Saturday, January 26, 2008

Identity Politics and the 2008 Election

Back in our nation's bicentennial year, something unusual happened. Alabama and South Carolina voted for the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. So did every other state of the old Confederacy except Virginia. Mississippi and Massachusetts cast their electoral votes for the same man, Jimmy Carter. Carter was clearly more liberal than his Republican opponent, Gerald Ford, though the distance between them was not enormous. Still, the South rejected the GOP in 1976 and cast its lot with a left of center Democrat. It has not done so since.

It is because of the 1976 election that many pundits believe Ronald Reagan deserves most of the credit for turning southern voters away from a century of supporting Democrats at the national level. Those with a bit more knowledge, however, understand that the turning point actually occurred sixteen years earlier with the doomed campaign of Barry Goldwater. Aside from his native Arizona, Goldwater won only five additional states in 1964. They were the states of the Deep South, stretching from Louisiana to South Carolina. In short, 1976 represented what must appear, to those studying electoral maps for the first time, to be a fluke election, the only time in nearly a half century that the Democrats actually won majorities in Dixieland.

Anyone who was around back then, of course, remembers precisely what happened. Jimmy Carter was the first competitive southern presidential candidate since Reconstruction (no, Texas doesn't count). Southerners supported him out of a surge of regional pride. Despite his moderate politics, Carter was one of them. They would reject him four years later as he ran for re-election, but in 1976, their Southern identity superseded any thoughts of ideology or any desire to back the more conservative incumbent president.

My point, obviously, is that we have been down this road before. The identity politics that attach themselves to the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns are as old as electoral competition itself. Care to take a guess as to how the Catholic vote split when John F. Kennedy made his successful bid for the top job in 1960? I've never seen the polls, but I'd be willing to put up serious bucks on the proposition that Greek-Americans supported the Democratic ticket in 1988, the year Michael Dukakis ran, far out of proportion to their usual electoral habits.

And yet, as usual, you bring race and gender into it and everyone seems to get either squeamish or shrill. ran a story datelined Charleston, South Carolina, discussing the dilemma faced by African American women trying to decide between the two Democratic frontrunners. Would they support the female candidate or her black opponent? A loud, angry reaction followed, with many readers appalled that CNN would suggest that black women might base their votes on skin color or chromosome set. Here's an example, one of the relatively few not filled with gratuitous invective:

"I am neither black, nor a woman and yet I find this headline (from CNN's homepage) offensive. Does CNN think the only difference between these two candidates is their race and gender? Apparently they think black women lack the intelligence to reason beyond 'Hmm...he's black and I'm black. But she's a woman and I'm a woman. I really have no idea who to vote for!' It's insulting to say the least."

In fact, it's not at all clear to me why that is insulting. The article never suggests that race and gender are the only factors influencing African American women as they make their decisions. Indeed, the writer specifically says that "[w]hile race and gender play a role, most women [in Charleston] say they plan to vote based on the issues." But many of them are also weighing the possibility that people who look like them might finally, after 232 years of mostly imperfect democracy, crash through the glass ceiling that rests below the Oval Office carpet.

Nobody thought this was offensive when Catholics were involved. Nobody thought this was offensive when southerners were involved. Indeed, I have yet to hear this sort of protracted umbrage when anyone suggests that Mitt Romney will do especially well among Mormons (which had a lot to do, by the way, with both his victory in Nevada and the unwillingness of most of the rest of the GOP field to contest the state).

This is a primary election between two people on the Democratic side who believe the same things, care about the same issues, and vote almost identically on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Those who must select between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama don't have a lot to go on. That's why you keep hearing so much about experience and electability. To answer the blogger's question above, to some extent CNN probably does think that the main difference between these two candidates is their race and gender. And CNN is essentially correct.

But you know, even that's not really the point. When southerners flocked to the Carter camp in 1976, they were doing so in opposition to what had, by then, become an established preference for conservative and/or Republican presidential candidates. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford had differences that far exceeded those that separate any of the three remaining Democratic contenders in 2008. Nevertheless, voters in Dixie wanted to be able to tell their children that, finally, more than a century after their ancestors made war against the United States government, a baby born in Birmingham or Biloxi could once again grow up to be president. Further, they may also have felt that a Georgian would understand them and their concerns better than a man whose life had been spent shuttling between Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. Who am I to tell them that they were wrong?

There is, very simply, nothing improper about weighing a candidate's race or gender—or, for that matter, religion or region—when determining one's vote for president. Not only is it a rational part of the decision making process, but it has been going on since the day the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence. It took a woman and an African American, however, to make it controversial.


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