The Identity Blame Game

During the Bush years, many pundits agreed that the Democratic Party had a "white man problem" -- that a Democrat would never win the presidency without more support from working-class white dudes. Just last year, David Paul Kuhn published The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma, warning Democrats that, if they knew what was best for them, they'd stop kowtowing to women and people of color and start making overtures to the white men who really decide elections.

Except that, in 2008, John McCain won 57 percent of the white male vote. Last time I checked, he's not our president-elect. But that doesn't mean the warnings to Democrats have stopped. Now (mostly white, mostly male) commentators are arguing that unless Barack Obama can keep the Democratic Party's "identity groups" in check, he's going to have a hard time being a successful president. These days we're firmly in Obama-Cabinet-speculation territory -- Larry Summers for Treasury? Hillary Clinton for State?  Much of the speculation comes down to not just who Obama will pick but what those choices say about his commitment to change and to the Democratic Party's nonwhite, non-male constituents -- which make up the bulk of its base. The valiant defenders of the place of white men in the Democratic Party are worried, once again, that women, people of color, and gay folks will screw it all up for them.

Newsday reported that Obama "faces a 'Rubik's Cube-type' task in forming a cabinet that can both run the federal bureaucracy and satisfy the political, geographic and ethnic interests vying for representation on it." Jonathan Martin at Politico asked, "Does our first African-American president, elected with a rainbow coalition, have more of an imperative to appoint an administration that includes minorities in high-ranking positions?" And The Hill wrote ominously, "Identity politics in the Democratic Party are already presenting challenges to President-elect Barack Obama, who is under pressure to appoint Hispanics and African-Americans to key posts in his administration."

The subtext? Women, people of color, and gay people are the ones making things difficult for Obama, and if they don't stop speaking up for their interests, they are poised to screw it all up for the Democratic Party and its all-important straight-white-dude constituency (you know, the constituency that doesn't have an identity), which clearly knows what's best for everyone.

In a column at The New Republic on Saturday, Jonathan Chait blamed the early failures of Bill Clinton's presidency on "identity politics" and predicted that Obama would fall prey to the same trap. But it's a pretty narrow view of things to place the bulk of the blame for Clinton's early presidential failures on contentious Cabinet appointments and the debate over gays in the military. By all accounts, Clinton's White House was in an overall state of disarray -- it simply took that administration a long time to get the hang of how to run the government.

Did some of those early missteps involve gay people, women, people of color? Sure. But they were symptoms of much larger organizational problems. The gays-in-the-military fiasco was more about the Clinton administration's failure to manage its policy priorities than it was about "identity politics." And while, as Chait points out, Clinton awkwardly discarded two nominees for attorney general before finding Janet Reno, the fact that "the spot was reserved for a woman" was not the cause of this bumbling. Indeed, both Zoe Baird and Federal Judge Kimba Wood were extremely well qualified for the job -- Clinton's mistake was in putting their names out before they were fully vetted.

Chait uses his version of history to warn women/people of color/queers to stop speaking up, lest they undermine the Democratic agenda. He goes so far as to cite feminists' critiques of Larry Summers as a portent of Obama's presidential failures. While I don't completely agree with many feminists' take on Summers (I think there are many reasons to oppose Summers for Treasury, but his offensive remarks are not the most compelling), that doesn't mean that by speaking out these feminists are poised to return us to the days of Republican one-party rule. Please. Raising concerns about the makeup of Obama's Cabinet is not the same thing as threatening to defect from the coalition altogether.

In the context of this debate about Cabinet appointments, "identity politics" is more or less derisive shorthand for "women, people of color, immigrants, gay people speaking up for themselves." But if not now, when are we supposed to raise these issues? After the decisions have been made? People who have traditionally been cut off from the highest avenues of power are well within their rights -- and, I'd argue, responsibilities -- to demand a seat at the table, before appointments have been made. I'm not going to retread the arguments for why diversity is important. I will say, however, that there is rarely the right person for any given position -- most jobs could be done competently by any number of people, and some of those people are no doubt women and people of color. Pointing out this fact must not be seen as threatening or petty but as productive and necessary.

Another frequently expressed concern is that Obama just can't win when he appoints a nonwhite dude -- some minority group will always be upset. J.P. Green at the Democratic Strategist warned recently that whether Obama chooses Hillary Clinton or Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico for secretary of state, "either way there will be much grumbling in the short run" -- from women, presumably, if he picks Richardson and from Latinos if he chooses Clinton. But in all the calls I've seen for a "Cabinet that looks like America," I have yet to see a person of color say they would take it as an affront if a white woman were appointed. And like most women who have called on Obama to consider and appoint women, I am equally interested in seeing Obama consider and appoint people of color. As far as I can tell, we're all united against a Cabinet packed with the same old white guys.

When outside observers predict that all of the vocal women, gay people, and people of color in the Democratic Party will turn against each other if Obama makes the wrong appointment, they are reinforcing the idea that these are distinct categories -- which they're clearly not (last time I checked, there were queers of color, women of color, queer women, I could go on and on ...) -- and that these categories of people are in direct competition. This is simply not true. That's why a majority of activists have called for a "Cabinet that looks like America," not for "a Cabinet full of women."

If we've learned anything about Obama throughout this incredibly long election, it's that he has a great ability to unite diverse groups of people on common ground. The Democratic coalition won't be "murdered," as Chait puts it, by people who say they want to see a presidential Cabinet that reflects America. If the Obama administration is seen as a failure, it will be due to a complex series of factors -- ranging from Republican obstructionism to economic meltdown -- but it will certainly not be solely attributable to those stubborn "identity" groups.

In the end, I don't think the white dudes have anything to fear. As Dana Goldstein and Ezra Klein reported back in September, Obama stocked his campaign with old Washington hands -- many of whom are white men. And the president-elect has given every indication that he intends to bring about policy changes by employing the skills of folks with direct experience in running the White House. In other words, change the game, not necessarily the players. I don't think Obama is losing sleep over whether appointing Larry Summers to Treasury would piss off feminists. He's losing sleep over how he's going to fix the major economic mess this country is in. And if he comes to the conclusion that appointing Summers is one step toward fixing that mess, I have a hard time believing feminists' concerns are going to realistically prompt him to reconsider.

But what if Chait is right, and some tough conversations about race, gender, and privilege are enough to kill the current coalition? Well, then it was never very strong to begin with, and we don't have to mourn very much. A healthy Democratic coalition is not one in which women and queers and people of color are told to sit down and shut up. A healthy coalition is stronger for the debate and for the criticism.

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