Tribalism and Identity Politics

If I keep this up, I may well become a Stanley Fish fan, and then what will I grouse about early in the week? I'm not like some other bloggers who can cruise Townhall or The Corner (sorry, no links for those folk) looking for something stupid to pick on--I live for bigger game.

Anyway, this column is on identity politics versus tribalism, and Fish makes the argument that choosing a candidate based on identity is, at times, rational.

The second form of identity politics is what I call “interest” identity politics. It is based on the assumption (itself resting on history and observation) that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to. Not only is there nothing wrong with such a calculation – it is both rational and considered – I don’t see that there is an alternative to voting on the basis of interest.

In the end, what Fish is really saying is that every voter uses some sort of identity calculus when deciding who he or she is going to vote for. Some might be more open about it--an African-American might not completely agree with Barack Obama on some issues but vote for him anyway because he feels the symbolic importance of having an African-American at the head of the nation--and others might disguise their tribalism in issues--candidate X is a strong supporter of worker's rights, and I'm in a union, so I support him/her--but in the end we're really voting our identities.

What Fish doesn't get into--and I don't blame him, because it's a real mine-field--is why identity politics has become such a horrible thing during this election cycle. Why are people so concerned about it now? The answer is pretty obvious, I think--there's a better than even chance that the next President will be other than what it has always been, a white male.

We white males like to point to the fact that we're divided in this country and act as though we've transcended identity politics, and that those women who support Hillary Clinton or those African-Americans who support Barack Obama are so hopelessly provincial, so behind the times. We like to argue that we've gotten past monolithic support for a candidate just because he shares something so trivial as a gender or a skin color, and we're concerned about the issues, dammit, the issues.

Of course, we white males are just as tribal as any other group--we've just found smaller issues to cluster around. That's what happens when you have one group in power for a long time--they fracture into smaller identities. We have to have something to argue about, after all. We fractured into regional groups--the southern white male identity is as tribal as any other ethnic group, at least politically. But there was no outcry of "identity politics" when it was suggested in 2004 that John Kerry needed to put a southern, white male on the ticket in order to appeal to that group, to provide "balance."

No, it only seems to become a problem when another group decides to appeal to identity. Then, it's a silly and simple way to choose a candidate--you have to look at the issues, critics harrumph, because they've been looking at issues for years, and choosing. The fact that we've been choosing between two white men in most elections for the last hundred years is utterly lost on them.

Earlier in his column, Fish wrote:
It makes sense, therefore, that an African American voter could come to the conclusion that an African American candidate would be likely to fight for changes that could remove barriers a white candidate might not even see.
and I can only reply "exactly." And you could easily substitute female for African-American and make the same point just as legitimately. We white males have been in charge too long, and our recent performance has been, well subpar. If we, as a group, want to really get past identity politics, it's time for us to vote for someone who really isn't one of us. And if the only reason we're doing it is because we feel we need a change, that's good enough. Either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will be an identity change.

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