Wednesday, September 17, 2008

IDENTITY VERSUS INTEREST

Listening to Barack Obama, John McCain, and Sarah Palin respond to the current economic crisis and make their pitch to working-class voters, I was struck by the fundamental difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans are the party of identity politics. The Democrats are, for the most part, not.

For years, the left and liberals have faced the charges of being mired in a divisive identity politics. Republicans mocked the narratives of oppression offered by advocates of groups that, indeed, were the victims of long histories of oppression, especially racial and ethnic minorities and women (whiners, complainers, dividers). Democrats, beginning with the DLC and Clinton and continuing through the current campaign, have attempted to distance themselves from what observers called "interest group" politics, jettisoning particularism for universalism.

But since the Nixon years, the Republicans have been the party of an identity politics that dare not speak its name, that is white identity politics. And this year's campaign "Country First" is the latest pander to those identity politics, a carefully crafted play to the deep-rooted argument that "they" (Democrats, the party's diverse base, and this year's standard bearer, Barack Obama) are not "us" (or should I be cleverly postmodern and say they are not "U.S."?

Yesterday's stump speeches by Obama in Nevada and McCain/Palin in Ohio make transparent the Republican Party's identity politics. Obama, who is still strangely facing charges that his economic plans lack the specifics needed to attract working people, was very specific in his indictment of the failed philosophy of the Republican Party. McCain and Palin, on the other hand, gestured toward the aggrieved identity of white workers who are the supposed victims of elitist condescension. The telling moment was when Sarah Palin talked about herself and working-class Americans as "us" and then proceeded to trot out the old, tired line about Obama dissing bitter small-town whites for clinging to their guns and religion. For his part, McCain tossed out the lie that Obama will raise "your" taxes (failing to note that in this case, the possessive "your" refers to the 2.5 percent of wealthy Americans whose taxes will be raised, not the other 97.5 percent of ordinary Americans who will receive tax relief under Obama's plan).

The Republicans are playing to voters' identity. The Democrats are campaigning on their economic interests. The outcome of this year's election will ride on whether or not a segment of the working and middle-class electorate in economically-devastated states will support a ticket whose candidates pretend to be the cultural allies of the people or a ticket whose candidates are challenging (at least in part) the failed economic policies that should be the real source of bitterness at the grassroots.

Speaking of economically-devastated swing states, I'm off to Ohio for three days, so sorry for no links this morning and for what might be some thin posting tomorrow and Friday.