The Pitfalls of Identity Politics

by Joshua H. Liberatore

The tenuous balance between substance and image in the public perception of presidential candidates has been a constant feature in previous elections (at least since the first televised debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960), and this year’s battle for the White House is certainly no different. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have used the disparity between appearance and reality as a weapon of public relations and political gain, and reflexively, both have sustained (and so far survived) attacks in this category. The themes of these attacks are well known and don’t need further rehearsal here, until the debates bring these two men face to face in rhetorical combat, when voters and pundits alike will see for themselves who fares better in parrying real-time thrusts that concern character versus political wind, a favorite tender spot in viciously partisan American politics. In the days following the closing of the Democratic National Convention in Denver and before the spotlight shifts to John McCain, one niche in the trend of delicate identity politics that has been on display for the past four days seems worthy of further inspection: the dangers of personal identification campaigns.

    Long accused of residing in a dreamy, heady elitism and Ivy League aloofness by both his rival John McCain and his former adversary Hillary Clinton, Obama has been at pains in recent months to portray himself as an ordinary mortal, with a family, a rustic background, and proud Middle Western roots. As the convention proceeded and gathered force, we heard countless stories – or “testimonials,” as NPR correspondents unabashedly called them – from high profile national politicians and anonymous convention delegates that attested to Obama’s bona fides as a regular guy. Michelle Obama’s now famous speech even featured a broadcast conference call that linked the Obamas’ two young daughters with their father, out on the campaign trail (guess where: the Midwest). It was a forgivable Hallmark-variety skit perhaps, but absolutely devoid of political import and wholly designed to humanize the candidate. We had Obama’s sister, Maya – who came to the stage as “We Are Family” resounded in the Pepsi Center – praising her brother for his many admirable qualities, among which she numbered his being a “good listener,” his belief that hard work leads to success, and his sense of responsibility. And while none of these attributes are in doubt, and we certainly welcome their novelty in Washington, they don’t speak to the core of what should be and is his campaign promise: dramatic policy changes.

    In other speeches, we heard repeated references to Obama’s being raised by a hard-working single mom, his grandfather who fought in Patton’s army in World War II, his grandmother who sacrificed her own comfort to save money for Obama’s first-rate education. Obama himself, in his Thursday evening acceptance speech, drove all of these themes home with a complex message: yes, I’m different, my “pedigree” is unusual (and yet thoroughly American), and I’m just like you. From the sounds of it, excited conventioneers and radio callers were eating it all up, many claiming that they “saw themselves” in Obama, could relate to his experiences; they too were raised by single moms or were themselves single moms who took comfort in his family narrative. Meanwhile, my wife and I wondered: Did they also graduate with honors from Columbia and edit the Law Review at Harvard? Probably, most did not.

    So, amidst all this cozying up to Obama the man, we must pursue some thorny philosophical questions. First, why do we want to see ourselves in our leaders, especially the most powerful of them all, the President of the United States? Second, is personal identification a plausible political strategy? Does it work? And what risks does it entail? The first of these questions is rooted in basic psychology, I suppose. We speak of “trusting” candidates, “believing” in them, “connecting” with their backgrounds, which are all emotional – rather than intellectual or even ideological – aspects of our favoring one and not the other. Simply put, we just like one and don’t like another, or we just like one more. (For the physical aspects of our attraction to political candidates, I defer to the many insightful comments that have been written about the subject from the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate in which television audiences thought the handsome, heavily made-up Kennedy trounced the gray, badly shaven Nixon, whereas radio listeners thought Nixon the clear victor; to Clinton’s famed good looks and charm giving him the advantage over pinch-faced, nasal-voiced George H.W. Bush in 1992, with a little help from that chipper quipper, Ross Perot.) Sure, we like to believe our preferences are based on “the issues” and a candidate’s platform, but we can’t ignore how much our choices come down to emotional factors.

    What’s troubling about this trend is that the practical demands of the President’s job, when we really think about its day-to-day workings, require of someone anything but ordinary traits in intellect, stamina, leadership capacity, eloquence, and charisma. In short, the job requires extraordinary talents, which frankly most of us just fall short of possessing. I’m perfectly comfortable admitting that I don’t want someone I can identify with as the Commander in Chief of our nation, the principal spokesman of our foreign policy, and the face of our public image. On the contrary, I want someone smarter, more ambitious, more energetic, more decisive, more articulate, and more self-disciplined than I am. I’m quite happy with any elitism that formula presupposes; it seems clear to me that the job demands someone really special, someone of the elite. If nothing else, the past eight years have shown us what happens when someone thoroughly mediocre gets the job. George W. Bush, for all his regular-guy appeal in two campaigns, for all his triumphant lack of elitism, is the illustration par excellence of an administration short on ideas, intellect, and curiosity, and long on appeals to our trust, our faith, our fears, our emotional attachments to the solid American virtue of being average. Remember the oft-cited poll in which more Americans claimed to prefer the opportunity to sit down for a beer with George W. Bush than with his duller, more technocratic-minded opponent (whether Gore or Kerry, does it matter?) and the outrageous irony that Bush doesn’t even drink. Let that serve as a sober (sorry!) reminder that our perception and our judgment, when it comes to the appearance and painful reality (beer or no beer) of a “regular guy” at the helm of the free world, needs to be scrutinized more candidly.

    What about the overall effectiveness of a political strategy catering to personal identification among many voters? Let’s consider some of the risks. Here Obama’s somewhat contradictory appeal – I’m different, I’m new, but I’m just like you – shows some peculiar vulnerabilities and provides a perfect illustration of the pitfalls of identity politics. What individual voters “identify with” is by definition incredibly diverse and therefore, extremely narrow. Facing this paradox, politicians must generalize in making their “human” outreach, and in doing so, aggressively dilute their own identity for maximum constituent coverage. Here the lowest common denominator is not only, well, very ordinary in its calculated lack of precision, but it is also profoundly uninteresting. Thus, listening to the speeches, the pageantry, and all the “human interest” testimonials this past week, ramping up to last night’s acceptance speech, I suppose I was expected to identify with Obama because I also had a Midwestern grandfather who fought heroically in World War II. Is that all? Because beyond ideas that we may share or policy initiatives I may agree with, as far as personal identification goes, we just don’t have that much in common. And in that pitiably narrow connection, my attention is drawn away from getting to know those ideas, those policy initiatives, and away from evaluating them on their own terms.

    Writing about Obama’s candidacy as an existential crisis in America’s race politics, conservative critic Shelby Steele, in A Bound Man, explores Obama as a politician straddling two conventional trajectories for the black man. As a “challenger,” Steele contends, Obama must bolster his credentials as a fighter for “black” interests and position himself as a loyal ally to the “black community” (a construction Steele critiques), whose goals and aspirations may appear threatening and too radical for the white majorities he must court in order to win. And yet, as a “bargainer” – Steele cites Louis Armstrong and the early Bill Cosby as prototypes – Obama’s mainstream successes and broad appeals to majoritarian platforms, his dreams of unity and post-partisan politics, his attractive “hybrid” pedigree, his overall rhetoric about America’s potential as a source of hope and shared narratives, could very well damage his reach among black voters. In Steele’s analysis, in other words, it’s very difficult to be both a “challenger” and a “bargainer” (witness Bill Cosby’s controversial footing), especially under the full weight of national scrutiny (i.e. we’re not in Illinois anymore). His strength as a “hybrid” original, consequently presents a more difficult balancing act than what a more cookie-cutter politician faces in building an effective consensus.

    In the penultimate chapter of Steele’s probing if slightly hostile treatise, he reflects on Obama’s claims to originality and his chances for success in the presidential arena:

Today, both blacks and whites see Barack Obama’s presidential bid as potentially a new signal from history. He makes whites hopeful for a new racial configuration in which they might get more benefit of the doubt; he makes blacks (though primarily the black leadership) anxious at this same prospect. Already, his bright success as a bargainer suggests that white America may be sending a signal of its own: that it is exhausted from forty years of being challenged and is therefore doubly grateful to blacks who approach with at least some faith in the fundamental decency of whites. And yet, apart from whatever he may portend, Obama is today a bound man who cannot serve the aspirations of one race without betraying those of the other. It is easy to have the impression, given all the excitement that attends him, that he is, as they say, ‘fresh,’ ‘new,’ and unconventional. But in many ways his truest problem – the reason he is bound – is exactly that he is so utterly conventional. Barack Obama works entirely within the current configuration of race relations – the masks of bargaining and challenging, the need in whites for racial innocence. And he exploits that world to move himself ahead, not to advance a new configuration of race relations – or to end such configurations altogether. He is neither a revolutionary nor even a reformist. He is simply infatuated with the possibilities of his own skin color within the world as it is, not as it should or could be. His genius is to know his own currency within the status quo (126).

This is a notion likely to be too cynical for most Americans to confront and it opens up areas of identity and self-construction beyond the scope of the more basic point in our present inquiry. For example, one feels moved to remind Steele that there are more than two races in America and that many people don’t feel the need for loyalty per se to any one of them. Nevertheless, Steele frames Obama in a way that many Democrats are desperately trying to avoid doing (and understandably: they want him to win). I quote this passage at length simply to illustrate the complexities of Obama’s careful politicking – whether premeditated or merely necessary – and to underscore its hidden fragilities.

    In closing, let me say that I actually believe Obama is more interesting for his ideas than for his background, more compelling for his leadership talents than his grand projections of American roots and messianic message of hope. I only wish I knew those ideas in more detail and that they received more attention at the convention. The key note speeches that touched on his ideas – Bill Clinton’s and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s come to mind – were among the stronger moments of genuine substance amidst the fanfare. Interestingly, John Kerry, among others, attacked McCain for attacking Obama’s character and popularity to conceal his own lack of ideas, but even he didn’t get very specific about the strength Obama’s ideas. There’s a sense almost that these ideas are accepted without argument and can therefore afford to be tucked away without proper exposure. When Obama himself took the stage on Thursday evening, even he seemed hesitant about rolling out either his own intellectual credentials or spending too much time articulating the particulars of his platform (his innovative tax plan and energy initiatives were notable exceptions). Whether bowing under the tremendous pressure of the moment or following the trend of the three days of speeches that preceded his, Obama kept the narrative comfortable, easily applaudable, and personal – and not surprisingly, it was a hit. I guess he’s experienced enough to know that the details of policymaking bore most people, and his campaign handlers have no doubt told him that too much intellect may alienate voters.

    So he kept things rousing and simple. Like him, I suppose I’ll have to wait until the debates for the serious intellectual combat that America needs to overcome the eight years of sinister mediocrity we have endured in our leadership. When Kennedy – to whom Obama has often been compared – accepted the Democratic nomination on July 15, 1960 in Los Angeles, he warned Americans of similar dangers posed by the identity politics with which we are concerned. He said: “I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise by voting either for me or against me solely on account of my religious affiliation. It is not relevant.” As is well known, Kennedy won the general election – and perhaps not quite fairly – by one of the narrowest margins in electoral history. Democrats need to hope that Obama remembers the Kennedy example, and from this moment on, starts beating John McCain based on that understanding of political relevance and no other.

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