13 January 2010

Identity Politics and the Bipolarchy

In his 1910 Dodge Lecture on the as-yet unnamed American Bipolarchy, Charles Evans Hughes noted that the major parties -- then as now, the Democrats and Republicans -- could accommodate sharply contradictory viewpoints, allowing a wider range of disagreement within each party's ranks, he suggested, than existed between the two parties as wholes. What held the major parties, and thus the Bipolarchy, together, Hughes argued, was the imperative of electing a President and the existence of a "paramount issue," the importance of which overrode all intraparty disagreements. Hughes's thesis seems to be verified by the way the Democratic party deals with identity politics.

In New York, political commentators remain abuzz over the possibility of the ex-Tennessean Harold Ford Jr. challenging Senator Gilllibrand in a Democratic primary. Until yesterday, the focus of attention was on what looked like hamfisted attempts by the White House and the national Democratic leadership to dissuade Ford from making the challenge. Yesterday, a delegation of Democratic legislators declared their solidarity with Gillibrand as women. Not only were they suspicious of Ford's centrist record on gender and reproductive issues in his former home, but they also worried that women would be inadequately represented in the U.S. Senate should Gillibrand, Hillary Clinton's successor, lose her seat. Clinton and Gillibrand have been New York's only female Senators to date, they noted, and their time in office so far has not been enough to correct the historic gender imbalance.

Playing with identity politics in this prospective campaign could be dangerous. It might be noted, after all, that Barack Obama's ascension to the Presidency has left the Senate without black representation. It might also be noted that New York has never sent a black person to the Senate. If identity politics is about an equitable distribution of spoils, it can be argued that blacks are due for their turn in the Clinton/Gillibrand seat, though whether anyone will make this argument in Ford's behalf remains to be seen.

The feminist legislators (along with the usual blowhards in the New York branch of NOW) threaten to open the wounds that had seemingly healed since the 2008 presidential primaries by claiming women's right to a Senate seat in defiance of a black man. A fault line emerged during the Obama-Clinton race that appeared for a time to threaten the winner's chance for victory that November. This was the moment when the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass) prowled about the Democratic convention, some promising to stay home in November if their demands were denied. The moment passed and Obama was elected. That might prove that identity politics are insufficient to split a major party. At the same time, however, the American Bipolarchy is a disincentive to identity-based party formation. In part that's due to reasonable calculations that an avowed Women's Party or African-American Party could never win a major election. But that reasoning itself depends on the presumption of a monolithic opponent, a Male or White Party which matches quite closely many liberals' perception of the Republican Party. However much black and female aspirations conflict, they can always see a common enemy in the White Male (not to mention Straight or Christian) Other, the historic oppressor who would deny all rival aspirations in perpetuating its own privileges. Black and female politicians may not always trust each other, but both groups assume that the Republicans are the common enemy. The "paramount issue" of empowerment weds both groups to the Democratic party and may do so as long as both groups perceive themselves as incompletely empowered and blame the perceived fact on the Republican Other.

In an earlier comment on the Dodge Lecture I suggested that the overarching kulturkampf pitting "liberals" against "conservatives" was the paramount issue of our time holding the Bipolarchy together. Dealing with identity politics, we could argue that black and female aspirations, and what remains of white male resistance to them, fit neatly under the "liberals vs. conservatives" heading. But we could also observe that the managers of the Bipolarchy are sophisticated enough to pitch different "paramount issues" to different constituents within each major party. There are still many white men in the Democratic party, after all, for whom the black and female aspiration to empowerment simply wouldn't be compelling enough to keep them on the team. They can be kept in line by whipping up general hostility to conservatives as enemies of the public interest or by appealing to whatever defines their particular oppressed identity -- class, religion (or lack of it), sexual orientation, etc. Republicans have to practice similar sophistication to keep their coalition of traditionalists, entrepreneurs and government minimizers together. The necessary trick is to conjure an Other who is simultaneously the enemy of each constituent group and the enemy of all within the party, the generality of its enmity defining the terms of the ideological conflict. With such a system in place, the Democrats in New York should be able to endure a Ford challenge to Gillibrand and all the feminist outrage (and black backlash) it may provoke, so long as Republicans do nothing (as they usually don't) to convince either group that a GOP victory wouldn't be the fate worse than death. Everyone ought to calm down and let the game begin.

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