after all, was supposed to be a paragon of conservatism, but under his watch the federal debt exploded. It seems like that alone should cause him to fail a fiscal conservatism test.
On the left, “progressive” carries even weirder baggage, especially in comparison with its near-synonym “liberal” (which has undergone its own brand revival of late). Under the aegis of the p-word, many members of the original turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive movement embraced eugenics, temperance, segregation and other ideas that both the public and presidential candidates are probably not so keen on today.
More important, it just doesn’t seem like the voters actually care whether candidates exhibit ideological purity.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of tribalism on both the left and the right. But both parties also now have big and oddly shaped tents. The Republican coalition alone comprises gun enthusiasts, anti-tax zealots, evangelical Christians, small-business owners, nativists and other strange bedfellows. Imagining they all believe the same things about every issue, and in a way that is intellectually consistent and summarizable by any single word or principle, is foolhardy.
One of Trump’s most useful insights this election cycle is to recognize that voters don’t actually pay much attention to whether a politician espouses traditionally “conservative” views, however defined, or even ideologically coherent ones. He picks and chooses positions that people like and want to vote for, or at least that sound good in the moment. (A lot of his views on trade, big pharma and “special interests” sound similar to Sanders’s, after all.) To some extent this is what politicians have always done, though usually they’ve pretended to philosophical constancy more fervently than Trump has.
Trump has embraced the appeal and practicality of cafeteria-style politics. He’s just waiting for the rest of the field to catch up.