The Corner

Identity Politics Rules

How did an inexperienced senator, substantially to the left of the American public, make it to the top of the Democratic race? Identity politics. Why didn’t Hillary collapse when math and momentum some time ago ought to have handed Obama victory? Identity politics. And why is Obama still the front runner after a series of disastrous revelations that would have destroyed most other candidates? Identity politics.

It may be no surprise that identity politics is playing a large role in the race for the Democratic nomination, but the full extent of its influence — which is massive and in many ways determining — is still not being acknowledged. Geraldine Ferraro (a former Democratic vice-presidential nominee, no less) was disgraced when she made the point, although apparently it’s alright for BET founder Bob Johnson to raise it. The taboo those incidents revealed continues to interfere with analysis of the Democrats’ dilemma.

Of course, Barack Obama is a spectacular orator and a hugely talented fellow, while Hillary Clinton is a first-class policy wonk. Neither of them got where they are solely on the grounds of race or gender, but these factors continue to play huge, arguably controlling, roles in their campaigns. Identity politics is what’s dragging out the Democratic race.

There is a large corps of women who will never abandon Hillary and a remarkably consolidated and influential black vote that is carrying Obama through his troubles. The “normal” effects of momentum, delegate math, and political gaffes-revelations on the Democratic race are being countered by this identity-based voting. Gary Hart may have been the first “yuppie” candidate, but there was no fanatically loyal corps of identity-based yuppie voters around to save Hart after a combination of “Where’s the beef?” and Donna Rice finally got to him. Ditto for George Romney after “brain-washing” and Edmund Muskie after crying. Yes, the Democrats’ rules of proportional representation are the other crucial factor dragging out their nomination battle, but even these rules are to some degree rooted in the party’s determination to insure minority representation.

No doubt there are some men who won’t vote for a woman and some whites who won’t vote for a black. But the numbers here are relatively small in comparison to the “positive discrimination” guiding Democratic voters right now. And while the cable talk seems relatively free on “negative discrimination,” the full effects of the reverse of the medal are still not being discussed.

The biggest issue right now is Democratic worry about the effect on the black vote if Hillary should win. It’s clear now that if Florida and Michigan are included, Hillary has a decent chance of taking the popular vote. That fact, in combination with a chain of devastating revelations about Obama that would have gravely undercut an ordinary candidate some time ago, ought to make a Hillary victory much more “thinkable” than it’s been. But the superdelegates worry that African Americans will stay home if Obama doesn’t get the nomination.

Supposedly African-American desertion of the Democrats will come as a result of feeling that the election has been undemocratically stolen by the superdelegates. Yet the new popular vote math cuts against that. And of course it’s also said that if Obama should exit, Democrats fear losing all those young first-time voters he’s inspired. But I think “positive discrimination,” “race-gender loyalty,” (or whatever phrase you want to use) is the key factor driving the oddly tortured and drawn-out character of the Democratic race.

The pros know that, for the good of the party, Hillary ought to have been knocked out some time ago. Yet Hillary’s core of identity-based female support has allowed her to continue, and blocked the sort of consolidation behind a winner that would have driven voters in a more “ordinary” nomination battle. Public talk has focused on the personal relentlessness of the Clintons, but the real relentlessness here is the relentlessness of identity politics. Similarly, identity-based voting by African Americans is what has got the pros so scared about handing the nomination to Hillary in the wake of Obama’s startling gaffes, and his emerging and disturbing history–even as Clinton’s popular vote totals, by some counts, may soon put her ahead of a damaged Obama.

The real question isn’t why Obama “can’t close the deal,” but why he’s alive at all at this point. If it weren’t for the overwhelming loyalty of the black vote in Pennsylvania, Obama might have collapsed in the wake of the revelations and gaffes of the past months. Obama’s failure to “close the deal” is actually Obama being kept alive by identity politics well past the point when he’s been damaged in the eyes of every other important constituency (upscale, heavily-degreed left-liberals excepted, of course). And African-American votes in North Carolina (along with the academic vote from North Carolina’s Research Triangle) will keep Obama alive, even in the face of a possible Indiana loss. Identity politics saved Hillary when she should have been a goner, and it’s saving Obama now. The party that lives by identity politics may soon die by it as well.