The Political Is Personal

Ann Friedman’s piece on identity politics is getting some positive comment from various bloggers. And I’d actually go further than Matt does in his comments, and argue that politics is essentially affiliational and, hence, to some extent has to be a kind of identity politics. Issues are almost always secondary – and pretty much have to be, because voting is sort of a silly exercise if you are trying to actually change the country’s policies, as opposed to expressing your identity by affiliating with a party or political campaign.

But I think some important distinctions are being collapsed here. All politics are about identity, but not all politics are identity-politics.

Why was the South a one-party Democrat region for decades? Not because Southerners would only vote for other Southerners (what people usually mean by “identity politics”). Between the end of Reconstruction and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, there were five elected Democratic Presidents: Cleveland, Wilson, FDR, Truman and Kennedy. Only one – Wilson was from the Confederacy. The South was solidly Democrat because the memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction made it difficult for Southern whites to simultaneously affiliate with the South as a core part of their identity and affiliate with the Republican Party as their political identity. This is the reason why political affiliations tend to be enduring across time and even across generations: because political affiliation is a part of a person’s identity.

This stability presumably has decreased over time to some extent, alongside the decline in partisan affiliation, but that doesn’t mean that politics will cease to be about identity; rather, the identity-formation aspect of political affiliation will look more like the identity-formation aspects of brand choice. (The Obama campaign has been especially attentive to this change.)

I don’t think there is anything to decry about this kind of identity politics. It’s just what politics is. Most people don’t vote on issues; they vote as a way of affiliating, and they affiliate as a way of defining their identities. That’s just the way humans work.

And most of the stuff that Ann Friedman talks about in her piece is this kind of “identity politics.” When John Kerry rides a Harley onto the Tonight Show set, he was presumably trying to establish that he was the kind of cool person that a particular demographic – younger white men? – would feel good about voting for. He’s not trying to win over the coveted “biker bloc” who will only come out for a candidate who loves a hog as much as they do. For that matter, all of the military atmospherics around the 2004 Democratic convention was not an attempt to woo the veterans vote by reminding them that Kerry was a fellow veteran – it was an attempt to associate the martial virtues with the Democratic Party, so that people – whether men or women, and of whatever race or religion – who want to identity with a party that has such virtues would feel comfortable affiliating with the Democrats and voting for Kerry.

Friedman thinks that people don’t call this sort of thing – or Bush putting on his good ol’ boy act – “identity politics” because it’s about (presumably straight) white men. Maybe. Or maybe this isn’t what people mean by identity politics because it’s genuinely different from what they are talking about?

After all, there were two straight white male candidates in this election who were identity politics candidates, of different kinds. Mitt Romney won something like 80% of the Mormon vote in some of his contests. Mike Huckabee has won significant majorities among white Evangelical Christian voters, while getting very little support outside of that group. That is what people usually mean when they talk about identity politics: people voting for one of their own because he is one of their own.

Is that kind of politics problematic? It depends. If you’re dealing with a Northern Ireland, or a Bosnia, or an Iraq, where every election each community votes for “its own” then yes, you have a problem. These votes are not “pride” votes – they are “power” votes, “who/whom” votes. They are expressions of profound distrust between groups, and a weak collective identity, and they augur a bad prognosis for the polity as a whole. But that’s not what American politics are like. Even in a city like New York or Chicago, where bloc voting among ethnic groups is common, that’s not the way politics works – there’s a lot of group-identity voting, but there is a high enough degree of confidence in the ability of groups to work together, that identity politics of the narrow sort have not destroyed politics’ ability to work for the common good.

But the Romney case doesn’t even rise to this level. I really don’t worry about Mormons voting overwhelmingly for Romney, any more than I worried about Greeks voting for Dukakis or African-Americans voting for Obama. That, I would say, is a matter of pride: on the rare occasion that one of yours has a chance at the White House, why is it surprising that you turn out for him? Wouldn’t it be weird if you didn’t?

The Huckabee case is a little more troubling. It’s not true that Huckabee would be a rarity in national politics – we’ve had several Baptist Presidents before (Harding, Truman, Clinton), and even a born-again President (Carter). The “Huckaboom” is partly about group pride – but it’s partly about ideology, the increasing conviction in some quarters that only a person with certain religious beliefs is fit for the office of President. (This was particularly clear with respect to tensions that developed between the Romney and Huckabee camps over religious affiliation: many Mormons got the message that a good number of Evangelical Christians did not think a Mormon in particular was fit to be President, and that impression made them much more conscious about their own identity than they had been previously.) There are other reasons for Huckabee’s appeal – his charm, his identification with those who have not benefitted from the Bush years economically, his independence from Washington and from the conservative movement – but the message of “we need a real Christian in the White House” is unquestionably a key part of Huckabee’s appeal. And, because that’s an ideological appeal rooted in identity, it’s very different from an appeal along the lines of, “I can’t believe a fellow Greek could be President! I’m going to caucus for Dukakis!”

When Clinton implies that America needs to “make history” by electing her President, or Obama implies that America can be “healed” by electing him President, they are making similar identity-based ideological appeals, though ones that I find far less troubling than Huckabee’s. That’s why they are correctly called appeals to identity politics: because they are not just appeals to affiliational identity (“you want to identify with me/my campaign/my party”) but identity-based ideological appeals (“my identity is the reason to vote for me”).