Identity Politics

Yesterday, Andrew was fretting about the turn toward a focus on identity politics in the presidential campaign:

Some cultural identification is inevitable in America, and not the worst thing in the world. What's worrying is when candidates do not just accept this, but seek to exploit it directly. Huckabee's appeal to Christianists is the most troubling; but Clinton's on gender grounds is not that much better. So far, Obama's campaign has resisted crude racial appeals, but this has seemed to unravel a bit in the wake of the Clintons' rhetorical slips this past week. Less is more, on this front. Or we begin to lose the capacity to see ourselves as equal participants in a democracy, rather than interest groups fighting for what's and who's ours.

I believe things are different in the UK, but it's worth saying that American politics has typically been more structured around issues of identity than around issues or ideology. In northeastern urban areas, for example, Italian-Americans have traditionally been Republicans for no better reason than that Irish-Americans have traditionally been Democrats. Similarly, white protestants were Republicans because Catholics were Democrats (except for the Italians) but southern white protestants were Democrats because Abe Lincoln was a Republican.

I tend to agree that this tradition hasn't been the most admirable element of the American political system, but parties organized around clumsy ethno-sectarian coalitions are the practical alternative to the much-bemoaned partisan polarization of the present day. On the Democratic side, the candidates have allowed almost no ideological daylight to shine between them, so you get identity-based coalitions. On the GOP side there are bigger ideological differences so the voters aren't breaking down as strictly along demographic lines. Even here, though, each Republican is presenting himself as the One True Reagan Conservative instead of explicitly self-identifying as representing an ideological sub-sect.