Identity Politics are Here to Stay

An era of post-partisanship, we now know, cannot be willed into being with Yes-We-Can-doism.  The past two years punctured that naive dream.  We now also know that an increasingly diverse country will not soon dispense with the sort of identity politics that cynically exploit oppression, real and perceived, for self-interested ends.

The latest indication that “change we can believe in” does not necessarily mean that things actually change comes from Chicago, the hometown of our president who grandiosely promised sweeping transformation.  The cynical antics of Danny Davis and Carol Moseley Braun, two black politicians whose ambition is matched by their venality, drive home the point.

Davis weighed in first.  The Chicago-area congressman warned Bill Clinton against stumping for Rahm Emanuel, who, like Davis, is running for mayor of the Windy City.  Such campaigning, he claimed, would jeopardize the former president’s support among African-Americans.  Former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, another mayoral candidate, echoed Davis, saying Clinton would be unwise to endorse a Caucasian over two black office-seekers.

There is irony in Davis and Moseley Braun’s shameless invocation of the race card, as it is deployed to undermine the candidacy of a former confidant of a president elected precisely because most voters do not heed such bigotry.  This is surely lost on them.  Also lost on them is the odiousness of their underlying assumptions, including that whites cannot politically represent blacks as well as blacks can, and that African-Americans are so narrow-minded and intolerant that they share their opinions.

The scourge of identity politics transcends the dirty business of electoral politics.  It has also infected cultural institutions.  In the New York Times, Edward Rothstein cites an exhibit at the President’s House in Philadelphia, which only explores  the role of slavery in the country’s founding, as if nothing else mattered.  He also takes to task a “tendencious” exhibition of inflated scientific contributions by Muslims at the New York Hall of Science, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, “a pioneering example of the [identity] genre” that “through the gauze of romance…portrays an impossibly peace-loving, harmonious, homogeneous, pastoral world that preceded the invasion of white people.”

Of course, the prevalence of identity politics is not unexpected in a country long-tortured by racial, ethnic, and other divisions.  Perhaps we can take some solace from this.  After all, such politics, however vile, can exist only in non-repressive societies that provide ample public space to minorities.  It is the price of pluralism.  But if identity politics crassly leverage historical oppression, what are we to make when they pop up in unexpected places, such as from those who do not share a history of mistreatment?

It is a question worth pondering in light of the rise of the Tea Party, whose aggrieved ranks brandishing “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags are overwhelmingly white and comparatively economically advantaged.  Yet even Tea Party discontent is eclipsed by that felt by the most pampered of pampered: high financiers.  As Ben White writes in Politico, “Along the gilded corridors of Manhattan’s largest banks, hedge funds and private equity firms and inside Washington’s financial lobby shops, Obama and the rest of his administration are regarded with a disdain so thick it often blurs to naked loathing.”  Animating this vitriol is a profound sense of victimization, even persecution.  “[Obama’s] whipped everyone into a frenzy against us,” one banker tells White, speaking as if he and his banking brethren were the victims of a witch hunt.  You’d never know by his statement that big bonuses are back, as are corporate profits.

That Wall Street bears much responsibility for the financial crisis which tanked the global economy often goes unmentioned by its leaders.  Nor do they give Washington its due for pulling their chestnuts out of the fire.  A sense of entitlement prevails, along with one of perceived discrimination.  It is a curious state of affairs given that levels of income inequality in the US are on par with those found in Ghana, Nicaragua, and Turkmenistan—righteous anger should be percolating from below, not generated with white-hot intensity from high above.

Perhaps identity politics are so ingrained in our culture that the haves feel as entitled to exploit them as historical have-nots.  All is fair in love and class warfare.  This should be good news to the likes of Danny Davis and Carol Moseley Braun.  If identity politics fails to get either elected Mayor of Chicago, they could always put their talent for shameless hucksterism to use as Wall Street lobbyists.

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