Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Confidence of an Identity Politician

Take a look (via Hot Air) at Harry Reid, insinuating that Marco Rubio’s orthodox Republicanism betrays a regrettable lack of self-respect:



I don’t want to get into an argument about whether it’s civically responsible for Reid to be telling Rubio to remember who he is. I’m more interested in how sure of himself Reid seems to be when he’s telling Rubio that. That’s as vivid an expression of contemporary identity politics as you’re likely to find and a pretty conclusive demonstration of how naturally playing identity politics comes to today’s Democratic politicians. 

If we have a stable party affiliation, most of us think of it as something we’ve chosen in light of our core beliefs about social justice and how political economy works. Identity politics operates on the presumption that, owing to accidents of history and culture, there are substantial numbers of people who aren't presented with that choice. In their case, party identification is less an object of choice than an expression of who they are.  Reid must be pretty confident that's true of Latinos. Otherwise, it might have occurred to him that it might not be such a great idea for an old white guy to be telling a young charasmatic Latino what he's supposed to think.

Identity politics has always made the most sense with respect to African-Americans. For seventy years after the Civil War, it was reasonable to presume that any politically aware African-American would be affiliated with the party of Lincoln and Reconstruction. After Truman integrated the armed forces, Kennedy supported Martin Luther King against southern segregationists and Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it became reasonable to presume that African-Americans are Democrats. In each case, African-American party identification was an expression of elemental self-respect. So even the people who bristle, understandably, at the mere suggestion that there’s anything undignified about the Republicanism of Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell recognize the cultural inertia propelling it.

When he presumes to remind Rubio who he is, Reid’s banking on Latinos embracing the Democratic Party as unconditionally as African-Americans do. But what has the Democratic Party done to earn the enduring allegiance of Latinos?  The promise to keep trying to pass the comprehensive immigration reforms that Democrats couldn’t be bothered passing when they controlled the House and enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate isn't quite the same thing as delivering African-Americans from slavery or dismantling southern racial apartheid

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