We are all various things at once — maybe a mother, a Southerner, a millennial and a member of the middle class. Or perhaps your Twitter bio introduces you as a husband, a Texan and an engineer.
In an era of acrid partisanship, how do political beliefs figure into these identities? To understand this, we surveyed Americans, asking 2,204 of them this question in a national poll conducted by Morning Consult. Try answering it yourself:
We borrowed the question from a survey conducted in 2004 by the General Social Survey. The survey was repeated at the time in countries around the world. Back then, fewer than 1 percent of Americans ranked their political identities first, and 4 percent mentioned politics at all (the results were similar in other countries). We suspected those numbers might be higher today.
They were — but not to a huge degree. Just 3 percent of people in our survey put politics first. Sixteen percent named it among their top three choices.
Which in the following list are most important to you in describing who you are?
Based on 2,204 adults surveyed by Morning Consult
That result points to a pair of ideas that help explain what has changed lately in American politics — and what hasn’t.
What hasn’t: Most Americans don’t live and breathe politics the way Washington news fiends do (or, to be honest, the way we do).
What has changed: Many of the other identities on this list — religion, race, gender, even occupation — have increasingly become intertwined with politics.
That means that while people may not explicitly prioritize their politics when asked to describe themselves, these other identities now offer a clearer window into their politics. Today, a white Christian Southerner is highly likely to be a Republican. A nonreligious, nonwhite woman is highly likely to be a Democrat. “Identity politics,” even without explicitly mentioning politics at all, can apply to either group.
We’ve always had partisan identities in America. But those partisan identities have come into stronger alignment with ideology and social identities. That’s troubling, political scientists warn, for our ability to compromise. It means that Democrats and Republicans don’t just support different policies today. They’ve also been sorting into two camps that are more and more socially homogeneous and more distinct from one another.
“Partisanship is now a very important part of the average citizens’ compass for determining how they feel about not just issues but about each other,” Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, told us in an email.
When we asked about identities another way, Americans were most likely to say that their family status, gender, nationality and religion were very important to them, in that order. Their preferred political party or movement again ranked near the bottom.
The share of people who said that these identities were very important to them
Based on 2,204 adults surveyed by Morning Consult
Identities are complex, and they shift depending on the situation. So your gender is probably more salient if you’re a woman in a room full of men. Your religious identity may be at the front of your mind when you’re at church on Sunday.
People even change their policy preferences depending on which identities they’re thinking about, according to research by Samara Klar, a political scientist at the University of Arizona. When Democratic voters are nudged to consider their roles as parents, for example, they become less supportive of prison reform for sex offenders and more supportive of anti-terrorism spending.
Given the importance of context, more people might have prioritized politics in our survey if we had prefaced the question with a reminder about the midterm elections, or a statement about President Trump. Our results, some researchers suggested, may also underestimate the importance of politics to people — or the importance of race — because they’re wary of admitting that they care deeply about it.
“Certainly if you live in a political bubble, it’s O.K. to say you’re fanatical about it, but to a lot of ordinary people, that sounds like trouble,” said Leonie Huddy, a political scientist at Stony Brook University who studies partisan identities. She typically tries to measure those identities with a battery of questions. Do you say “we” when you’re talking about Republicans? Does it annoy you when people criticize Democrats?
Morris Fiorina, a Stanford political scientist, is skeptical that many people are closeted hard-core partisans. “What kind of identity is it if you’re not willing to admit that you have it?” he said.
It is clearer, though, that these other identities have become more closely linked to partisanship.
Americans for years have been sorting more solidly into two political parties by ideology, as Mr. Fiorina and others have documented. Conservatives are now overwhelmingly Republicans, while liberals are Democrats (put another way, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are now relatively rare). But this sorting process has increasingly included race, religion, even gender and education. Whites and evangelicals have shifted toward the Republican Party. Nonwhites and secular voters have moved toward the Democrats.
“Twenty years ago, just because you were a churchgoer didn’t mean you were a Republican,” Ms. Klar said. “Now it does more so. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that partisanship is becoming more important than being a churchgoer.”
The alignment of the two does have consequences, though. Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, argues that this shift has made us more intolerant of each other, contributing to a political environment where winning — or owning the other party — has become more important to each side than achieving particular policy outcomes.
In the past, Republicans and Democrats had many identities in common beyond their politics, like membership in the same churches or unions. Those kinds of “cross-cutting” identities make it harder for us to vilify each other. But those cross-cutting modulators have dwindled, following the realignment of the parties after the Civil Rights era and the rise of the religious right in the 1980s. And white voters in recents years have shown signs of sorting by education, too.
Now Republicans and Democrats appear to dislike each other to a far greater degree than can be explained by the policy differences between them.
“If you think about the most basic, primal human desire to have in-groups and out-groups, it’s not based on policy,” Ms. Mason said. “It’s based on this need to differentiate yourself from other people and feel like you’re included in groups that support you. But also you have to feel like other people are excluded.”
Ms. Mason points to a seminal study in the 1950s, not from political science, but from social psychology. In the “Robbers Cave” experiment led by Muzafer Sherif, a group of fifth-grade boys — all white, middle-class and Protestant — were divided into two groups at a summer camp in Oklahoma. Within two weeks, they devolved into insulting and threatening each other, to the extent that the experimenters had to intervene. Their arbitrarily assigned group identities were enough to stoke open conflict among them.
Imagine if those boys, so similar in other ways, also had opposing racial, religious and class identities. That, Ms. Mason argues, is effectively what is becoming of American politics.
That warning suggests two very different ways of looking at how people responded to our survey. Perhaps it is a relief that few Americans say their politics are central to their identities. But politics are now lurking behind the identities that are important to us.