The Corner

Conservative Identity Politics

I’ve written about my problem with conservative identity politics more than a few times, but let me just expand on this point in regards to my Sarah Palin post below. Yes, it’s true part of her appeal is that she speaks to a demographic category — though it isn’t quite ethnic nor purely religious or regional. And absolutely, the fact that she’s a woman was a factor as well, a sort of trump card for leftwing identity politics. But it’s no coincidence that John McCain needed help with precisely these constituencies and demographic groups. Those overly vexed by her selection seem to forget that John McCain was actually trying to win the election. And all due respect to the potential electoral juggernaut that would have been McCain-Pawlenty ‘08, I just don’t see a lot of merit to the effort to depict Palin into some grand symbol of conservative decay. If you want to argue she wasn’t prepared to be President McCain’s understudy, fine. That’s certainly a legitimate argument (and there are legitimate responses to it). But I can’t shake the feeling that Frum, Brooks, Noonan and others are using Palin as an excuse to make an argument they were preparing to make for a very long time rather than a reason to make that argument in the first place.

And I think the use of the term “identity politics” in relation to Palin is a good example of what I mean. Vice Presidential picks have always been made on a nakedly political calculus. Was JFK’s selection of LBJ “identity politics”? Or was it simply a recognition of political reality that a Catholic east-coaster needed a southern protestant on the ticket? Was Reagan’s selection of George HW Bush identity politics or was it an attempt to unify the party by picking an old guard Rockefeller Republican to balance out a West Coast movement conservative?

Again, I don’t think the use of the term “identity politics” is always inappropriate on the right. Pat Buchanan certainly subscribes to a real form of identity politics. But what is generally thought of as identity politics simply has vastly more credibility as an intellectual project on the left than it does on the right. Most of the time what passes for identity politics on the right is really little more than political horse trading and demographic coalition building aimed at voters who think the least about politics not at the voters best versed in conservative ideology. Identity politics on the left produces women’s studies, Chicano studies, whiteness studies, racial quotas and the like. Identity politics on the right — again most of the time — amounts to marketing.

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