Sex, identity and an Alabama Senate race

There’s a notable experiment in social identity theory in which people were asked to sign up for a program that offered a small amount of cash if their favorite team lost. There was virtually no downside. You signed the paper. If your team won, great. If your team lost, you got paid.

But people wouldn’t sign up, because that would corrupt their identity as a fan. Their identity as a fan had more value to them then the small amount of cash being offered. The experiment showed that even casual identities like fandom had a hidden worth, which is to say nothing of major (mostly) inflexible identities like race and sex.

Think of that in relation to the contest in Alabama between Roy Moore and Doug Jones. Roy Moore stands accused of soliciting sexual relationships with girls half his age when he was 34. And that’s only the most egregious of the accusations against him. Many Democrats across the nation are aghast that the Republican Moore may well win. Jones, a moderate Democrat, is but any comparison seemingly inoffensive.

Except it is offensive to people to be asked to violate the norms of their group. Asking Republicans to support Jones is a bit like asking a Seahawks fan to clap when San Francisco scores.

How can voting for someone accused of violating standards of moral conduct be compared rooting for your sports team? The question goes back to the prototype, which is the groups ideal member. Each of us has an internal mental understanding of what the ideal worker at our company looks like, or the “true” fan for our team. We have an idea of what a good American is. aI Alabama they have an image of who the ideal Alabaman is. Voters have one ideal of who a Democrat is and a different ideal for Republicans, and they judge candidates by those distinct and separate standards.

In the current environment, sexual harassment of women is an unforgivable violation of the Democratic prototype. Not only do women make up a greater share of Democrats than Republicans, but the election of President Trump despite his having been recorded apparently bragging about sexually assaulting women has made the identity of gender extremely salient for Democrats, the news media, and perhaps women in general.

It’s important to remember, however, gender is not the most salient identity for all voters. In fact, most white women voted for Trump, despite his bragging and despite the fact he ran against a white woman. There’s a lot to this, but let’s keep it simple by saying that, for a Republican candidate, sexual aggressiveness is not as an egregious violation of the voters’ expectations as it is for their Democratic counterparts.

In Alabama, both candidates are white men, which not only lessens the salience of gender, but also lessens the salience of the identity of race. This hampers Democrats who depend on an active black vote to compete in the South. Add to that a wave of national media interest, which may serve only to heighten the salience of place — Alabama vs outsiders — and the idea of a Moore victory is not at all far fetched.

And, to tie this all back to the Confederate Identity Project, none of it would am have been out of place during reconstruction, when Northern Republicans tried to bring the Confederacy back into national political life.

UPDATE: Worth reading this analysis of Jones’ victory. As with any close race, the winning edge can be given to many possible factors. But it’s more reasonable to say the things that Jones needed, he got: a big turnout among blacks, wins with educated and young voters, and damped enthusiasm among likely Republicans. As with Trump himself, it’s tough to know how much of the race reflects lasting shifts vs. the personality of the race.

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