Stuck in Identity Politics…Forever!(?)

Neal Gabler does a pretty decent job tracing the politicization of “Americaness” in this op-ed piece from the LA Times:

“One of the most important components of our recent presidential elections is the redefinition — actually the narrowing of the definition — of what constitutes an American. Since 2000 at least, we’ve been asking ourselves which candidate is the one we’d rather belly up to the bar with for a beer. Never mind George W. Bush’s Brahmin pedigree and Yale education; he reinvented himself as a cowboy. By comparison, Al Gore was ridiculed as a Harvard stiff and John Kerry as Frenchified. Now Barack Obama is being subjected to the same mockery.

It is tempting to attribute this sort of demagoguery entirely to Republican calculation. By constantly promoting the notion that Republicans are just a bunch of NASCAR fans and that Democrats are effete, the GOP has successfully divided the country not between red and blue politics but between one version of America and another, between the allegedly authentic and the allegedly inauthentic. But in reality, Republicans have only been exploiting a vein deep within the American consciousness. And who can blame them? What Republicans realize is that most Americans always have been desperately afraid of being seen as phony, and they are actively hostile toward anyone with airs. In fact, liberty is only one foundation of America. The nation rests just as securely on fear and resentment.

In the beginning, that resentment was understandably directed against the British. American rebels needed a strong sense of identity, something that would anoint them as unique and fill them with pride. And although the founding fathers may have embraced elitism and looked askance on true democracy, ordinary Americans nurtured a particular vision of themselves as homespun, pragmatic and lacking the affectations of Europe. In short, real.”

A bit simplistic, to be sure (and owing not so subtly to the Hegelian master-slave dialetic), but fairly plausible.

The real wonder of identity politics is that it turns the whole notion of political representation upside down. The Founders designed an institutional framework in which the interests, not the identity, of the people are supposed to be represented; that interests and identities can and often converge is no reason to conflate the two.

But now the situation is reversed: identity now has priority over interests (witness the ridiculous HRC supporters who proclaim that they will support the McCain-Palin ticket).

The priority of identity over interests in contemporary American politics raises a serious challenge to Rawls’ concept of the veil of ignorance, because identity politics violate the most fundamental epistemic condition of the veil, namely, that people have no knowledge of who they are. Instead, in the original position, people choose public policies based on a strategy of risk minimization, a strategy of rational pursuit of self-interest.

But with identity politics, the fundamental epistemic condition is violated, because the very nature of identity politics depends on one’s knowledge of self-identity, something that is explicitly denied in the original position. What this means that risk minimization as a strategy is abandoned in favor of maximizing rewards for one’s own identity group, whatever it might be.

What about Obama’s campaign though, which has billed itself as running a post-identity politics campaign? But a closer examination reveals that even a “post”-identity politics is still a identity-based politics, namely, the identification of those who deny identifications.

I’m not optmistic that we can ever get out of this cycle, and I think we are better off if we just adopted a Rawlsian approach (as problematic as it may be) and just voted out of rational self-interest.


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