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Column: New York's election suggests the waning of identity politics

By James Ledbetter

To most Americans, the results of New York City's local elections don't matter much and often shouldn't. Yes, there are City Hall occupants who manage to command a national stage, notably incumbent Mike Bloomberg, but in the 2013 race there have been no candidates even approaching his stature (or his wealth). The candidate who received the most votes in Tuesday's primary, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, is unknown outside New York City and until recently not well known inside it.

Yet there is an aspect of the 2013 campaign that might resonate well beyond New York's five boroughs: voter behavior suggests that the era of identity politics may have ended or at least peaked.

Throughout the modern era, politicians in New York City (and many other places) have seen elections as a competition among voting blocs determined by ethnic and racial identities: African-American, Latino (which until the 1990s in New York City was primarily Puerto Rican), Jewish, white (which can be further broken down into the larger nationalities represented in New York, such as Italian, Irish, etc). Strategic alliances, endorsements, and policy choices could be used to deliver, somewhat reliably, these groups of voters to chosen candidates. As nonwhites became a majority some time in the mid-1980s, and the pool of viable candidates more diverse, most nonwhite voters saw a path of empowerment through supporting one of their own: that is, given a choice, African-American voters would usually vote disproportionately for the African-American candidate, Latino voters for the Latino candidate, and so on. In recent decades, women and LGBT-identified voters also became important self-aware constituencies, although the LGBT vote is difficult to measure and its effects have been seen more on neighborhood races than citywide ones.

As anyone who watched the 2013 Democratic primary debates can attest, the actual policy differences between the Democratic candidates were fairly small, which would seem to provide even more reason for voters to make their choices based on identity politics.

That, however, is decidedly not what happened in Tuesday's primary. The one female candidate running for mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, garnered only 16 percent of women's votes. Bill Thompson, the one African-American candidate, received 42 percent of that group's vote — well below the 76 percent of the African-American vote he received running in the general election against Michael Bloomberg in 2009, and less than half of the 90-plus percent of the black vote received by David Dinkins, the lone African-American candidate in the 1989 primary, who later that year became the city's first black mayor. Exit-poll sampling may not precisely measure the votes of smaller minorities, but it seems highly likely that the Asian candidate in the race, comptroller John Liu, received only a small portion of the Asian vote and the openly lesbian Quinn lost LGBT voters by 34 percent to de Blasio's 47 percent.

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institue for Public Opinion, told me "demography was not destiny last night."

What happened?

The apparent erosion of identity-voting could represent an electorate focused on issues. For example, exit polls indicate that de Blasio got 42% of the African-American vote, a strong showing considering one of his major opponents was African-American. Some of that support may have its roots in identity, given that de Blasio's campaign prominently featured his African-American wife and son, which earned the campaign a strange rebuke from Mayor Bloomberg who suggested the tactic was "racist." Regardless, it seemed to resonate; supporters I interviewed on primary night repeatedly cited de Blasio's family as a source of his appeal. (The ad featuring de Blasio's son, which first ran August 8th, helped the candidate surge from fourth place to first in under a month.)

But it may also be that African-American voters responded to de Blasio's vocal opposition to the city's "stop-and-frisk" police policy, which a federal judge ruled last month are an unconstitutional form of racial profiling, or to his steadfast advocacy to keep open some struggling public hospitals.

At least theoretically, that choice serves voter interest better than simply supporting the African-American candidate and assuming that he or she will reflect the community's view (not coincidentally, Bill Thompson was for years a supporter of stop-and-frisk). More broadly, the election could be seen as a referendum on ending three terms of Bloomberg's mayoralty, and therefore de Blasio's emphasis on inequality — he spoke repeatedly of "a tale of two cities" — and taxing the city's wealthy forced voters to elevate economic concerns over demographic ones.

Assuming that the 2013 results do represent a waning of the influence of identity politics, what does that suggest for future campaigns in New York City (and possibly elsewhere)? While identity politics have been important for representing minority voices, they can also obviously disappoint. In part this is because they encourage voters and candidates to view policy choices through a distorting lens. In so many areas of city life, once a basic level of racial or gender inclusion has been achieved, identity is present but not paramount; there isn't a solution to traffic problems that can be better done by a lesbian, or a Latino solution for park expansion, etc. And in those areas where policies will benefit groups unequally, identity politics risks pitting populations against one another to the point of losing any sense of a common good.

In theory, candidates in the future will not as easily assume automatic support from those they most closely represent. It has been too tempting in the past for candidates with scarce resources to largely write off entire constituencies out of the belief that an opponent had captured the bloc. If more New Yorkers' votes are genuinely up for grabs, then increased competition for them ought to increase chances for voters' voices to be heard.

There are some possible shortcomings and objections to this analysis, starting with the fact that there is still a general election in November, and if de Blasio manages to lose that in a city where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 6-to-1, we shouldn't read much into his primary results. Secondly, some may point to the candidates themselves, arguing that Thompson, Quinn and Liu were simply not very good examples of leaders for their communities and thus couldn't command their votes in the way that, say, Dinkins did with the black vote in 1989 or Ed Koch with the Jewish vote in 1977. But there's something tautological about this argument: i.e., they're not effective leaders, because they can't deliver their communities' votes because…they're not effective leaders. Moreover, past candidates have performed better with equally modest community leadership credentials; in 2001, Betsy Gotbaum, who'd been president of the New York Historical Society, received 71 percent of the women's vote in the runoff election for Public Advocate. And the argument would be more persuasive if these communities had other leaders who would have performed better with voters; there are none obvious on the horizon.

Another argument could be that identity politics has not faded, but rather become a divide-and-conquer tactic. After all, most white voters in this primary still voted for white candidates, and from the perspective of those who still feel excluded from the governance of the city, the idea that the competition boils down to a race among straight white men may not seem like much to cheer. But what's remarkable about this year's election was how few people felt such exclusion strongly enough to come out and vote for the candidate who shares their "identity."

The reality may just be that New Yorkers no longer perceive identity in exclusive terms. They look around them and they see race, gender and sexuality as fluid instead of static — and in this sense, de Blasio and his mixed-race family seem more authentic than the fixed identities of the past.

(James Ledbetter is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own)

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