Identity Politics and Polarization

Identity politics and polarization

What is it?

The racial politics of the U.S. has always been intimately intertwined with its politics in general. The “Southern Strategy” used by Republicans in the 1950s and 60s campaigned to white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s description of welfare recipients as “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” continued this strategy of appealing to racist attitudes. Analyses of the 2016 American National Election Studies survey (Tesler 2016, McElwee and Daniel 2017, Wood 2017) found that racial attitudes toward blacks and immigrants – not economic anxiety – were the biggest predictor of support for Trump. And most recently, white nationalism has reared its head again at the periphery of mainstream politics and media. So has economic populism, tinged with racial resentment at immigrants and minorities. Call this “identity politics” – the idea that people form their political positions based on group identity.

In light of history and current events, there is good reason to think identity politics, particularly racial identity politics, has something to do with political polarization writ large. As politicl polarization has increased, so has the visibility of identity politics (especially racial politics and class populism).  In particular, the ideological gap for issues such as race and immigration has widened (Pew Research Center, 6/12/14). In the literature on polarization, however, “group identity” refers to partisan identity. Polarization is framed in terms of a binary opposition between liberals and conservatives (or Democrats and Republicans). By contrast, identity politics is framed in terms of political beliefs and behavior based on social group identity, particularly race, gender, class, education level, and religion. This project aims to determine the extent to which racial identity predicts individual political positions, and on what types of issues the biggest differences occur. This will help us to infer the role of identity politics in causing polarization, which in turn suggests interventions.


We may reduce polarization through listening to each other, developing empathy for others, reevaluating civic education, reflecting on our cognitive biases, instituting epistemic standards for media sources, and integrating social bubbles. These are some of the remedies for polarization on offer in both public and academic discourse. But if racial identity is a key cause of political polarization, this suggests that polarization is not just an epistemic problem caused by individuals processing knowledge inadequately as individuals. Polarization is also a group phenomenon caused by shared perspectives, which are in turn shaped by race-laden history and culture. To reduce polarization, we may need stronger medicine than individualized cognitive interventions. We may also need to intervene on the formation and expression of group identity. This raises further questions: what would such an intervention look like, if normatively desirable? Which identities should be intervened on? (Clearly, while white nationalists and Black Lives Matter both hold extreme positions, the content of their positions is far from normatively equivalent.) Is some degree of polarization inevitable in a pluralistic, multicultural society, and if so, how should we seek to reduce it?


This project is a mixture of quantitative and qualitative analysis. We conduct a literature review of the literature on race and political attitudes that seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What is the effect of race on group difference on particular policies?
  • Are some groups more polarized in relation to other groups on some issues than others, and what characterizes those issues?

The extant literature on race and political attitudes focuses on black versus white attitudes toward singular issues such as welfare, gun control, or healthcare reform. We also analyze more recent data from the Pew Research Center, General Social Survey, and American National Election Survey to determine differences between all racial groups for which there is data available. We group these issues according to broader categories to determine where the big differences lie and visualize these differences. The final step of this project is qualitative, given the limitations of survey data for causal inference. In light of the differences revealed by our quantitative analysis, we combine these differences with external sources from history and sociology to make causal inferences, if any.


Valerie Soon is a PhD student in the Philosophy department at Duke. She works in social and political philosophy and philosophy of social science. She is interested in the implications of social sorting for ideals of justice: specifically, how a liberal state that values both freedom of association and equality of opportunity might handle the challenges posed by social sorting.


Rose Graves is a sophomore at Duke majoring in statistical science with a background in political science. She has assisted in past research regarding public opinion on the United States Supreme Court and is very enthusiastic about continuing research regarding polarization. In this Bass Connections,

She is assisting with a project relating to what groups of individuals are polarized and on what issues does this group polarization occur. The result of this project is to have a program that can accurately predict political views based on an individual’s identity. She will also be assisting in gathering the data to determine the viewpoints of specific groups on polarizing issues and aid in the statistical analysis and creation of the program.

J.J. is a Junior in Trinity College Studying Science in Mathematics while minoring in Philosophy and Economics

J.J. hopes to one day work in research of economic and political development. He is passionate about using scientific methods to understand what institutions and policies shape positive economic growth, healthy democracies, and fulfilling lives for citizens. Alongside his teammates, he is concerned that the inability to hold productive political discussions with opponents affects our electorate’s ability to make reasoned voting decisions. Whereas a less hostile, more constructive debate culture seems essential for democracy to function well. He hopes to help this Bass Connections team discover the causes of polarized debate and how to mediate tensions.

Specifically, he is serving on various subprojects: First, he is helping conduct the literature review and data management on how often identity markers (race, sex, geography, political affiliation) can serve as good indicators of one’s policy views on various issues. Second, he is coding, preparing, and analyzing data on how the phrasing of questions in a debate can affect the participants’ tendencies toward polarized or non-polarized (and thus constructive) discussion.