All Politics are Identity Politics Because People are only Pseudo-Rational:
Identity and Meaning Guide Action Not Rational Calculus
Finite Beings Making Their Way in an Infinitely Complex World
What is the nature of the human mind? People have been debating this for millennia but only recently has science been able to provide much of an answer. And the answer is important because it reveals the secrets to not only how we come to understand reality and respond to our environment but it also offers clues to why people are so easily manipulated into acting against their own self-interest at the benefit of others.
Just because society is complex doesn’t mean that people are too. The sociologist, John Levi Martin, points out that ant society is incredibly complex even though they are, well, ants. They scout out new land, battle intruders, and raise baby ants all with little ant brains about the size of a small grain of sand.
The point isn’t to compare human brains to ant brains but rather to highlight the mistake in assuming that human beings must be complex just because our society is complex. Instead, we should recognize that we are biological beings with limited, finite faculties. Very limited.
Recognizing this raises THE question that human beings must overcome. How does a finite, biological successfully navigate an infinitely complex world? Since no finite being can fully comprehend the infinite, we must take shortcuts. That shortcut is identity and meaning maintenance.
Defining what something is, and acting based on that understanding, was an incredibly efficient and successful strategy when dealing with evolution and an indifferent mother nature but not well-suited to deal with intentional, modern society that creates divides between reality and our understanding of reality.
We’re Not Rational but we Mimic It Pretty Well.
Humans, like all animals, are, at our core, self-interested. We try to gain the most while paying the least. Economists call this rationality. There are differing definitions but they all center on the idea that when people make decisions, they weigh the possible rewards and costs and do whatever gets them the most bang for the buck, the highest reward for the lowest cost.
While people operate as if they’re making rational decisions, they almost never actually perform complex cost/benefit calculations before deciding what to do.
Think of all the actions you performed today. If you listed out every single behavior from brushing your teeth in the morning to showering at night, you probably didn’t give these decisions much thought at all. You did them automatically because that’s just what normal people do.
Here is the amazing thing about that. If you did stop and consciously think it through, it would be pretty easy to figure out that the benefits of brushing your teeth do, in fact, outweigh the cost of toothpaste or the time lost that could have been used elsewhere. Somehow humans have evolved into a way of selecting the same action a thoughtful, rational person would have chosen without having to expend the mental energy to actually think things through.
This ability is one of our greatest evolutionary assets. By minimizing the energy needed to make day to day decisions, we can focus our limited brainpower on tough or important decisions, thus maximizing the results of our finite hardware. It’s incredibly efficient.
We are Meaning Maintainers Not Rational Thinkers
The shortcut we use is identity and meaning maintenance. In a nutshell, as we grow up, we forge from our experience, rules for what something is, what it does, and what we should do with it. When we see or hear about mothers making dinner, bandaging scrapes or reading bedtime stories, we develop an understanding that “mothers” are good, caring and nurturing beings.
If I become a mother one day, I don’t need to rationally think through every daily decision like whether I should feed my child. Instead, all I need to do is do caring, nurturing actions like feeding and cuddling that seem consistent with the meaning I’ve already constructed for “mothers” in general and I’ll likely do a pretty good job at being a mother.
What is key is that most of the actions I’d end up performing through identity processes would be exactly the same set of actions I’d do if I consciously thought them through using rational calculus. So, while identity isn’t exactly rational calculate, it’s pseudo-rational in that the vast majority of actions end up the same.
If we listed all the meanings we held for all things we might encounter in our lives, that mass of meaning is social reality. This is the map we use to navigate the social world and base our decisions on. It may be limited but mimics rational decision-making enough to get the job done most of the time.
The key is that no single rule exists on its own. All rules are connected to one another, creating a complex, interlocking web of meaning. A father only has meaning in relation to other concepts like child, husband, worker, etc. A change to one part would ripple through the entire structure. If, for some reason, I came to believe that fathers weren’t well-intentioned and loving, this would change what it means to be a son, family-member, and so on.
Because identity and meaning processes are the foundation of our mental model of the world, it is extremely resilient to disruptions. No single fact or event is paramount. If I learn a new fact or experience some unique event, I add it to the pile of all the prior events and facts. It is but one data point among a lifetime of data points.
The need to maintain meaning is so strong and central to our being that we impose meaning even when there is none, like when we see shapes in clouds. When events undermine the meanings we hold, this causes so much uncertainty and distress that we automatically try to force things back into order.
The vast majority of facts do reinforce past meanings but if a fact or event completely undermines my understanding of the world, I have one of two choices. I can either overhaul my entire belief system or simply disregard it. Not surprisingly, we typically choose the latter. Quite regularly.
This isn’t a bad strategy either because my current meaning system probably works for me (otherwise I’d have a different system) and is reinforced by daily interactions with those around me who might know something I don’t, so ignoring a fact or two (or a dozen) likely won’t cause any major problems.
Identity in Politics
In the same way I construct meaning for other people like mothers, teachers, criminals, etc., I do the same to myself also. I might see myself as a middle-aged, white, college-educated male living in the South. Within the realm of politics, once I figure out who I am, since I’m self-interested and rational (or at least something mimicking rationality), I’ll support politicians who push policies that provide me the greatest rewards at the lowest costs.
If I see myself as a liberal Democrat, it’s quite rational to support a liberal Democratic politician, even if I know nothing about them since I can assume that they are probably using the same pseudo-rational, meaning maintenance process I’m also using. So the odds are pretty good that a liberal Democratic politician is more likely to vote to extend unemployment or healthcare benefits compared to a self-identified conservative Republican.
Identity has Always Been at the Core of Politics
Some argue that identity politics, catering to a particular group, is a new phenomenon but it’s always been at the heart of politics. It was invisible for most of our history because, prior to the 1970s, both Republicans and Democrats were essentially variants of the same white, Christian political identity, pushing policies benefitting their white, Christian constituents but in slightly different forms. Since they were catering to the same identity, identity processes went unnoticed. White politics was just politics in much the same way that white history is simply history.
What changed was that in the late 1960s, America started to become a diverse nation in more than name only. Minority groups gained enough power that alternative political identities became a viable political force. Only then did conservatives notice identity.
The fact that identity and meaning processes are central to political action has a host of implications (that I plan to discuss further) but there are three important ones.
First, no single fact or event will likely have much of an effect because it’s weighed against the entire meaning system and every other fact that has preceded it. While it’s easy to become enraged at how easily facts are disregarded, people aren’t simply weighing facts, they are evaluating their entire understanding of social reality. So don’t be surprised at how easily facts are disregarded once identities are constructed.
Second, identities predict action. While it is often heard that character matters, what really matters to self-interested actors are enacting actions they believe are beneficial. Even if you could successfully label an opponent as dishonest, sexist, or racist, the odds of a conservative Republican supporting conservative policies stays about the same so it’s rational for their supporters to keep supporting them. Because of this, character attacks have little effect unless they can alter a politician’s core identity in the eyes of their supporters.
Lastly, and most important, for the Democratic party as the party of the working class, middle class and the disadvantaged to build broad support, it must overcome the difficult challenge of constructing a unified identity that most Americans can identify with but, at the same time, protects and furthers the rights of minority voters. This is incredibly difficult and requires creating a comprehensive world-view and identity built on the common interests of this diverse and seemingly incompatible constituency.