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Not One of Us! September 1, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy.

It is obvious that as a nation we confront enormous problems—economic threats, global security threats, and environmental threats seem to pile up like bodies in a John Woo flick. It is equally obvious that John McCain has no idea how to deal with these threats (that is not some version of a bad idea that has already failed.) In today’s polls, Obama is showing signs of pulling away, and McCain’s choice for VP may be self-destructing before our eyes. But McCain is still in the game with approximately 40% of the electorate supporting him. What is the source of his appeal?


Some commentators claim that Obama hasn’t made his case effectively or that voters don’t know him yet. But he has been a public figure for 12 years, a national political figure for 4 years, and center stage for 19 months in one of the most scrutinized campaigns in history. He has published two books detailing his autobiography, has been the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, and recently presided over a national convention in which 38 million viewers watched his acceptance speech. His website and speeches are chock full of innovative policy proposals to address the full scope of issues we confront as a nation. What more do we need to know?


The reason why this is, and might remain, a close election is that this election (and recent American politics in general) is really not about policies or problem solving—it is about competing identities. Identity politics is the new normal.


Obviously, the Democratic primary race involved lots of identity politics, since both Hillary and Obama represent new identities competing seriously for the presidency. But the unity displayed at the Democratic Convention revealed how successfully both campaigns have risen above racial or gender identities as a basis for political choice. And truth be told, their campaigns were never just about identity politics—lots of men supported Hillary, lots of whites and women supported Obama, and, contrary to much speculation, Obama is doing fine among Jews, women, working class voters, Hispanics, etc.


Ironically, it is the Republicans that have deployed identity politics with a vengeance. John McCain’s first general election ad concluded: “the American president Americans have been waiting for.” This awkward yet telling phrase was obviously designed to draw a contrast with Obama who is alleged to be “foreign” and “anti-American.” McCain’s signature slogan “country first” is designed to resonate with McCain’s charge that Obama would “rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign”; and the ridiculous “Celebrity” ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton screams “he’s not one of us!”


Now we have the newly minted Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin, manifestly unqualified for the position, who was apparently chosen because evangelicals and soccer moms are supposed to see her as “just like us”.


The labels “liberal” and “conservative” no longer refer to competing views on how to manage the economy or foreign policy so much as they refer to competing ways of defining who one is that are expressed in our political choices. There are lots of interesting philosophical questions about the nature of these political identities and the moral identities that operate behind them, which I will be commenting on occasionally.


But the political consequences could be perilous for Democrats, unless the gift that is Sarah Palin keeps on giving. Democrats would prefer not to play in this sandbox. They would prefer debates about policy, problem-solving, and governance. Republicans since at least 1988 (remember the Willie Horton ad) have long recognized the power of identity politics. Democrats need to look up from their position papers long enough to join in the slicing and dicing.


Obama’s acceptance speech at the DNC was brilliant on many levels. But there was one promise that he may live to regret. In parrying McCain’s attacks on his character, Obama said “What I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes.” Why not? McCain has always been a shameless political opportunist. Since most of us don’t think of ourselves as unprincipled poseurs, McCain is clearly not one of us.


If McCain gets a bounce in the polls from his convention, Obama will have to make that  clear, although McCain may need no help from anyone in exposing himself as a fraud.


Update: Should there be any doubt about Republican commitment to identity politics, here is McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis on the subject:

This election is not about issues,” said Davis. “This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.



1. Rida Alvi - September 2, 2008

You know, I thought I was the only who thought this way. I am the Op/Ed editor for a newspaper the youth in my community started, and I wrote an editorial on the presidential race and made sure to highlight the fact that it’s no longer a race between which candidate can best be president, it’s more of a race to elect the nominee who can best represent the ideals of the American people.

Completely absurd in my opinion.

2. Lies In The Service of Armageddon « Philosophy On The Mesa - September 9, 2008

[…] is why the Republican campaign is about identity rather than issues, policies, or facts. It is not about solving problems—it is about defining […]

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