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.

Don't get me wrong - a year older than Obama, I'm a direct beneficiary to many of the successes of so called identity politics on the left. It flowed out of the civil rights and feminist movement of the 60s, and has left an indelible mark on the freedom and tolerance of most Western Societies.

But contained within the essence of identity politics - that no group should be discriminated against because of gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, or physical impairment  was a dangerous corollary: you should vote for a candidate based on his or her identity.

Representative politics does have a symbolic element - especially when it comes to the Head of State. We do not vote for people merely because of a menu of preprogrammed policy options. We chose character, integrity, history as well, because many decisions will have to be taken on the hoof, without recourse to the electorate.

I have no problem with this. One of the unexpected beneficial side effects (to my mind that is) of the prolonged primary,  is that we explored the vagaries of identity politics to the maximum.

The six month debate that raged over the most promising female and African American candidates ever to run for the nomination, made all democrats examine the complimentary problems of sexism and racism. Both sides had issues which I need not rehearse again. But ultimately this was a family argument. Whether you felt one side had been erroneously accused of racism, or the other had been erroneously accused of sexism, we all agreed: both forms of bigotry were wrong. Ultimately we shared the same values.

Forced to choose a candidate, we were not forced to choose between two wrongs, and in this we got over the limits of identity politics which, ever since the 1970s, have fractured democratic politics into a myriad of competing interests. We saw beyond the particular to something more universal. Yes, the personal is political. But the reverse isn't always true. The political goes beyond a personal domain to our joint interests, and more generally applicable values of justice and equality.

Thanks to two extraordinary candidates, I believe the 2008 primaries took the democratic party beyond the rifts and fractured coalitions of identity politics.

What I didn't expect to see was identity politics becoming the dominant force in the Republican Party.

The selection of Governor Palin by John McCain is now rapidly being advanced as the main reason for his likely defeat at the polls next week. There are many theories behind his selection of Palin. (My current favourites are that it was God and the Blogosphere but I'll need another diary for that.) Looking back though, over the whole year, it's clear to me that McCain was captivated by the energy of the democratic primaries, and wanted to channel some of that enthusiasm into his own candidacy. Short on ideas, long on envy, McCain the gambler played his most reckless card of all - the joker of identity politics

It's easy to see the crazy logic in retrospect. The Primaries had spilled over into some divisive moments. The papers and airwaves were filled with talk of disaffected PUMAs and outraged female voters (the biggest constituency out there). McCain also had to deal with his age and his not too flattering contrast with the new young Democratic nominee. In this light, Sarah Palin was an ideal choice. She was the uber Hockey Mom: a right wing religious enthusiast who liked to shoot and hunt. And above all she was a telegenic woman. Where would all those disaffected Hillary supporters go? Once they'd seen Palin, and seen that she was a woman too, they'd vote for her.


Did he really think that Hillary supporters were that crass or captivated by identity politics that they would vote for Palin because of that?

Did McCain really think a two term Senator, who had spent eight years in the White House, and decades on the front line of US politics, could be compared with new Governor of a state with a tiny population, who had been the Mayor of a tiny town before then?

Fail again.

And did he really think that gender identity trumps everything else - probity in governance, religious tolerance, knowledge of public issues and foreign affairs, an ability to speak without autocues, a willingness to listen to others, a curiosity about the world.

Fail massively.

But make no mistake, though the centre and left may have seen the limitations of identity politics, the religious and extreme fringe can only see the benefits. No more kowtowing to UnAmerican liberals. No more having to distinguish between ethnic identity and religious belief. Muslims and Arabs. Liberals, socialists, communists. They can all go rot

Governor Palin's success is to appeal to a generation who only want to vote for people who look like them (or they would want to sleep with). She is the ne plus ultra of identity politics colliding with celebrity culture in an amazing mix of razzmatazz, image manipulation and $150,000 wardrobes.

But let's not kid ourselves. This is powerful toxic stuff, and though it will not win the next election, it could represent a new demagogic form of right wing identity politics we'll have to counter and contain for years to come.

One of the gravest dangers liberals still face is contained in Vargas question in the ABC interview above

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."

This was McCain's hoped for jujitsu move: democrats would be so wary of the sexism allegation after the primary, that this would constrain any critique of Palin's record or her abilities to be a heartbeat away from the most powerful job on this earth.

Thankfully we didn't fall for that, largely due to the amazing fortitude of Hillary supporters, and in depth vetting that the blogosphere undertook while the media and McCain campaign had failed. But this is still a danger.

And here's the point where I expect disagreement

To constantly call the criticism of Sarah Palin an example of egregious sexism seems to me to be  a form of moral blackmail which only suits this right wing republican base. They don't care about the real values of feminism. They're doing what they'd done since the 70s - a bad faith gambit stealing the appearance of liberal values, but actually turning them on their head.

But let's not miss the identity that is being formulated here: soccer moms, cheer leaders, celebrities, xenophobes, gun toting religious folk... the list goes on. Much longer is the list of people who are excluded. But the female factor cannot be ignored.  

Though I cannot be one because of my gender, I've  lived my life surrounded by feminists, and it seems to me a duty of feminism to criticise Sarah Palin for her dangerous policies, her lack of probity and her incapacity to learn even from her small experience,

Feminism called for the equality of the sexes. It is a sign of the success of feminism that a bad wrong and dangerous woman politician should be called out as much as any man.

There. I've said my piece. Flames please.

Tags: Identity Politics, Republican Party, Sarah Palin (all tags)



Re: The Strange Death

Sarah is one weird lady, and I don't think the pugs will want to round her up and keep her with the rest of the cattle.  She isn't very popular, in case she hasn't noticed, she's been sort of a joke candidate and not a very nice one.  

She's been winking through this thing and I guess we now know what she's signaling. she's her own person, and she's going to end up back home and alone.  

But don't feel sorry for her, she'll go on the talk show circuit and she might get a part on SNL.  

by anna shane 2008-10-29 05:22PM | 0 recs
I hope you're right Anna

But there's a history of joke candidates suddenly becoming very powerful. I've an unsettling feeling that we shall hear a lot more of Sarah Palin, which is probably the last thing anybody wants.

If she can stay on SNL and leave politics alone, I'm willing to pay for the career change

by brit 2008-10-29 05:36PM | 0 recs
Re: I hope you're right Anna

Not to overheat the discussion, but the salient character of many right-wing totalitarian leaders is that they have been either failures in life before heading a right-wing 'movement' or have been seen as jokes. Hitler is the most salient example, but Bush as well (even Bush 1 was seen as an overachieving joke)l?),  and many, many others (Rudy Giuliani, anyone?)  Dan Quayle, let's remember, was a senator. Government is full of walking, talking, voting jokes, especially among Republicans, I must point out.

Hannah Arendt wrote about this quite cogently in her great work On Totalitarianism.
The obvious reason is that the political jokespeople enunciate or embody the politics of resentment.

I would like to also point out that many women and women's groups have named and  vociferously repudiated Palin's antifeminist (as in antiwoman) stands.
There is a bit of a straw woman  in your post.

by brooklyngal 2008-11-01 11:35AM | 0 recs
Re: The Strange Death

She may, when all is said and done, go back to Alaska and rightly into the annals of buffonery alongside the likes of Dan Qualye.

All the same, I still think she ought be considered a threat, at least until she's been put to pasture (so to speak).

by fogiv 2008-10-29 05:39PM | 0 recs
Re: The Strange Death

Without invoking Godwin's law, there was an infamous German politician who was considered a buffoon and laughing stock by most of the population for many years.

Probably being alarmist here. But I've never seen such a strident Evita like populist right winger get so far in US politics. And that's cause to be concerned

by brit 2008-10-29 05:42PM | 0 recs
Re: The Strange Death

yeah, and she has bush's base locked up, thirty percent or whatever that still think he's great. They are kind of the same person.  

by anna shane 2008-10-29 08:42PM | 0 recs
Re: The Strange Death

"Without invoking Godwin's law"

Except you kinda did.

Sorry, if the Hitler comparison is the first that occurs to you with such a flimsy reasoning, then you FAIL. You fail to persuade anyone who isn't already agreeing with you for starters.

by Aris Katsaris2 2008-10-30 12:56AM | 0 recs
I think you fail..

...with a simple pointless gotcha.

Feeling better for it?

What part of my explanation don't you understand? I could invoke plenty more populistic politicians  who were considered jokes and became something much more serious.

Someone closer to home, and an area I know a lot about - Karadjic. He was a failed poet, and slightly dodgy psychiatrist. He ended up being a joke holistic therapist. But that didn't stop him being a catastrophe.

Palin incites xenophobia and McCarthyism. Prove to me any point there where I fail

by brit 2008-10-30 05:15AM | 0 recs
Re: I think you fail..

It's neither stupid nor pointless to ask from people that they show some actual TEMPERANCE in their analogies, instead of merely arousing fear and hatred by going for the most horrific example they can think of.

By comparing her to Hitler you merely fell on the level of the people comparing Obama to Hitler because OMG both had personal charisma.

That Palin incites McCarthyism makes her like McCarthy, not like Hitler. That's bad enough on its own part, without going for the clownish comparison to Hitler that nobody can take seriously.

by Aris Katsaris2 2008-10-31 03:53AM | 0 recs
Re: I think you fail..

Sorry, because of computer problems, I posted without reading the comments below the one by brut that i replied to.

ArisKatsaris2 wants to make only arguments that do not frighten people. That works for public arguments but I can thing of  no case in which analysis is inappropriate. We don't have to avoid historical perspectives in analyzing social and political phenomena.

The comparison to Hitler is based on the figure  of a popular public speaker who was widely regarded as a joke by political, social, and intellectual elites and judged to be falling outside the realm of rational public discourse.
Hitler was a political figure who WAS widely considered a joke. The point of invoking him is that he is the modern baseline or archetype for this analysis, someone so far outside the mainstream that people just thought he would go away and be forgotten.
If you prefer McCarthy because he is a homegrown figure, why please avoid mentioning Hitler. I would too, for that matter,,, depending on what I expect people to take away from my argument. But please don't suggest on that basis that we should avoid thinking about this historical reality.

by brooklyngal 2008-11-01 11:45AM | 0 recs
Re: I think you fail..

It's not so clownish, as the poster below makes clear.

by brit 2008-11-05 01:10PM | 0 recs
you're allowed to be a male feminist

it's okay, truly.

one of my favorite posts from Skeptical Brotha (who had plenty to say about hillary), was his post endorsing Sebelius for Vice President. A black man making the point that he is a feminist -- it was strong, and well made.

by RisingTide 2008-10-30 07:02AM | 0 recs
Re: The Strange Death

She needs to be put out to pasture all right.The sooner the to speak.

by Lodgemannered 2008-11-01 10:43AM | 0 recs
Feminism isn't limited by gender

Overall, I agree.  However, I have to pick at this a little bit:

"Though I cannot be one because of my gender, I've lived my life surrounded by feminists,"

There's no reason why a man can't be a feminist.  Gender inequalities and rigid gender roles hurt men as well as women.  When I was younger - early 20s, 6'1", 225 lbs of long-haired bearded 'biker' - I had a bumper sticker on my '76 beatup Chevy Impala:  "This is what a radical feminist looks like."

It was a bit of a conversation starter. ;)

by Dreorg 2008-10-30 06:08AM | 0 recs
Re: Feminism isn't limited by gender

Very good point. In principle I agree with you - feminism is a set of values and not an ad feminem.  But in practice...

I used to call myself a feminist during the 80s, and though my ideas haven't changed, it became difficult to do so after a time - especially when writers like Dworkin actually said that all men were potential rapists. That was during a quasi separatist phase, and I'm glad those days have done. Some of the statements flying around them remind me of Goldhagen's thesis that all Germans are intrinsically 'anti semitic' - a racist statement in itself.

Pure identity politics of whatever shade (we should include Far right republicans and religious extremists in this) tend to lead to this essentialist impasse where you are born/bred/divinely created in one mould, and your politics flows from that. It stresses filiation and blood solidarity, rather than reason and persuasion and the voluntary affiliations of civil society. That's why I fear the resurgence of identity politics

Kudos for starting the conversation

by brit 2008-10-30 06:25AM | 0 recs
Re: Feminism isn't limited by gender

Dworkin's work makes my skin crawl.  I've never found much particularly informing from that group of sex=violence thinking.

Growing up poor, queer, ane entirely too smart for my own good, third-wave feminism speaks truth to power for me much more viscerally, particular in terms of the confluence of gender, race, and class, and their relationships with power.

Susan Faludi, bell hooks, Dorothy Allison are the types of writers that I found in my early 20s who gave me constant "eureka" moments - realizations that I wasn't the only one who thought or felt the way I did.

by Dreorg 2008-10-30 09:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Feminism isn't limited by gender

hey, I haven't read Dworkin, but can i point out that she says she never said this, or maybe she did make this argument but if so, was she talking about identity as a social construct or as 'intrinsic"
ie biological? (Meaning that it is possible to envision men in future, more egalitarian societies would no longer be "potential rapists" (precrime!)?
 i don't at all agree with Goldhagen, but i think he was saying German CULTURE was inherently antisemitic. Although the distinction may seem obvious, it is not, and again to invoke Arendt (you know, she is not my favorite philosopher, but she has particular resonance here), she argues that at the end of the 19th century, so called racial characteristics were invented, making the characteristics of groups seem internal, or intrinsic to their biological being. Thus, the "bad character" of jews was in their blood, and the only way to rid Germany  of the bad actors was to kill them. This is a basic version of identity politics of course!

it IS very 70s/80s for men to call themselves feminists. Not a good thing. I think the response often is, who asked you? Who invited you? Who needs you? So, it's your call.

by brooklyngal 2008-11-01 11:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Feminism isn't limited by gender

Really enjoyed all your points here, and am only sad it's taken me so many days to catch up with them.

Thanks for the get out clause on Godwin's law.

And for the references. Dworkin did verge towards an 'intrinsic' biological urge to dominate and violate in men, and went way overboard in this direction IMHO.

by brit 2008-11-05 01:10PM | 0 recs


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