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Jeffrey Feldman Headshot

The Crisis of Identity Politics

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Like it or not, we are all identity voters now.

For better or for worse, the media competition between the top three Democratic candidates has become a contest of identity rooted in gender, class, and, race.  The Democrat who wins the nomination will do more than give voice to the party platform and move on to challenge the Republican nominee,  The Democratic nominee will also become the face of an America that found the courage to move beyond--something.

The identity frame of in Democratic nomination has been there from the start.

From the first moments that Hillary Clinton made it clear that she wanted to be President, her gender has been an issue.  From the first lines of Barack Obama's historic 'Audacity of Hope' speech at the DNC convention, his race has been an issue.  From the first steps of John Edwards' first campaign for President, his class has been an issue.

Each has been faced with certain paradoxes that have played out in the media.  Clinton has benefited from the mantle of 'first woman president,' but has had to wrestle with sexist of weakness.  Edwards has enjoyed his status as a people's president, but been dogged with accusations of class duplicity.  Obama has inspired people with the hope of fulfilling the promises of Martin Luther King, Jr., but been smeared by racism both covert and, at times, overt. 

Identity politics bring out the worst in American society because identity politics are about overcoming the worst in American society.  As a result, the Democratic campaign is now very emotional, very ugly, and very urgent.

No matter who earns the 2008 Democratic nomination, the media story will be about identity politics in America. As a result of what happens to the Democratic party, the story will be that America has leaped over one social hurdle, but tripped on two others. 

If Clinton wins, we will be the nation that beat the gender gap, but tripped on racism and classism.  If Obama wins, we will have faced our history of racism, but avoided classism and sexism. And if Edwards wins, we will have embraced a new era of economic justice, but shielded our eyes from the problems of sexism and racism. 

No matter the outcome, one of the big problems with a campaign anchored in identity politics is that it cannot lift up some without making others feel slighted.  Identity politics victories are bittersweet.  They fill us with great hope, but sow seeds of frustration and even cynicism. 

Which identity should triumph this time around? Of all the possible outcomes, which is best for all?  What is more urgent for this moment in our history?

Those are not just questions that lead us to pull the lever next to one candidate's name versus another.  Those are questions that foment arguments, divide households, and end friendships.   

Thus, while the Republican Party engages in a somber debate about tax cuts, military budgets, and immigration, the Democratic Party is locked in emotional debate about justice, equality, and truth.

What a difference we now see in the cultures of these two grand institutions the define the range of options for American voters.

Should this be the choice moving forward?  Does America benefit from a presidential election that revolves around identity politics?

Not so much.

When identity frames American politics, the result is not a great
strengthening of our system, but a weakening of it.  When shot through
the lens of identity, politics reveals divisions and fissures that we
might not otherwise see.  Those divisions are there just the same, but when we shine the light of politics on them we see and feel them with an saccharine intensity.
Pain that we had worked through returns.  Memories of betrayal resurface.
Hope of hard-sought unity dissipates.  Identity and election campaigns in particular are the nitroglycerin of politics.

Whether or not a vast majority of the electorate can speak clearly about the problems of identity politics, they sense them in their gut and react to them accordingly.  It may be that the Democratic campaigns make short term gains by playing to identity politics, but in the long run the result will be very bad for the Democratic Party.

When faced with the choice between four years of identity politics in the White House and four years without it, voters will likely choose the latter.  Winning the Democratic nomination by playing to identity, in other words, could very well be the Democratic nominee's key step towards losing the general election.

We may all be identity voters, in other words, but voters need not accept the situation. As voters, we can reject the choices put to us by that small handful of people running primary election campaigns.  As voters, we can all insist on a more pragmatic, less divisive frame for American politics.

We can refuse to be drawn up in the rancor of accusations.

We can refuse to engage the futility of the blame game.

We can insist on talking about the core challenges we face as a nation: a failed foreign policy, a global environment in deep crisis, an economy in need of a transition overhaul.

Even if the election campaigns we see on TV are discussing identity issues instead of the pragmatic challenges we face, Americans can still drive the debate in the direction that matters most.

There are many social hurdles that we still need to face as a nation.  And we will continue to work hard to do so.  But for now, we must work together to make sure that our national politics does not collapse into a crisis of identity politics.

Let's make sure that does not happen.

(cross posted from Frameshop)