Monday, December 19, 2016

The Death of Identity Politics

Slicing and Dicing the Demographic by Race or Religion simply doesn't work.

The last election proved one thing - identity politics simply doesn't work.   Hillary's campaign slogan was "Better Together" or something like that - a nod to the idea that she would stitch together a coalition of disparate "identity" groups - the blacks, the Hispanics, the gays, the Jews, and so forth - to form a majority that would win the election.

She forgot about the electoral college who is voting today (December 19th) to actually elect the President.   Most people do forget about the electoral college - every four years in fact.  People don't elect Presidents - States do.  Or more exactly, the electors anointed by the States.

But why did identity politics fail?   The answer is simply that people don't fall into nice tidy little categories or IBM punch-card slots.   You cannot look at a person as a set of ethnic or religious or socioeconomic identity factors and then predict how they will vote.

Take the Jews, for example.   For many years, the Democratic Party took Jews for granted as a voting bloc.   But they are anything but.   Jews like anyone else have disparate views on different issues, and there is no historic leaning one way or another.

Yes, there are far-left Jews like far-left anyone-else.   Historically, many Jews were active in the labor movement and others in socialist and yes, even communist causes.   But this hardly represents the opinions of all Jews.   And yes, historically, many Jews were in the professions and trades (often by default, as they were excluded from other lines of work by antisemitism).   As business people and bankers, they might be less inclined to embrace socialism or communism or the labor movement.

But there is also a religious angle to it.   While many reform Jews may embrace liberal social causes like gay marriage and abortion, other more Orthodox Jews are vehemently against these same issues.

Even issues like Israel may divide Jews here in America (or indeed, even in Israel).  Some are staunch Zionists who want to annex the West Bank and crush Palestinian terrorism.  Others think the settlement program is wrong and that the actions of the Israeli government are scandalous.   There is no homogeneous "Jew".

Speaking of unionism, the union members were one group that Democrats counted on for votes in the past.   However, as someone who has actually worked in union factories and a former Teamster, I would argue that union members are not solid Democrats.   As I noted in previous postings, my stinking hippie brother used to go on about the "rights of the workers" and all that socialist/communist crap, reading from Chairman Mao's little red book (no really, he had a copy!).   Meanwhile, as a "worker" in the "factory" I told him not to bring that shit down to the plant, as the hard-hats would stomp his hippie ass into the ground.   This is a subject for another posting (shortly) but the stereotype of the Archie Bunker working-class conservative is closer to reality that the idea of the Democratic/Socialist/Wobbly "workers of the world" uniting under a union banner.

Even as unions are failing in the US, many union members are not coming out to vote Democratic.   And part of this may be that they realize that the reason their plants are closing and jobs are going overseas has more to do with the unions than lack of them.   Plants close when they are noncompetitive with even non-union US plants (which they are).   And it doesn't help that the Democratic Party has embraced free trade (which actually is a good thing for the working class, but they fail to appreciate how lower priced goods mean a higher standard of living - they only see the job loss at the overpaid union factory).  The solid union vote turned out to be anything but solid.

Hispanics fall along similar lines.   Democrats wrongly assumed this voting bloc would march in lock-step with the Democratic platform.   However, many are devout Catholics and have issues with the social agenda of Democrats.   Moreover, many Hispanics have moved beyond the barrio and are firmly part of the middle-class and upper-middle-class and now clamor for tax cuts and other things that Republicans offer.

Even characterizing Hispanics as an ethnic group is hazardous, as I learned the hard way.   My Cuban friends all claim to be 100% Spanish, not "Hispanic" or "Latin" and they get offended when they are lumped in with folks from Latin America.   Even with Latin America, there is a pecking order and racial prejudice.   Our cleaning lady, who was from Curenavaca , felt that anyone from other Latin American Countries were basically beneath her.  What's more, she was virulently racist - against American blacks as well as anyone from her home country who may have had dark skin.   I've since learned this is a trend in many "Latin" countries - and Cuba - which is one reason Fidel was so popular with the darker-skinned Cubans, as prior to the revolution, they were roundly discriminated against.

The point is, this is not an homogeneous group that is going to vote all the same.  Even with issues like immigration, there is diversity of opinion.   Hispanics who are here legally or born here may resent those who came illegally, or at the very least do not look at immigration amnesty as a central issue.  The Democrats wrongly assumed, I think, that this one issue could be used to corral their vote.

Blacks are the classic example of how the Democratic Party has used identity politics to get out the vote.  The problem for this demographic is that as blacks become more wealthy and successful, like other groups, their interests change.  The Democratic Party has sold them a menu of public benefits, from public housing, section-8 housing, food stamps, welfare, and so forth.   Many have argued that this sort of assistance while helpful in the short-term, can be devastating in the long-term, as it saps incentive and the will to succeed and trains people to look to government for solutions.  It is also more than a little condescending - and perhaps racist - to assume that black people cannot make it on their own and need "special help".

Regardless of whether that is correct or not, it has been decades since the "Great Society" was instigated, and we still have a huge black underclass in America, as well as a huge number of black men in jail - mostly for drug-related charges.   Oddly enough, even with a black president, this number hasn't dropped much.   If you are black, you might think that not much has really changed over the last eight years.

The issue with this "identity" group isn't that they will vote Republican (although a small minority do) but that they will fail to vote at all.   In a sad story in the New York Times the other day, a black barber in Milwaukee laments that "nothing has changed" since Barack Obama became President and "why doesn't he get me a 401(k) or something?" - missing the point that a self-funded retirement has to be, well, self-funded.

And maybe this illustrates the conservatives' point - that once you train people to look to government for solutions, they will become mystified when they are told to solve their own problems.

The problem with the remaining "identity" groups is that they are very small and thus even if you "get out the vote" you are not going to swing an election one way or another.   As I noted in the past, I was against the gay marriage thing not because it wasn't a keen idea, but because I realized there were more important issues at stake and that catering to a small minority would piss off a large majority.  

So it is like, "Gee, thanks for the gay marriage deal.  But too bad this means we elect a fascist government as a result!"   OK, maybe Trump isn't Hitler - at least not yet.   But if the choice was electing Hillary or having gay marriage legalized, I would opt for the former and live without the latter - as America has done for over 200 years.

The transgender bathroom thing really had a lot of people - even gays - scratching their heads.  Again, we are told we are "hateful" for not supporting transgender rights and moreover not recognizing there are 20 different genders.   This starts to sound surreal - or like a debate in a "safe space" on a college campus.   And what is disturbing to a lot of people on both the Left and Right is that discussion is not even allowed, lest you "trigger" someone.   The Left, left to its own devices, sounds a lot like the far-right.   It sounds like Liberal Fascism.

And the problem is, there are serious issues here that should be discussed instead of dismissed.   Whether school children should be allowed to "choose their gender" at a tender age is something that is questionable to any rational person.   There is plenty of time later in life to explore these sort of issues, and frankly, kids will latch onto trends and fads and do things to get attention.    I am not sure that the mission statement of public school education includes exploring gender identity issues for pre-teens or even teenagers.   Maybe - just maybe - schools should concentrate on education and leave social issues to parents at home.

And while it is heartbreaking to hear about some kid who likes to wear dresses killing himself after being bullied, I am not sure that setting aside a bathroom for him/her is the real solution, or even a practical one.   Not only this, but we are talking about a very minor issue involving a very small number of people - but making it a major national issue that pisses off a huge majority.

Yes, justice and equality are nice ideas, but winning elections is also a nice idea, too.  As I noted before, we are not the United States of Even Steven.   Nothing will ever be 100% "fair" in life, and if this is your expectation, you are sure to be disappointed.   Political maturity means accepting compromise to win the important battles even if it means that other battles may be lost or at least delayed.

So even among gays, a lot of these "issues" that the Democratic Party has been pushing are not really resonating.   Even gay marriage wasn't seen as a huge issue by a large number of gays before the Supreme Court decided otherwise.   And the Trump court may no doubt reverse this decision, throwing people's lives into chaos.   Pushing the envelope is fine and all - until the envelope pushes back.

Now, some have argued that "Identity Politics" didn't swing the election for Trump, based on a word-count of Hillary's speeches.   Paging the Bureau of Specious Statistics, Word-Count Division!  But I don't think you can make a rational analysis based on word counts alone.   What words are spoken and how they resonate varies from State to State.  And let's face it, the Trump supporters are not listening to Hillary's speeches, much less counting words.   They are listening to issues they identify with - the real identity politics.

The problem for Democrats is that the people who make up all of these "Identity" groups don't see themselves as part of an identity group.    Regardless of what ethnic, religious, or sexual minority you may be classified into, chances are the main issues in your life revolve around finances - your job, your savings, your house, your investments, your retirement, your debt, planning for college, and so forth.

A great President once said - as a candidate - "It's the Economy, Stupid!" and he won an election as a result.   He realized that bread-and-butter "kitchen table" economic issues resonated more with voters than did a lot of esoteric talk about identity groups.   And while the economy has done well and improved over the last eight years, there are weaknesses in it, particularly in the States where Hillary needed to win.   Concentrating on unpopular social issues really didn't fix this problem.

One would hope that this election has buried "identity politics" once and for all.   If we are to move beyond partisanship, we need to concentrate on issues that affect all Americans, rather than pander to individual slices of the pie.

One reason our politics have indeed become so polarized is that our politicians - on both the left and right - have pandered to this idea that we are all little slices of a bigger pie, and each of us lives in our own isolated cubbyhole.   This is not really true, as we all interact with one another, economically, if not necessarily on Facebook.

Kill identity politics, and you'll win more elections.