The Problem of Identity Politics

The race for Texas governor offers a chance for substantial debate on policy. The leading Republican, Greg Abbott, is for limited government on economic matters, supports greater restrictions on abortion and is more conservative on social issues. The leading Democrat, Wendy Davis, is for somewhat more expansive government than Texas now has, favors abortion rights, and is less conservative on social issues.

But campaign coverage has instead focused on the biography of Davis and the comments of a singer supporting Abbot. Davis is being attacked for discrepancies in the biography she put forward and for her behavior in a marriage that ended in divorce. Abbot is being assailed for the incendiary and reprehensible comments of Ted Nugent. These disputes do not tell us much, if anything,  about how either candidate would perform as governor, or the efficacy of the policies they have proposed. The candidates’ previous experience in the offices of Attorney General (Abbott) and state senator (Davis) seems far more relevant. To be sure, both candidates seem to have invited these controversies; Davis by making her biography a central part of her campaign and Abbott by welcoming Nugent’s support, not for his understanding of policy, but because of his celebrity.

The focus of the campaign, however, reveals much about modern politics.  It demonstrates that much of political debate is not about what policy objective is preferable or what results a candidate’s agenda will have. It is instead about making citizens feel comfortable about themselves and indeed morally superior to others. Economics best explains why politics is in such a sorry state. The chance that an individual’s vote will affect the outcome of an election is less than being hit by lightning on the way to the polls. Many voters, therefore, are less likely to focus on what effect the election will have than on expressing what kind of person they are through their choice. Thus, what often counts in voting is a sense of identity with a candidate and a feeling of moral superiority to that candidate’s opponents.

This point about politics is not limited to low-information voters. Some voters may have relatively large amounts of relevant information and still be moved by considerations of identity, because their information about policy effects will still make no difference to the election. Certainly, the coverage of the Texas gubernatorial race in leading newspapers is not generally directed at low-information voters, and yet it has focused so far on identity rather than policy. The problem of identity politics may actually become greater, the more successful a nation is. In times of real hardship, people may feel they do not have the luxury of self-expression.

What is the appropriate policy response to dismal news about the inherent identity bias of politics? In his excellent new book about the related problem of rational ignorance, Ilya Somin suggests more limited government, which could help limit the sway of identity politics. But some government is  always necessary and shrinking government cannot provide a complete solution.  In my own new book, Accelerating Democracy, I suggest ways to help citizens identify with getting policy right. For instance, legalizing prediction markets would allow people to bet on and become more invested in policy results as part of their lives and even their identity.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Whilst there is a tenuous connection to the issues of individual liberty in this kind of perspective on the Democratic Process (democracy as a process not a condition), it disregards the existence of the quite separate administration of the Administrative State and the crucial limitations of any effects of the Democratic process upon that administration.

  2. gabe says


    Understood – yet I think that in real measure the effectual limitation imposed by the Administrative State is what may cause voters to despair of the democratic process in response to the recognition of those limitations that whatever they do, it “ain’t gonna mean a damn.”

    take care

  3. says

    I don’t think the central thesis of this piece is justified by empirical evidence. What gets politicians elected is not positive appeal to people’s sense of “feeling good about themselves;” it is negative campaigning. Campaigns are generally about who we should vote against rather than for. They are directed at the swing voter who has no firm ideological perspective. In a rational world, negative campaigning should taint the legitimacy of any office holder elected on the premise that his opponent is a bad person. It should call into question the presumption that democracy has produced the best public servants rather than merely the least bad ones.

    Our system of government exists an in environment replete with deferential presumptions that favor the legitimacy of government action, even if such is reasonably expected to be adverse to the rights and interests of the citizens. The legitimacy of government should depend on more than naive and sentimental presumptions about the societal efficacy of multi-million dollar smear campaigns.

  4. Scott Amorian says

    Since brainwashing is marketing, and marketing is driven by money, would it make sense to control spending on campaigning? Perhaps financial caps on campaign marketing are necessary if democracy is to be kept domesticated and useful. That would certain help to get us out of the mode of “Let the best marketer win!” And it would help level the playing field so that candidates have to win based more on content than on context. That worked for NFL football contests. Why would it not work for political contests?

    Isn’t the real problem the fact that the political parties, the beneficiaries of destructive political marketing, control the political system and so control whether effective remedies are implemented? It seems to me that proposals similar to those of the notable and respectable professor McGinnis are workarounds for deeper problems.

    I do not see how any remedy that is weaker than a constitutional amendment can fix the problems of American government.

  5. gabe says

    Yes, but why is the answer “more government?”
    Who then determines how much?
    Who then determines what is or is not political content / advertising. If you think the IRS actions / proposals on policing non-profits is bad now – just wait.
    As for me, I would prefer that any INDIVIDUAL US Citizen can freely contribute as much as he or she wants to – just do not let organizations contribute (unions, business, etc.) While this may not eliminate influecne or “marketing” it may reduce concentrated factional interests.

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