Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The Strange Death and Resurrection of Identity Politics

“She’s Dynamite!” Or so thought Morton C. Blackwell, President Ronald Reagan’s liaison to the conservative movement, even though he couldn’t get closer than four feet from Sarah Palin at a Virginia fundraising dinner. Whatever has got into the right wing base of the Republican party, it’s pretty fundamental, and they are not alone in seeing Palin as the future of the party, win or lose

Governor Palin sees herself this way too.

The shocked silence of the McCain spokesman was a result of this segment of an interview recorded on ABC.

VARGAS: But the point being that you haven’t been so bruised by some of the double standard, the sexism on the campaign trail, to say, “I’ve had it. I’m going back to Alaska.”

PALIN: Absolutely not. I think that, if I were to give up and wave a white flag of surrender against some of the political shots that we’ve taken, that … that would … bring this whole … I’m not doin’ this for naught.

As far as I know this is unprecedented – an et tu Brute moment as the VP choice stabs the man who chose her in the back.

Palin is explosive all right. For the Republican party she’s a volatile mixture of glitz, folksy charm, utter ruthlessness and willing ignorance.

But it’s the ‘sexism’ part of that exchange I want to focus on, and what this means for the prematurely announced death of identity politics.

Don’t get me wrong – a year older than Obama, I’m a direct beneficiary to many of the successes of so called identity politics on the left. It flowed out of the civil rights and feminist movement of the 60s, and has left an indelible mark on the freedom and tolerance of most Western Societies.

But contained within the essence of identity politics – that no group should be discriminated against because of gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, or physical impairment  was a dangerous corollary: you should vote for a candidate based on his or her identity.

Representative politics does have a symbolic element – especially when it comes to the Head of State. We do not vote for people merely because of a menu of preprogrammed policy options. We chose character, integrity, history as well, because many decisions will have to be taken on the hoof, without recourse to the electorate.

I have no problem with this. One of the unexpected beneficial side effects (to my mind that is) of the prolonged primary,  is that we explored the vagaries of identity politics to the maximum.

The six month debate that raged over the most promising female and African American candidates ever to run for the nomination, made all democrats examine the complimentary problems of sexism and racism. Both sides had issues which I need not rehearse again. But ultimately this was a family argument. Whether you felt one side had been erroneously accused of racism, or the other had been erroneously accused of sexism, we all agreed: both forms of bigotry were wrong. Ultimately we shared the same values.

Forced to choose a candidate, we were not forced to choose between two wrongs, and in this we got over the limits of identity politics which, ever since the 1970s, have fractured democratic politics into a myriad of competing interests. We saw beyond the particular to something more universal. Yes, the personal is political. But the reverse isn’t always true. The political goes beyond a personal domain to our joint interests, and more generally applicable values of justice and equality.

Thanks to two extraordinary candidates, I believe the 2008 primaries took the democratic party beyond the rifts and fractured coalitions of identity politics.

What I didn’t expect to see was identity politics becoming the dominant force in the Republican Party.

The selection of Governor Palin by John McCain is now rapidly being advanced as the main reason for his likely defeat at the polls next week. There are many theories behind his selection of Palin. (My current favourites are that it was God and the Blogosphere but I’ll need another diary for that.) Looking back though, over the whole year, it’s clear to me that McCain was captivated by the energy of the democratic primaries, and wanted to channel some of that enthusiasm into his own candidacy. Short on ideas, long on envy, McCain the gambler played his most reckless card of all – the joker of identity politics.

It’s easy to see the crazy logic in retrospect. The Primaries had spilled over into some divisive moments. The papers and airwaves were filled with talk of disaffected PUMAs and outraged female voters (the biggest constituency out there). McCain also had to deal with his age and his not too flattering contrast with the new young Democratic nominee. In this light, Sarah Palin was an ideal choice. She was the uber Hockey Mom: a right wing religious enthusiast who liked to shoot and hunt. And above all she was a telegenic woman. Where would all those disaffected Hillary supporters go? Once they’d seen Palin, and seen that she was a woman too, they’d vote for her.


Did he really think that Hillary supporters were that crass or captivated by identity politics that they would vote for Palin because of that?

Did McCain really think a two term Senator, who had spent eight years in the White House, and decades on the front line of US politics, could be compared with new Governor of a state with a tiny population, who had been the Mayor of a tiny town before then?

Fail again.

And did he really think that gender identity trumps everything else – probity in governance, religious tolerance, knowledge of public issues and foreign affairs, an ability to speak without autocues, a willingness to listen to others, a curiosity about the world.

Fail massively.

But make no mistake, though the centre and left may have seen the limitations of identity politics, the religious and extreme fringe can only see the benefits. No more kowtowing to UnAmerican liberals. No more having to distinguish between ethnic identity and religious belief. Muslims and Arabs. Liberals, socialists, communists. They can all go rot.

Governor Palin’s success is to appeal to a generation who only want to vote for people who look like them (or they would want to sleep with). She is the ne plus ultra of identity politics colliding with celebrity culture in an amazing mix of razzmatazz, image manipulation and $150,000 wardrobes.

But let’s not kid ourselves. This is powerful toxic stuff, and though it will not win the next election, it could represent a new demagogic form of right wing identity politics we’ll have to counter and contain for years to come.

One of the gravest dangers liberals still face is contained in Vargas’ question in the ABC interview above:

VARGAS: But the point being that you haven’t been so bruised by some of the double standard, the sexism on the campaign trail, to say, “I’ve had it. I’m going back to Alaska.”

This was McCain’s hoped for jujitsu move: democrats would be so wary of the sexism allegation after the primary, that this would constrain any critique of Palin’s record or her abilities to be a heartbeat away from the most powerful job on this earth.

Thankfully we didn’t fall for that, largely due to the amazing fortitude of Hillary supporters, and in depth vetting that the blogosphere undertook while the media and McCain campaign had failed. But this is still a danger.

And here’s the point where I expect disagreement

To constantly call the criticism of Sarah Palin an example of egregious sexism seems to me to be  a form of moral blackmail which only suits this right wing republican base. They don’t care about the real values of feminism. They’re doing what they’d done since the 70s – a bad faith gambit stealing the appearance of liberal values, but actually turning them on their head.

But let’s not miss the identity that is being formulated here: soccer moms, cheer leaders, celebrities, xenophobes, gun toting religious folk… the list goes on. Much longer is the list of people who are excluded. But the female factor cannot be ignored.  

Though I cannot be one because of my gender, I’ve  lived my life surrounded by feminists, and it seems to me a duty of feminism to criticise Sarah Palin for her dangerous policies, her lack of probity and her incapacity to learn even from her small experience,

Feminism called for the equality of the sexes. It is a sign of the success of feminism that a bad wrong and dangerous woman politician should be called out as much as any man.

There. I’ve said my piece. Flames please.  


  1. fogiv

    Pardon my French.  This is as good a presentation of the case against Palin I’ve seen anywhere.  Bar none.

  2. rfahey22

    Palin sets us back on so many levels.  I hope we never hear of her again, even though I suspect that we will.

  3. sricki

    If anything, it’s an exercise in feminism to hold Palin to the same standards as those to which we hold male candidates. Feminism isn’t about tiptoeing around women because they’re too “delicate” or helpless to be criticized. In fact, one might say it’s about just the opposite. Equality in every sense.

    And you know, Brit, men can be feminists as well. And I’ve little doubt you’ll make a spectacular one.  

  4. I started I diary on this topic this morning (aomething similar.)  Mine was titled the Politics of Assumption, but it essentially addresses the same thing.  The problem is (IMHO,) is that the higher-ups in the GOP see the world through a frame of reference that paints all Democrats with the same brush.  Women will vote for women.  Democrats solve pregnancy problems through abortion. (Etc.)  I think that they faill to see how large the Big Tent really is, and that is to their political detriment.  

    Paul Begala on CNN had a great line the other night on how the Democrats deal with infighting:

    “…the Democrats .. go off into a yurt, smoke dope, and meditate on how to find themselves.”  

    I think that there is a significant amount of GOPers that see things that way.    

  5. I think one reason that it Fails when raised by the GOP is that even they can’t convince themselves of what they are saying.  I mean, in the primaries, Alex Castenellos said that it was okay to call Hillary Clinton a bitch because she acts like one.  You’ve got Rich Lowry and William Kristol panting after Palin, calling her a “honey” and saying how she gives them “starbursts.” You had GOP delegates wearing pins stating they’re “voting for the hot chick.”  

    If you don’t really believe in sexism, you just can’t quite pull it off just because it’s now politically necessary.

  6. NavyBlueWife

    To constantly call the criticism of Sarah Palin an example of egregious sexism seems to me to be a form of moral blackmail which only suits this right wing republican base.

    Simply terrific and the best summary of this whole election season when it comes to Palin.  

    This current Republican party seems enamored with its love of being puppeteers.  W. is nothing more than a figurehead for some pretty nasty people working behind the scenes.  Palin is also stupid in the same way because she would not be running the show.  She is a cover for the ugly side of politics, and she could do nothing to stop it, even if she did gain any sort of power.  They would bring her down in a heartbeat.  They eat their own young in the quest for power–the chewed up and spit out McCain in 2000, and then he brought them back for his campaign.  Look at what they are doing to their conservative defectors.  It’s like a political mafia.  But it is not going to work against Obama because he’s the real thing.

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