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Jeffrey Feldman

Jeffrey Feldman

Posted: March 11, 2007 12:22 PM

The Identity Voter


Despite its central place in the 2008 presidential election, identity politics has not really caught the attention of the big budget media. 

A simple glance at the current primary offerings reveals this oversight.  Even though the Republican Party has again produced a slate of white bread candidates, the Democratic Party has drawn up an incredibly diverse menu of presidential hopefuls--a field of primary contenders that reads almost like an annual report on workplace diversity.

Given all this multiculturalism in our midst, it is worth considering both the keywords and definitions Americans might use to make sense of it.

So, grab a pen and write down this definition on a Post-It® note and stick it to your laptop screen: 

"identity voter" - a person who chooses to support a political candidate primarily for the social and cultural aspects of the person (e.g., gender, race, geography, class, etc.), and only secondarily if at all for the policies of the politician.

Voting the social and cultural aspects of the person rather than their policies--this is the hallmark of the identity voter and if every there was an election cycle where this phenomenon will make a difference in election outcomes, 2008 is the one.

The reason for the rise of the identity voter could be very simple:  Voting is ultimately about choosing one candidate over another, and in an age where political consultants have become expert at blurring policy distinctions, identity could be the final frontier of clear choice for voters.

Being an identity voter does not mean, of course, voting for a candidate who is the same identity as oneself. Blacks vote for blacks,  women  for women, whites for whites--this would be more a form of mechanistic political tribalism than identity voting.

Identity voters are not simply voting for themselves, but are making a political choice--seeing distinctions in a field of candidates--based on identity variables rather than policy positions.

There are, in other words, plenty of white identity voters, for example, who will support Barack Obama "because he is African-America" and plenty of male identity voters who will support Hillary Clinton "because she is a woman."   

Nor is being an identity voter reserved for voters who support non-white and non-male candidates.  Identity voters simply make the choice to vote for reasons that relate to those social and cultural aspects of the person--sometimes lining that choice up with their own personal qualities, but at other times matching that choice to identity issues they support in American society at large (e.g., "I really support the idea of the first African-American president," etc.).

On the surface, this is great news for a nation that has for decades taught our children about the value of diversity to American society. Finally, after so many years of talking the multicultural talk, American politics may walk the multicultural walk. 

But given all the seemingly unsolvable problems we are facing as a nation, it might also be the case that more and more Americans will gravitate towards the role of identity voter as a way of hiding from more policy-oriented approaches germane to this difficult moment in world history. 

In a moment where so many candidates are triangulating so many policy issues, more and more voters may throw their hands up and say, "War, health care, retirement, environmental collapse, labor and immigration law--I can barely keep all those problems straight, let alone figure out which candidate's policies are the best to solve them!"

At a very basic level, the identity voter solves all the problems we face by not facing them at all--chooses to make his or her choice for President about a much larger, much more historic decision:  first African-American, first woman, first Latino, and so forth.  The identity voter pushes everything aside that occupies the day-to-day debates of activists and elected officials to make his or her next vote for President about big, historic change.

Crossing identity barriers in American politics is important, but should crossing those barriers be top priority for America right now? 

That is an uncomfortable question that I suspect both bloggers and paid journalists may be equally uncomfortable asking.

Instead, bloggers and journalists may ask another kind of important question--the question about the connection between the identity of a candidate and his or her ability to solve America's pressing problems. 

When asked, for example, if Barack Obama being black or Hillary Clinton being a woman has any bearing on his and her ability to get America out of Iraq or fix our health care system, most identity voters would probably say, "no." 

There is nothing inherent in being African-American or a woman or Latino or white, for example, that makes one more suited to solve the crisis in Iraq or more suited to fix our health care system. And yet, despite agreement at that very basic point, I suspect far more Americans will still cast an identity vote than either bloggers or paid journalists realize or are writing about at this moment.

And this raises a very vexing, very troubling conclusion:  Is the identity voter someone to be celebrated or criticized by political activists?

Candidates, I suspect, won't much care why people support them as long as they support them.   But the identity voter may cause somewhat of an identity crisis amongst the activist base of the Democratic Party.  In that rising world of technology-driven, media-engaged, political activism, identity politics has been largely absent.  The netroots in particular has been a movement driven by a Utopian idea of political participation that has--albeit not by any conscious choice--kept distinctions on the basis of race, class and gender to a minimum.

So what will happen?  What will be the overall impact of the identity voter not just on the candidates themselves but on the emerging power structure of the political left in this country?

Time will tell. But for now, it may be wise to keep the definition close at hand.

(cross posted from Frameshop)

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