Nikhar Gaikwad | November 13, 2020 | Scope Conditions Podcast

In this episode, we talk with Dr. Nikhar Gaikwad, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, about his book project on what happens when identity politics and the economy collide. Many debates in political science revolve around the question of what matters more: identity or economics. For instance, debates about the drivers of populism often revolve around the questions of whether populism emerges from nativist, ethnocentric attitudes or from the economic anxieties generated by globalization.A distinctive feature of Gaikwad’s project is that it examines how identities and material interests interact and shape political strategies jointly. He takes as his starting point the fact that parties and candidates in diverse societies will often choose to play the “identity card” to boost their support among a religious, ethnic, caste or other group that’s in the majority. In India, for instance, certain politicians and parties have come to power in part through strident appeals to Hindu nationalism and the vilification of Muslims. However, these “identity entrepreneurs,” Gaikwad argues, find that identity politics is not by itself sufficient to guarantee electoral success. Rather, parties running on ethnocentrism find that they simultaneously need to use economic policy to build winning electoral coalitions. Gaikwad’s analysis centers on figuring out how ethnocentric parties allocate economic benefits: perhaps surprisingly, Gaikwad finds, those parties that use identity-based appeals to flatter cultural majorities often direct economic benefits to the cultural minority.An important takeaway of this conversation is the importance of analyzing cultural and material politics jointly. If we want to make sense of identity politics in culturally divided societies, then we need to understand economic policy — and vice versa. In this conversation, Gaikwad explains to us the logic of his argument, and we take in the sweep of the evidence that he brings to bear on it, including a series of case studies, survey experiments, and statistical analyses in the contexts of India, Brazil, and the United States. Among the interesting implications that we explore are how building electoral coalitions in divided societies hinges on tactics of visibility — on combining brazen cultural appeals with under-the-radar economic policy — and how the stealth targeting of material benefits can help explain the electoral success of rightwing populists, including India’s Narendra Modi and the U.S.’s Donald Trump. We also talk with Gaikwad about what his argument has to tell us about an apparent reversal of globalization, with the raising of barriers to trade and investment in some parts of the world. 

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