Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of Election Day 2008, the day voters elected Barack Obama the first black American to be president.
Since then, identity politics, the idea that an individual’s various identities shape how they view politics and policies, went from being a little-known concept, often bemoaned by those on the right, to the central method that both political parties use to rally their bases to the polls.
As appeals to “one nation” appear to have decreased at the highest levels of governments, they have been replaced with an awareness that gender, race, faith, socioeconomic status and region very much determine how likely one is to experience “the American dream.”
Identity politics did not begin with the Obama era. But the current political climate, where it has become a central part of U.S. politics is certainly in part a response to the Obama presidency. Less than 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to bar Americans from voting based on race, the majority of voters decided that the person most capable of shaping the United States into a more perfect union was the biracial son of a Kenyan man and a white American woman with roots in the heartland.
From the earliest days of the 2008 campaign, Obama’s “otherness” became a huge issue in his race against Sen. John McCain, the Arizonan and celebrated war hero who was his Republican opponent. That “otherness” confirmed the belief that many of the identity politics that were present at the formation of the United States remained key in shaping how some Americans vote. Some outwardly questioned whether a man who was not white and whose father was born into a Muslim family in east Africa could heal the racial, religious and cultural divides that for years led so many Americans to disconnect from the political process.
When Obama greeted supporters in Chicago on election night, he opened his speech by saying this: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
Just a decade later in a political climate in which Obama’s secretary of state Hillary Clinton was defeated after she promised to expand upon the agenda he set, many of his supporters feel that dream has been replaced by a nightmare.
Obama’s successor, President Trump, a former reality television star, entered politics by making regular appearances on Fox News, opining on all things political. He spread the falsehood that Obama was not born in the United States, and questioned Obama’s ability to govern a country where much of the electorate looked more like his maternal grandparents than his African ancestors.
“In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long,” Obama said on election night 2008.
But just two elections later, it is partisanship that perhaps shapes how Americans engage politics more than ever. To his critics, this is in part Obama’s fault. His sympathizing with black Americans’ concerns about police brutality and his liberal stances on LGBT issues and birth control certainly drew more criticism than praise from Americans who not only disagreed with his positions, but simply could not relate to people who viewed these issues so differently. Many conservative Americans who believed they were being dismissed as clinging to their deeply held religious convictions and Second Amendment rights saw a president whose attraction to change could move the country in a direction at odds with many of its richest traditions.
And perhaps as a result, the 2016 race to succeed Obama was a fight over which tribes would hold the most power in the Oval Office — or at the very least not be ignored and forgotten. The 2018 midterms are a continuation of that fight.
Voters have broken records across the country already as they head to the polls for early voting to determine the direction in which America will move. Will voters turn out to back Trump’s revived campaign methods, affirming the fears of his base who remain anxious about the country’s cultural changes? Or will more voters back the Democratic Party and its argument that America’s most forgotten people are those whose demographic groups are less well-represented in Washington’s halls of power?
We will know soon and with that revelation we will all have a better idea of not only the America we will soon become, but the America that we are.