The Strange Death and Resurrection of Identity Politics

Crossposted at Motley Moose

"She's Dynamite!" Or so thought Morton C. Blackwell, President Ronald Reagan's liaison to the conservative movement, even though he couldn't get closer than four feet from Sarah Palin at a Virginia fundraising dinner. Whatever has got into the right wing base of the Republican party, it's pretty fundamental, and they are not alone in seeing Palin as the future of the party, win or lose

Governor Palin sees herself this way too.

The shocked silence of the McCain spokesman was a result of this segment of an interview recorded on ABC.

VARGAS: But the point being that you haven't been so bruised by some of the double standard, the sexism on the campaign trail, to say, "I've had it. I'm going back to Alaska."

PALIN: Absolutely not. I think that, if I were to give up and wave a white flag of surrender against some of the political shots that we've taken, that ... that would ... bring this whole ... I'm not doin' this for naught.

As far as I know this is unprecedented - an et tu Brute moment as the VP choice stabs the man who chose her in the back.

Palin is explosive all right. For the Republican party she's a volatile mixture of glitz, folksy charm, utter ruthlessness and willing ignorance.

But it's the 'sexism' part of that exchange I want to focus on, and what this means for the prematurely announced death of identity politics.

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Wife Swap Conservatism

While on vacation out East, I got the chance to pick up and read Walter Benn Michaels' 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity.  Might as well spoil the suspense and start by saying Benn Michaels didn't convince me when he argues (like Michaels Lind and Tomasky) that left-wing "identity politics" around race and gender stand in the way of a serious left-wing class politics.  The book reminded me at various points of Catherine MacKinnon's argument (in Towards a Feminist Theory of the State) that feminists and Marxists view each other with suspicion because each party could undo one kind of oppression while leaving the other oppression intact.  It's often not clear to whom Benn Michaels, an English professor, is addressing his argument.  He offers criticisms (often clever, always articulate) of some academic arguments about identity, but he doesn't engage with many pivotal ones - like the literature on intersectional (rather than additive) approaches to identity, considering how identities mediate each other - how being identified as a poor Black woman has different social and economics meanings than just being poor plus being Black plus being a woman.  He calls Omi and Winant's Racial Formation in the United States"certainly the most influential academic text on the social construction of race," but cites only two sentences from it.

If the argument is directed at political practitioners, we're left wondering how he actually pictures the left gaining power and effectiveness by throwing race and gender overboard.  In a telling line criticizing the focus on sexism at Wal-Mart as a distraction from exploitation there, Benn Michaels asserts that "Laws against discrimination by gender are what you go for when you've given up on - or turned against - the idea of a strong labor movement." Tell that to all the folks in the labor movement and labor-allied groups who've worked to support the Dukes lawsuit and the fight against Wal-Mart's sexism as part of a broad-based critique of a company that helpfully illustrates the connections between conservatism's threat to gender equality, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and other values progressives and most Americans hold dear.  Benn Michaels' approach, which denies that rich people can be victims of oppression or that poor people can be oppressed by more than only poverty, would render the left unable to fully understand, let alone seriously engage, with what Betty Dukes and millions of women like her are facing (see also Whitewashing Race).  As badly as Benn Michaels may wish for a revived labor movement, in advocating a disregard for identity politics he's echoing the disconnection from progressive social movements which contributed the labor movement's decline in the first place.  Those blinders regarding oppressions besides class mirror the blindness to class of too many in, for example, the pro-choice movement - blindness of which Benn Michaels would be rightly critical.

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I Made a Mistake, and Now I'll Convert A Republican

I recently made an embarrassing mistake which really gave me something to think about.  I was out to lunch with a few colleagues, when one person told me he wanted to talk some politics with me.  This person and I spoke frequently about politics, and we were both Hillary supporters.  A third person chimed in asked me if I was a Republican, and I was a little taken aback by that.  The idea makes my skin crawl.  Of course, I said "Not in this lifetime!". He then told me that he was, and I should consider voting for John McCain.  That one stopped me in my tracks, because he's black.

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An Inconsequential Cipher; The New Maggie Thatcher

Hear Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's former press secretary, call W's former press secretary Scott McClellan "an inconsequential cipher." Robert Scheer thinks Hillary is trying to be the new Margaret Thatcher. Matt Miller and Arianna Huffington say they want a leader who'll fight for the right to serve -- but just not Hillary. And remembering Sydney Pollack.

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Obama, Clinton, & The Perils of Identity Politics

In my previous diaries I've tried to strike an evenhanded tone of reconciliation, based on the belief that the differences between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are, in the scheme of things, really quite small.  I still believe that, and I am increasingly confident in the ability of good Democrats to eventually come together, even after a hard-fought primary.  

There have been plenty of fine discussions here about substantive policy differences between the candidates.  As an Obama supporter, I am willing to concede that Hillary has a marginally more palatable health care plan (of course, neither plan is as satisfying as that mythical beast, the single-payer system).  

And we should not forget the useful non-policy discussions.  Excepting blatant lies and over-the-top ad hominem attacks, I'm pretty sanguine about what some might consider to be sideline issues (Jeremiah Wright or the Clinton tax returns) if, in our discussion of them, we can come to some fuller understanding of the prospective candidates.  But one trend, especially in the comments sections, is troubling to me.

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