Identity politics has once again reared its ugly head in the Democratic Party. Wikipedia defines this concept as follows:
Identity politics is political action to advance the interests of members of a group supposed to be oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized identity (such as race, gender, or orientation). The term has been used principally in United States politics since the 1970s.
Normally, one particular identity group (women, African-Americans, Hispanics, LGBT) rallies support to its cause by appealing to others of similar perceived identity. I say “perceived” advisedly, because this really is all about perceptions. There’s rarely one single issue, stance, or position that is universally shared by all blacks, women, gays, etc. However, this can be a very useful paradigm if you want to rally people to your side by persuading them that you’re on their side. [I’m reminded of the politicking scenes in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, when the competing politicians both campaigned as being on the side of the “little man” by having midgets on the campaign stage with them. But I digress.]
In the current Democratic Presidential race, however, the team of Clinton and Clinton has begun to inject identity politics with a nasty little twist. Here’s my analysis of what’s been going on the past couple of weeks, as race has become an issue in the campaign, and the leading candidates have been sniping back and forth about the legacy of MLK and other pseudo-issues.
Somewhere along the way, Hillary’s strategists realized that she could still outpoll Obama among women. I’m guessing this happened soon after she teared up in New Hampshire and subsequently surprised observers with a win in that primary thanks to an outpouring of support from women voters. At that point the Clinton campaign figured out that there are more women voters than black voters (even in the Democratic primaries), and if they could cast the election in terms of the “woman candidate” versus the “black candidate”, they’d have a larger natural base than Obama. So they sent out their surrogates (including the Surrogate-in-Chief, Bubba himself) to stir the race pot a bit, letting little innuendos and whispers slip here and there.
Here’s the key part of their stratagem: They didn’t care if Hillary got some negative backlash over the race issue, because in the end their bet was still that they could win the “women v. blacks” fight, especially if they could achieve some separation between the perceived African-American “identity group” and the perceived “Hispanic” identity group (which is how Nevada went down, essentially). They are more than willing to lose South Carolina, which has a huge black electorate in the Democratic primary, because their real target is the set of primaries on Super/Tsunami Tuesday.
And here’s the pitfall for the Obama campaign: If he engages Clinton on these issues of race, he loses the war even if he wins the battle. As long as Clinton can frame the debate in terms of herself as the “woman candidate” and Obama as the “black candidate”, she wins. The only way for Obama to defeat this strategy is to return to his original message, as he’s spoken about so often – only in this case, it’s his political opponents rather than the pundits who are trying to “slice and dice” the electorate into red states and blue states, women voters and black voters and Hispanic voters. Obama needs to transcend the entire issue and remind the Democratic voters that there isn’t a female Democratic Party and a male Democratic Party, a black Democratic Party and a white Democratic Party and a Hispanic Democratic Party, but that there is a united Democratic Party. As long as he allows Clinton & Clinton to play the cards of identity politics, he’s going to get a losing hand.