Identity Politics in
The Future of American Politics
American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia or in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest.
Frederick Jackson Turner (1896)
The banks have been supported by the powerful array of mercantile wealth, by city and county lawyers largely in their pay, by the benighted and mercenary portion of the priesthood, by village doctors who love the shade of an awning better than the golden fields of the husbandman or workshop of the mechanic.
Samuel Medary (ca. 1840)
Voters in the United States boast of belonging to interest groups—racial, ethnic, or religious—and politicians, in turn, chase those votes. However tasteless this dance may be to some, it isn’t novel. It began with the Second American Party System of the Jacksonian Era.
The classic view of Jacksonian Democracy is that Democratic politicians were of modest means and appealed to voters like themselves; their Whig opponents were rich and catered to wealthy constituents. The evidence is anecdotal: the words, the character, and the actions of a political elite. Few studies pay attention to ordinary voters.
Enter Identity Politics, a systematic analysis of voter choice in Ohio. How Democrats and Whigs voted in the Buckeye State was less dependent on fleeting economic issues than on cultural habits and the idea of Party itself. Politicians trimmed their sails accordingly. In this, Jacksonian voters and politicians foretold The Future of American Politics.
Identity Politics during the Age of Jackson flowed from three developments: the expansion of the electorate, obligatory party discipline, and a conservative reaction to both. But those radical, new features of politics were themselves conservative responses that some believed essential to regain control of a society experiencing economic, social, political, and cultural atomization: unprecedented geographic expansion, urbanization, the spread of a factory system, immigration—changes that ushered in modern America.
Politically, these transformations ended the controlling hand of the ‘Virginia Dynasty’ of presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) and collapsed the ‘Era of Good Feeling’ following the War of 1812. Identity politics replaced both with rise of the ‘Common Man.’ The country hasn’t been the same since.
Systematic analysis of voter choice in Ohio, Identity Politics responds to the challenge issued from New York by historian Lee Benson: Democratic and Whig voters in both states relied on religion, ethnicity, nativity, the prejudices of Northerners and Southerners, even the value of 'party' itself as the bases of voter behavior. This foundation, in turn, foreshadowed the future of American politics.
Identity Politics, no matter who it includes or omits, whether it is wise strategy or brazen lobbying, is not unique to the 21st Century. To find its origin, the source of the virtues and shortcomings of America’s political system, consider the pivotal contribution of the Second American Party System.