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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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Back at the Nugget the participants in the Old Fart’s Club understood this only too well. So sick were they of being accused of racism that they raised the question of the accusation themselves only so they could deny it. Meanwhile Nevada boasted the highest rates of unemployment and home foreclosures in the country, and the proportion of Latinos in the state is set to double in just a generation. It was just a few days before the midterm elections, and the “Old Farts” were ready to turn the tide. Across the country the Republican Right was resurgent and nowhere more so than here. The governor’s race was all but sewn up for Republican Brian Sandoval. And the old farts didn’t think there was a chance tea party candidate Sharron Angle could lose to Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid unless Reid cheated by registering “illegal aliens.” And so it was that this loyal and enthusiastic band of conservative white men dispersed to do everything in their power to secure the election of the first female senator and Latino governor in the state’s history.

Identity is like fire, both an essential component of daily life and yet so elemental that its existence and influence is often overlooked. It can create warmth and comfort or burn badly and destroy. It is at the forefront of some of the most inspiring achievements in world political history, whether it be women’s suffrage, the end of apartheid or advances in gay rights. But it has also taken center stage in the most lurid moments of global affairs – the Holocaust, and the wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Identity can make connections over oceans, languages, generations and cultures. On the day the United States went to the polls in 2008 to elect a new president, Obama Sorin Ilie Scoica was born in the tiny Romanian village of Rusciori. “When I saw Obama on TV, my heart swelled with joy. I thought he was one of us Roma because of his skin colour,” said Maria Savu, the boy’s grandmother, who hoped his name would bring him luck.

But identity can also sow division among those who live side by side. On the day that Obama Scoica was born, 94 percent of black Californians voted for Barack Obama and around 55 percent voted against gay marriage. Black churches were the focal point for both efforts. The largest democracy in the world (India) and the newest electorates (Iraq and Afghanistan) have political cultures underpinned by allegiance to sects, castes, religion, warlords or ethnic groups. No one is immune from these contradictions. None of us comes to politics from a vacuum—we arrive with affiliations that mold our worldview. It was no coincidence that women led the charge for female suffrage or that Ghanaians spearheaded the battle for Ghanaian independence. Had they waited for men or the British occupier to come around to these ideas, they might still be waiting.

On the one hand, we are all more alike than we are unalike. Whether it’s the Manchester United-supporting, fish-and-chip-eating bombers of the London transport system; the homophobic Colorado preacher who paid for sex with a male prostitute or the Bush family and its long history of connections with the bin Ladens, the “other” is rarely as foreign or as threatening as we are led to believe. Growing numbers of us watch the same shows, eat the same food and wear the same brands. Never have we traveled as much, interbred as much or conversed as much. In their own gnarly, voluble, cantankerous, genial way, the participants of the Old Farts Club were familiar to anyone who has ever encountered a gathering of old men anywhere in the world.

 
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