Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Retro Identity Politics

In this election we've seen some identity politics thrown around. It might have been done in terms of race with Obama running and certainly some are whipping up support for him based on race. And in recent weeks it's based upon gender.

See John McCain hopes to gain some of the women vote because he chose a woman to be his running mate. Sort of outflanking Obama, who chose not to pick a woman, namely Sen. Hillary Clinton, as his running mate. Even though there are those Hillary supporters who are upset about that, some might conclude that Obama made the right move here in not picking his major rival for the Democratic nomination.

All the same the NY Times takes aim at identity politics:
And so, for younger voters at least, what’s truly remarkable, for all the discussion about the subtext of race and gender in the campaign, is how much of an afterthought history has actually been. Obama had already won his first caucus by the time racial tension entered the Democratic primaries; no one ever seemed to question his viability as a candidate in the way they did Jesse Jackson’s two decades years earlier. Clinton ran not as the woman in the race but as the establishment candidate, awash in money and endorsements. The criticism of Sarah Palin immediately after she was named to the ticket elicited some cries of sexism from the Republican camp, but her own biting response at the convention centered, instead, on the contempt displayed by big-city Democrats and reporters for small-town Americans. Attitudes about race and sex are certain to be factors in the minds of many voters (there must be a reason Obama fared poorly with white, working-class men in the primaries), but they are only a few factors among many others, rather than the decisive disqualifiers they would have been 20 years ago. It turns out that the biggest deal about racial and gender identity in the campaign is that, especially to younger Americans who live and work in a vastly changed country, it isn’t such a very big deal after all.

Maybe this is why John McCain’s selection of Palin, bold as it was, felt oddly retro — like another Republican moderate, George H. W. Bush, elevating Clarence Thomas over all the other judicial luminaries in America in 1991. Say what you will about Palin’s qualifications for the job (she does give a pretty great speech), but no one will argue that her elevation to the national stage wasn’t premised primarily on old-school identity politics, the ’80s-era idea that women pledge allegiance to the family of women more than they do to party or ideology. Palin was elevated from obscurity largely on the basis of her womanhood and treated by her party and the media, during the convention in St. Paul, as if she had just won “American Idol.” (During the night of Palin’s big speech, a CNN reporter sat at a restaurant in Anchorage with Palin’s sister, who recalled her response to the news of the selection: “Oh, my gosh, you’ve got to be kidding. This is great, but this is crazy.”) In this way, Palin has more in common with Geraldine Ferraro than she does with Clinton, her candidacy having been born of gimmickry even as it struck a blow for progress.

It will be a little while before we know whether Palin really does appeal to the sisterhood of persuadable voters, but the early returns suggest that the assumptions underlying the pick might have been outdated. In a typical survey, conducted for the liberal group Emily’s List, 59 percent of women — and an even higher number of women who identified themselves as independents — thought McCain’s choice had been mostly a result of political calculation. It probably doesn’t help that McCain telegraphs a paternal awkwardness in his appearances with Palin, as if he isn’t quite sure where he should be standing. A guy’s guy who cherishes gridiron heroics and whose closest aides have always been men, McCain seems slightly miscast as a gender pioneer. If, as the old joke went, the first President Bush reminded many women of their first husbands, then McCain may well remind them of their first bosses — well-meaning and eager to evolve but never really comfortable unless he’s helping you on with your coat.
You know the last three paragraphs of this piece is important, but please read the whole thing. It's pretty good, especially looking at this as a "political scientist":
In fact, Palin’s conservatism on issues like gun ownership and abortion enables McCain to placate, yet again, the most doctrinaire elements in his own party, while her being a woman is supposed to signal to McCain’s admirers that he remains a maverick at heart. This last theme is the one McCain hammered at again and again in his convention speech. Independent voters, it seems, are to believe that, after winning office as a conservative ideologue, McCain will throw off his evangelical cloak and there, just underneath, will be the red, white and blue tights of the antiestablishment superhero.

The problem with this plan is that such postinaugural transformations are never really possible. The way you win the presidency forecloses certain options for governing; factions you offend during the campaign don’t want to give you any victories once you take office, and if you then try to distance yourself from the people who did support you, you end up with a coalition of no one. This is largely why Bill Clinton, having antagonized much of his own base in 1992, found himself barely able to muscle a few pieces of big legislation through a Democratic Congress, and it’s why George W. Bush, after the long standoff in Florida, never had a chance of building bipartisan bridges in Washington. If McCain campaigns on the outdated platform of a culture warrior, then he will have little choice but to govern on it too.

This is, after all, the point of this election business — not simply the pursuit of power or social progress, but the task of governing. Voters seem to understand that, which is why most are neither consumed by their prejudices nor swept away by the promise of historic firsts. Race and gender will influence the outcome of the campaign, but to this point, at least, they are not the influences that count most; voters want to know whether Obama is ready to assume the presidency and whether Palin would have the instincts to inherit it. Twenty years ago, it might have been impossible to have either of those conversations without being shouted down by charges of oppression. Now it’s all politics as usual, and that’s a kind of progress, too.
Via Real Clear Politics!

1 comment:

Mike said...

I disagree. I think the elevation of Palin was more a new wave of "ideology" politics than identity politics. It's all about getting the based excited because this election will turn on turn out.

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