Social Identity Theory and My Fellow Libs

In my two and a half weeks at the Alliance for Justice I have observed a fairly consistent illustration of Social Identity Theory. I think this theory plays out in a lot of different work and social environments, but is particularly prevalent in offices like mine that are explicitly partisan. Even if my colleagues and I don’t all identify with the Democratic party as an institution, we do all identify with its values and long term objectives, which unite us under a common banner. As far as I can tell (and as far as countless studies have shown), partisanship has been on the rise across the country for the better part of twenty years, growing ever more noxious since Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Because group membership, whether the label be “Democrat,” “Republican,” “conservative,” or “liberal,” affects how we perceive ourselves and others, it also shapes the way we see ourselves as political actors. As a general rule, the stronger this identity is, the more we tend to promote in-group favoritism and out-group denigration, and this cycle can be an extremely vicious one. Even those who have studied it and are aware of the echo chambers they operate in can struggle to see through the fog of partisanship, because it feels good to make broad assumptions about ill intent on the part of your adversaries. The existence of these adversaries acts as fuel for the already burning fire, giving us something to exist in opposition to, as well as to affirmatively support.

Just the other day I was giving my friend who works at President Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services a hard time about a discriminatory statement their spokesman had made about trans people, and I segued into a criticism of the HHS Secretary’s cronyistic ties to the pharmaceutical industry. My friend stopped me there and said, “Dan, I agree that it is wrong to actively discriminate against trans people, but hundreds of thousands of people work for HHS and most of them are life-long, nonpartisan public servants. Even Alex Azar, the Secretary, is trying to improve access to and quality of healthcare. We don’t go to work and scheme out how to maximize corporate profits at the patient’s expense.”

I really try to assume positive intent in everyone I meet, largely because my mom taught me to, so I felt rightly chastised for my childlike conception of my friend’s colleagues, but it is just so difficult for me to give some of these people the benefit of the doubt. I am cognizant of the many factors that contribute to the sociopolitical identity I have now and am fortunate to enjoy the intersection of attentive parents, high education, and a flourishing hometown, but it seems that no amount of self-awareness can overcome the in-group/out-group “culture war” that plays out in so many of our heads. I look at our current administration and see a litany of policy failures, but more importantly I see an abject dismissal of the values I hold most dear and those I want my country to espouse. Hard as it might be for me to accept, roughly half the country felt the same exact way about our last president, and made similar assumptions about his intentions. Rudy Giuliani went so far as to proclaim that then-President Obama “hated America.”

Circling back to social identity theory and my workplace, I have seen my colleagues wrestle with the same sorts of tribalism, adherence to in group bias, and perpetuation of identity politics. As harsh and perhaps judgemental as this language sounds, I don’t count myself above the ideological melee, I’m just at a loss for how to improve the dialogue. Many of my colleagues have denounced the likes of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Beto O’Rourke on the grounds that they are white men, and that three of them are heterosexual seems to constitute further heresy. As someone who agrees that we need our elected officials to better represent the demography of their constituents, attitudes like these confuse me, because they seem to blend such good intentions with small pieces of the biases that we all find so deplorable. A vote for Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren that is cast on the basis of race or sex alone seems to me to do a disservice to their significant qualifications, but reflections like these are entirely unwelcome. Yesterday I said that Elizabeth Warren was one of the smartest and most qualified candidates in the Democratic field, but that I worried about how well her intellectualism and professorial delivery would be received by a national electorate, and it was quickly implied that my concerns were rooted in misogyny.

I think interactions like these demonstrate how much of a double edged sword group identity can really be. At its best it facilitates lasting bonds of fellowship and strengthens like-minded coalitions, but at its worst it breeds a degree of ideological self-cannibalism that measures values and loyalty in black and white. I don’t consider myself to be a moderate democrat, and in policy areas like the environment and criminal justice I actually feel almost radically liberal, but it saddens me to know that the fringes of my coalition seem more concerned with being in group enough than with expanding the democratic base.

For the most part I really do enjoy my internship, and I feel proud to be operating in the policy arena in which I am. Just last night The Huffington Post published an article about a particularly abominable judicial nominee that AFJ has rallied opposition for (, and I helped collect signatures for the 75 group letter from Lambda Legal. I have and continue to enjoy being exposed to new issue areas and to the people who are most passionate about them, because I’m able to learn more from them than I would ever be able to on my own. In many ways I think this experience has been appropriately eye opening for me, and it pairs nicely with the book I’m reading right now (Hillbilly Elegy) to better explain our present political climate.

If this post sounds sad, whiny, or long-winded, it isn’t really meant to; I don’t write it as someone who feels out of touch with their party or as someone who is frustrated by the amazing progress we are finally making on important social issues. I write it as a student of leadership who fears for the future of a party that can’t decide who it wants to be, and is running out of time to do so.


One thought on “Social Identity Theory and My Fellow Libs

  • July 23, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    Not sad, whiny, or long-winded at all; really thoughtful reflection that needed to go down a particular path to get the the point it was intending to make about your experience at your internship. Interesting application of social identity theory in regards to politics as a whole as well as at your internship site. Perhaps there might be an opportunity for you to share insights – based on your understanding of social identity theory – to your colleagues; you can couch it in ‘hey let me share something interesting with you that derives from my leadership studies’ perhaps. For the paper this fall you need to choose a theory and do a deep dive, examining all the elements of the theory, providing examples from your internship that illustrate (or do not illustrate) the various elements, discuss ways in which the theory does not hold up, etc. So if you’re thinking you may choose social identity theory, I encourage you to keep reflecting and taking note of examples from you site that illustrate (or do not) the various elements.

Comments are closed.