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'Can a White Man Still Be Elected President?' How Identity Politics Are Creating Public Anxiety and Moral Panic

While identity is a crucial place to start in politics, it is a terrible place to finish. As a prism, it is both crucial and deeply flawed.

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For working and middle-class white men—the overwhelming majority—their race, gender and nationality had done little to shield them from the economic ravages of the new global economy. Over the last generation median income for white American men has stalled as has social mobility, taking with it the very American notion that each year will be better than the next and each successive generation more prosperous.

This sense of regression has been particularly acute for men. Women are more likely to apply and graduate from a university than men, and in some metropolitan centers women under 25 earn more than their male peers. Even if things have been getting tougher because of the economic cycle, most women born in or before 1980 had more options (economic, social, sexual and academic) than their mothers.

Many blamed these problems, in part or in whole, on the outside world. From 47 countries polled by Pew in 2007, Americans showed the sharpest decline in their support for foreign trade and had the least positive view of it. By at the latest 2030 China’s GDP will overtake America. The United States may have been one of the principal motors of neoliberal globalization, but its citizens are also its victims.

To the sting of economic vulnerability has been added the indignity of geopolitical decline and the erosion of the myth of invincibility that lay at the heart of America’s post–World War II national identity. As the sole global superpower since the end of the Cold War, the United States was once able to rig the competition with carrots, sticks and, if need be, B52s. Now it must accept that Indians, Chinese, Brazilians and others can also change the rules.

“Owing to the relative decline of its economic and, to a lesser extent, military power, the US will no longer have the same flexibility in choosing among as many policy options,” concluded the National Intelligence Council (which coordinates analysis from all US intelligence agencies) shortly after Obama’s election. The report acknowledged that, while the United States would remain the single most powerful force in the world, its relative strength and potential leverage are waning.

This downward trajectory was, in no small part, aggravated by failed wars against predominantly Muslim countries that followed terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists and that also sparked something close to a moral panic among the Right at home. A national furor was sparked by plans to build an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan. There were protests against the “9/11 mosque.” But this was not about either 9/11, which had taken place almost a decade earlier and several blocks away, or a mosque, given that no such thing was being built. It was a crude attempt to invent the kind of enemy that could rally popular prejudice around an increasingly narrow nationalist agenda. And it worked. At the height of the controversy one in three Americans said a Muslim should not be allowed to stand for president. In a referendum in 2010 more than 70 percent of Oklahomans voted to ban the introduction of Sharia law in a state where Muslims comprise less than .2 percent of the population.

Finally came a portentous, generational demographic shift at home where almost half the children born the year Obama was elected were nonwhite and by 2042 whites will be a minority in the country as a whole.

When activists from the tea party, which is overwhelmingly white, insist “We want our country back,” this is partly what they are referring to, albeit usually implicitly. It was in this period that the country elected a black president, with an African name and a foreign father who was a nonpracticing Muslim. Those who claim opposition to Obama is fuelled by race are looking through far too narrow a lens. Racism not only does not explain all of the opposition; it isn’t even the half of it.

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