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Voting Identity

Monday, February 19, 2007
Between the questions about whether Barack Obama is "black enough" to Mitt Romney's recent claim that America needs a "person of faith" to be President, it is clear that identity politics is still a powerful force in American politics. I think it's important to recognize that there are different kinds of identity politics, however. I don't see anything necessarily wrong with voting for a candidate in part because he/she has a background characteristic that appeals to you. It needn't even be the case that a candidate shares your identity. Even though I'm (very) white, I like Barack Obama in part because I'd like to see a black president. For the same reason I know a lot of people are supporting Hillary - they want to break the glass ceiling in presidential politics. I have no problem with that.

Generally I'm going to give voters a lot of slack when it comes to identity politics. I do think that we should put very clear boundaries on when identity voting is acceptable. We should never vote against a candidate because of their identity. There's a big difference between voting for Barack because he's black and voting against him because he's black. One is a reasonable statement of social solidarity - of wanting someone who looks like you to represent you. The other is a position of naked bigotry profoundly at odds with how this country is supposed to work.

More importantly, I think candidates should be very, very careful when framing their appeals in terms of identity politics. Candidates who say "vote for me because I'm religious" run the risk of drawing a line between the in-group and everybody else. There's a serious danger of being exclusionary - of saying that we should vote against any candidate who doesn't share that identiy. This does nothing but encourage bigotry and political tribalism. We should repudiate any demagogue who directly or indirectly argues we should vote against a candidate because of their race, ethnicity, religion, etc. I also think that identity appeals are bad politics in the tactical sense - why alienate a whole constituency of people who might agree with you on real issues?

Do I wish that we could dispense with identity politics entirely? Of course I would. But to pretend that there isn't any now is akin to abolishing civil rights laws because we wish there was no racism. It might be better if we all wore paper bags on our heads, but until that day comes African-American voters are going to be more likely to vote for African-Americans, and Protestants to vote for Protestants. It wouldn't work that way if this were the best of all possible worlds, but as should be obvious by now we don't live in that world. We live in this one.

Having said that, I think it is better for the country is we refrain from indulging in identity politics as much as we are able. Voting for a candidate like Hillary or Barack is in part an attempt to get past old tribal loyalties, not reinforce them. Saying that only Christians should be elected to office is to reinforce them. I think that a large portion of the country is eager to get past these fundamentally trivial divisions, and that any candidate - of either party - would benefit from such a message. Meanwhile I hope that candidates who attempt to exploit those divisions pays the political price they deserve - defeat and humiliation.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:57 AM
  • My opinion is this:
    Don't ask me to vote for you because you are a certain color, sex, religion, or food-eater. Ask me to vote for you because you will make necessary changes in government, or that you will do your best to make this a country to be proud of, etc.
    Does that make sense?

    By Blogger Penguin, at 9:20 AM  
  • The reason identity politics is so powerful is because it implies that a voting is deliberately including an element in government that has been previously excluded, deliberately or not, from government. It makes logical sense only if the candidates and the voters are rectifying past wrongs: vote for a black man/woman because blacks used to be enslaved; vote for a woman because women used to be denied the vote; vote for an Asian/Latino/Arab/Native American because they used to be shut out of the process.

    The problem with this approach is that it is impossible to determine when correcting past wrongs creates new problems. Will African Americans, Women, Native Americans, Mormons, Hispanics, etc., be satisfied only when they have completely replaced all white men in positions of power? Will the be satisfied only when the numbers in government reflect, statistically, numbers in the population?

    The reality is that identity politics is a poor substitute for what everyone really wants: a government based on proportional representation instead of winner-take-all. Seen in this way, voting based on identity for a major party candidate is the next best thing to voting for a third-party candidate who is sure to lose. If, however, people could vote for a third party candidate who would win, identity voting would merely be absorbed into one of many parties. At that point, identity wouldn't have to be a proxy for substance.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 12:29 PM  
  • That makes perfect sense Penguin. And I agree with you.

    Marriah: I really question the idea that everybody would prefer P.R.

    By Blogger Arbitrista (formerly Publius), at 8:11 AM  
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