In an interesting new book called “White Identity Politics”, American political scientist Ashley Jardina of Duke University looks at the increasing relevance of white identity in American politics. What she finds is interesting and potentially has relevance for Indian politics if you replace “white” with “caste Hindus”.
“Drawing on data from American National Election Studies surveys and her own research, Jardina finds that about thirty to forty per cent of white Americans say that white identity is important to them, and she adds an interesting twist—that this group only partly overlaps with the group of white Americans who hold racist views. According to Jardina’s analysis, about thirty-eight per cent of white people who highly value their white identity are at or below the mean level of racial resentment, while forty-four per cent of white people who say their racial identity is less important are at or above that level.”
Basically, a lot of Americans who don’t necessarily think of themselves as white are racist. In the Indian context we see this effect play out in daily life – a lot of people who are not necessarily devout Hindus have strong anti-Islamic feelings.
Jardina highlights that Trump’s cleverness lies in understanding this and constantly playing up issues which pander to the inner racist in white Americans. Take for example, the whole furore around the wall that he wants to build on the Mexican border. There is a reason Trump has doubled down on this issue. Jardina says:
“I mean, we see this now with his strong stance on the border wall. Immigration is a particularly important topic to white identifiers, and Trump has continued to make that a central issue to the national political agenda, even in the face of the fact that we don’t have a border crisis. Since Trump took office, immigration levels have decreased in the United States.”
In India we can see how the RSS and the BJP is consistently able to keep issues around religious identity (triple talaq, Ram mandir, Citizenship Act, cows, Islamic sounding names of streets or stations) in the public eye. Why does this help? Because as Jardina points out whites don’t necessarily need to dislike African-Americans or Latinos for Trump to get their vote. All he has to do is give whites an image of America – white, strong, Anglo-Saxon, etc – which they can feel good about and which they identify with Trump.
“For people high on white identity, opposition to immigration doesn’t necessarily come as a result of disliking Latinos. It is rootbed in something different, which is that they think immigration is threatening American culture, but a particular flavor of American culture, one which is defined by Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage, which is very much defined by whiteness. Somebody might just be opposed to immigration because they dislike Latinos. But there’s a different component to this that’s going on in the minds of a lot of white people. It’s not, “I dislike Latino people.” It’s, “I don’t like the idea that the country that I envision, the country that I grew up in, the place that is defined by this Anglo-Saxon culture, is somehow threatened by this new group. I don’t like the idea that we’re talking about Spanish being a prevalent language rather than English.” It’s about the erosion of the ability to define mainstream America as white.”
In their ability to transcend the old fashioned economic issues of jobs and growth, a new generation of politicians are showing the world that elections are won by appealing to our inner fears and fantasies rather than to our wallets.
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