Beginning in the 1960s, a new form of political strategy evolved. The two-party system had worked well (at least if you were a party hard-liner) for several decades, but the synergistic sixties brought about a great deal of change, and the political parties evolved as new constituencies emerged and demanded to be heard. Certainly, the rich and powerful were well represented, as the politicians of the time (certainly not exclusive to that era) were more than willing to listen, as money always finds influence.
There were new voters, who looked in the mirror and noticed that they were different from the white shirt, suit wearing, card-carrying members of the two dominant political parties. The War on Poverty admitted that there was such a thing, and many people felt that they were underrepresented, if even represented at all in American politics. The publishing of “The Feminine Mystique” in 1962 by Betty Friedan was a significant turning point, economically, socially, and politically. While this is certainly a brief explanation from where the identity movement came from, I willingly concede that there were considerably more influences than those mentioned here. Brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the paragraphs of detail that elaborate on fractionlets of a point previously made.
As political awareness expanded, certain participants of the electorate looked into mirrors and realized that the political parties didn’t reflect them. This lack of reflection was the initiator of “identity politics.” The underrepresented, i.e. nonwhites and females, to name the major players who “identified” with the new “identity” candidates, who were like them, minorities or female. This strategy was a good plan for local elections where the identification was simple and easy, and was a powerful tool for taking on the “political establishment.” Yet the ineffectiveness of identity politics on a larger, call it federal level, was illustrated by several dismal failures, one of the greatest being the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution, which was never ratified. In a several page letter explaining why their strategy would fail, I attempted to advise those who believed identity politics would be become a national issue (in this case the National Organization for Women) that grandstanding on the federal level would not capture the states needed to ratify their constitutional amendment. They ignored me, of course. They also lost, of course. That is one of the more detrimental features of identity politics, and that is that they are convinced that anyone not of their ethnic or gender persuasion is incapable of understanding their situation and position. This mentality would not serve them well, nor would it serve this republic well, in the long run.
In a bit of wisdom dispensed by the iconic Democrat Tip O’Neill, “all politics is local.” The identity politics scenario identified those who were alienated and abandoned by the major parties, but the major parties recognized the trend and made sure to put some faces on their agendas that the underrepresented could identify with, and this was especially a practice of the Democrats. Legislation, both state and federal, began to identify the rights of the underrepresented and they took a larger presence in American politics. The traditional political machines understood, eventually, that identity politics were a force to be reckoned with, and legislation acknowledging that fact made it into law and policy.
Identity politics encouraged diversity, and voters began to identify themselves further and further apart. As identity progressed, the categories became smaller and smaller, moving from ethnic and gender identities into sexual orientation and beliefs in policies so closely defined and enthusiastically followed that identity politics could no longer satisfy them.
As America entered the post-industrial economy, the resultant uneven wealth distribution, the loss of jobs, and global economic forces only made these distinctions more obvious, and the differences by which people identified became more and more specialized and less and less serviceable. The election of Barak Obama was the last vestige of identity politics in America. (Imagine, if you will, ninety-five percent of whites voting for a candidate simply because he/she was white, and the backlash that would follow. ) Hillary Clinton attempted an identity politics theme (mostly due to a lack of any other strategy, since she could not identify why she wanted to be president beyond her own selfish ambitions) that failed miserably to a political outsider with no political background, who is, now, by the way, sitting in the White House.
Identity politics has seen its last hurrah. Not only has diversity exceeded its range, it has lost its meaning and purpose. There are too many variations of identity for which with any politician can claim to identify. The liberals have cracked up, and the remaining liberals are sweeping up the pieces to see whatever they can cobble together and pass off as policy. In the meantime, unable to identify with much, the only thing that the Democrats can identify with is opposition to Republicans and their agenda.
The Democratic leadership recognized the need for money, and personal agendas took over the Democrats. The previously labeled identity politicians made the conscious rationalization that their personal agendas were the agendas of the people that they represented, even when they were not. Many of the identity politics candidates had identities that were created by their campaign managers, and didn’t really share the trials and tribulations of their identity politics constituents. They thought that a synthesized identification was enough and used it as a ticket to political success; like claiming to be part Native American when you weren’t, but if that got you into Harvard it was not going to be challenged, especially when you could claim a female political identity as well. That ride is over, and it should have ended long ago.
The identification with the working class, for the Democrats, ended bitterly during the administration of Bill Clinton, who sold the blue collar factory workers down the Rio Grande in the form of a free trade agreement. It’s been downhill since then. Betrayed by the Democrats, the workers looked to someone who, at least in rhetoric, could speak for them, his name was Bernie, with one holdout identity politics player, Elizabeth Warren. The identity politics game has run its course. All the Democrats can do now is oppose the Republicans. The Democrats have encouraged individual identity politics until those practicing identity politics cannot envision any outcomes other than those that serve themselves and their personal identity interests.
The Democrats have fostered the selfishness of identity politics until the identified constituents can see only their agenda, whether it is constitutional or not, and in many cases, not. But that doesn’t matter to the identity politics ilk who have been promised that they’ll be taken care of. The Republicans have already taken advantage of this and turned it against the Democrats. The Democrats are going to have to come up with a new strategy, tell the identity politics players that they live in a republic and they will have to recognize and realize that they are citizens first and always, and politicians do not exist to serve them exclusively and indulge their unconstitutional whims, no matter what hardship the republic, or fate, has foisted upon them.
The present economic conditions make it difficult to rationalize that Adam Smith’s theory of everyone pursuing their own best interests makes everyone better. The benefits of unbridled capitalism have become a shibboleth, mostly because certain players intend to keep an unfair advantage. Capitalism will have winners and losers, and the best the government can do is make sure the playing field is fair, or as fair as can be made. But fair does not mean taking up the cause of a group and defending them to the disadvantage of others, or offering special consideration just for their votes, no matter how democracy functions. There have always been and will always be special interests. The difference between identity politics and special interests is that often identity politics attempts to correct former mistreatment and transgressions by compensating the remaining or surviving members who share that identity with exceptional treatment.
Identity politics has a hard time moving forward, and at present time, in a narcissistic pattern characteristic of American politics and, unfortunately, the American constituency of the twenty-first century, cannot see the views or interests of anyone except themselves. This formula is failing the Democrats, and it is failing the American political system as well. The Democrats are running out of time. They can only play their sympathy card for so long, and the card is fading fast. They were warned. Now the warning is not just a lost election, but the party itself. Keep the identity and lose your credibility. Lose the identity, become a party of the people, and maybe you’ll have a chance. This republic became a great nation because of the sacrifice its citizens were willing to make. Stop asking what your identity representative can do for you, and ask what you can do for your country.