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.