Identity Politics


by Eli S. Evans

Here’s the question everyone else keeps asking themselves (ourselves), and each other, and, I suppose, in the case of certain reporters who dare to engage them directly, the actual people under consideration: Why, regardless, of what he does, do they keep supporting this man? But actually, when you examine the dynamics of their support for him, you quickly realize that the question we really ought to be asking ourselves is: Why does their support for him only seem to solidify further when he is at his most heinously racist, menacingly illiberal, audaciously deceitful, etc.? Remember what he said (January of 2016, deep in campaign season): “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” It was true! He never did stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, as far as I know, but his campaign and presidency have been just a long series of rhetorical, political, and humanitarian atrocities, and not only has he not lost any voters – keeping in mind, for instance, that for Republicans results of the so-called midterm elections more or less tracked with his results in the 2016 popular vote (46%) – but, if some of the fan art recently circulating online is any indication, those voters love him more fervently than ever.

We’ve resorted to all sorts of old tricks in our efforts to solve this riddle – psychoanalyzing them, historicizing them, narrativizing them – and concluded, by turns, that they are the ones whose particular privilege was compromised by globalization and are riven by resentment over it; that because the winds of cultural change are blowing against them, with the recent proliferation of gender neutral bathrooms in cosmopolitan cities and on university campuses as only one example, they manage to continue to feel aggrieved despite the fact that their guy is running the show, and so they continue to respond “positively,” as it were, to his constant fear-mongering; that they are suffering from what is known in psychologists’ circles as the Dunning-Kruger effect, simultaneously misinformed and misinformed about how misinformed they are.

Anyway, I know that I don’t know what the answer is (therefore, I am, at least in theory, free of Dunning-Kruger), or even if there is one, but the other day, by chance, I came upon a new possibility when I turned on the car radio and picked up an interview on National Public Radio in medias res. The interviewee, in this case, was a medical anthropologist by the name of Elisa Sobo, and the subject of the interview, prompted by a recent outbreak of measles in a vaccination-averse community in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, was the social psychology of skepticism toward vaccinations. Asked about what concerned her most about said measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, this being just about when I turned on the radio, Sobo replied as follows (I have consulted the transcript in the interest of accuracy, but edited my own transcription of it very lightly for the sake of clarity): “I guess I worry a little bit about the media coverage. I worry about us stereotyping these people into a corner – we’re trapping them in this corner and making it hard to get out of that corner by taking what’s really a small behavior and turning it into an identity. And that can be really dangerous.” To which the interviewer (whose last name is also the name of a kind of hen) replied: “Why? What’s dangerous about it?” To which Sobo replied: “When something becomes a part of your identity, it can be really hard to say, oh, I’m going to change my mind because it’s so much a part of what’s been defined as the core value of your community.” The interviewer posed a follow-up question about “public health” but by then I was already thinking about or the other of the questions I posed above. Oooooh, I was thinking, more specifically. I was thinking: Oooooh, so by continuously saying and doing things so proverbially “off the map” that to support him, or to have supported him, cannot but become a defining attribute in our contemporary social milieu, he transforms (and constantly re-transforms, lest it begin to lose its purchase therein) something as small as a political opinion into an identity, and since none of us really knows what nothingness our various identities conceal, nor are any but the most intrepid philosophers especially keen to find out, it turns out that they can be a very difficult thing to renounce.

All of which is to say that perhaps the question we really ought to be asking ourselves is: Well, what the hell are you supposed to do about that?