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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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The following is an excerpt from Who Are We -- And Should it Matter in the Twenty-First Century? by Gary Younge (Nation Books, 2011).

Over a breakfast of pancakes, bacon and scrambled eggs in a backroom in the Nuggett Casino in Pahrump, rural Nevada, the conversation among around 40 men turned to the most auspicious moment for armed insurrection.

“The last thing we want to see is to break out our arms,” said one. “But we need to have ’em in hand, and the government needs to know that we will use [our arms] if they continue down the path they’re on. I’m not promoting arms against our government. But the government needs to know if they go past a certain line in the sand that will take place. That’s why we have the second amendment. That’s why it says we should have a well-regulated militia. Do we have a well-regulated militia? No, we don’t. We’re not even ready. We need to get ready.”

Another, fearing such talk could give a visiting journalist the wrong impression, insisted few in the room would agree with such a ridiculous view.

“This talk about taking up arms against the government is ridiculous, and I don’t think many people in this room believe that. We have a lot of legal avenues to exhaust before we ever get to that.”

But it turned out quite a few did. “Look how much damage Barack Obama and his socialist congress did in eighteen months,” bellowed another. “It could take us ten years to undo this crap. And you say we can’t consider using weapons.”

They call it the “old farts’ club”: a gathering of elderly, conservative men (all but two of them are white) that has been meeting every Friday morning for the last five years at the Nugget for breakfast and a bull session. On the day I was there (just a few days before the 2010 midterm elections), they discussed topics that ranged from judges— one calls for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to be removed from the Supreme Court—to the fate of a local park. The discussions are spirited, but it is a warm, convivial, garrulous bunch.

For all that, however, one cannot escape a pervasive sense of fear in the room that portends some encroaching, escalating and all-encompassing calamity. The list of sources for this fear seems endless: the media, illegal immigrants, gays, civil rights leadership, the judiciary, Democrats, liberals, establishment Republicans, China, government, schools, the coastal states in general, California in particular. Each place setting comes with a copy of the Constitution: a sacred document being violated by the government. When I ask how many believe they are living in tyranny, they all raise their hands. When I ask how many believe President Obama was born in the United States, only one raises an arm.

Being a white man in America is not what it used to be. True, wherever power is exercised that demographic group is overrepresented and has been for centuries. They also earn more than women of any race, more than men of any other race (except Asians) and more than most people in most countries. And yet the sense of fragility as a cohort is palpable. Before a single vote had been cast for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that saw Obama face off against Hillary Clinton, Esquire ran a cover asking: “Can a white man still be elected president?” and a book had been released titled: The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma.

But while the nature of the crisis might be miscast the notion that there is a crisis is difficult to deny.

 
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