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The Role Of Identity In Politics


Ahead of the midterm elections, we are taking a look at what is often called identity politics and how the groups we come from affect our point of view. The way politicians express or suppress their identities has come up this campaign season. Just look at Texas. In a campaign jingle, Texas Senator Ted Cruz went after a Hispanic nickname his rival, Beto O'Rourke, has long used.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) I remember reading stories. Liberal Robert wanted to fit it. So he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Cruz himself hasn't escaped scrutiny. Hear from Chris Cuomo on CNN.


CHRIS CUOMO: Look. Your name is Rafael. You know, you go by Ted. That's an anglicized version of it. He went the other way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just this week, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who President Trump has derided for claiming native heritage, managed to upset detractors and supporters.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Tonight, the leaders of the Cherokee Nation are speaking out against Senator Elizabeth Warren's campaign video touting her Native American ancestry, courtesy of a newly revealed DNA test. The tribe says...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of philosophy at NYU who's written a book about how identity informs our politics but also polarizes it. We reached him earlier this week and asked him to explain.

KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: We use identity sometimes in a very good way. We use identity - for example, we use our American identity to motivate us to do things together. But I think that we can overuse identity. We can bring identities in when they don't do much good. And also, I think when we do bring them in, we're inclined to suppose that they do more work than they actually do because, you know, women are very different from each other. Black people are very different from each other. White people are different from each other. So that the idea that you fix a lot by saying that somebody is of one of those identities is misleading at best. Still, it matters in the world whether you're a man or woman or black or white and so on. But I think we can take them too seriously. And in many political contexts, the most important thing isn't that. That is to say maybe that the most important thing for them is that they should be able to get their kids health care even if they have preexisting conditions. And it may be that the candidate who's best for that isn't necessarily the candidate who's best for you on other grounds. So you have to balance it out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the role then of identity in politics? I mean, how should politicians approach it and talk about it without either alienating or co-opting?

APPIAH: I think they need, I would say - I mean, I should answer your question directly - gingerly, carefully. I think you can easily go wrong here. I mean, one of the things that the president is currently doing is mobilizing identities in a very divisive way. And that leads down a terrible road because once you've created ethnoracial divisions, it takes an awful lot of effort to heal the wounds. And it's a temptation for politicians all around the world and, you know, all through the 20th century. They're drawing people together through making them feel shared hostility to some other. And in our country right now, I'm afraid, that's true about one of the most important kinds of identity which is political identities.

Right now the labels conservative and liberal are associated with sort of tribal feelings of a very intense kind. It makes the country increasingly difficult to govern. That means that every time somebody of one identity wins, everybody the other identity thinks of themselves as having lost something profound. And that means that you lose the sense that in an election we vote. And then, whoever wins, we sort of gather behind in order that they should run the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How concerned are you? I mean, I'm hearing a real note of concern that identity and the politics around it has been weaponized and in a certain way.

APPIAH: Yeah. I think it is worrying. I mean, look, the fact is in our country today is that we're more divided around identities than we are around policies. So that if we just stopped using our identity divides, we could probably come to reasonable consensus on a whole bunch of things - immigration, abortion. There's a whole bunch of things where there's a sort of sensible middle ground. But it's not available to us because the people who are most engaged in politics think that every concession is not coming together but losing - losing to the other side.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But in order to get voters, politicians have to appeal to certain identities because it's about making...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Sure that your base is satisfied, making sure that your base will turn out to the polls, Making sure that they are excited about the issues that are there and that you feel...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Like you're part of a common cause.

APPIAH: Yes. Now, the question is whether you could do that without what you called, rightly, weaponizing identity. And I think you can. I think you can talk, for example, more about the actual policies. Democracy needs the capacity for compromise. And turning everything into an identity issue makes it very hard to compromise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor at New York University. His latest book is "The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity." Thank you very much.

APPIAH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.