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

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.

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.

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.

On the other hand, the ways in which we are unalike matter. For all that is common in the human experience, the differences are stark and, in some respects, getting starker, and it is these differences that are increasingly creating the framework for political activity, public anxiety and, at times, moral panic.

In 2008, France denied citizenship to a 32-year-old Moroccan-born woman who was married to a French national, had lived in the country for eight years, spoke good French and had three French-born children, because they believed she was a Muslim fundamentalist. Within half an hour’s train ride from Brussels, the polyglot home to both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Commission, children in Flemish schools are not allowed to speak French on the playground. In China, they have banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission in the hope of crushing nationalist dissent. As familiar as the characters at the Old Farts Club are, their particular obsessions with guns, God and Obama would shock many not only globally but also in the United States. Obvious as it may seem, it bears emphasizing – if only because so many well-meaning people are in denial about it – that, in all sorts of ways, our differences make a difference.

To what extent can our various identities be mobilized to accentuate our universal humanity as opposed to separating us off into various, antagonistic camps? At what point does refusing to acknowledge the importance of difference become a callous denial of human diversity, and when does stressing it become an indulgent and insidious obstruction to what could potentially unite us? When can identity inspire, how can it inflame, what drives it, who does it empower and what does it enable them to do? These are questions that go beyond philosophy to the central issue of power – who has it, how do they wield it and in whose interests do they use it?

That identity stands at the core of political activity is not a new idea. But until relatively recently, in the West, it was tempered by the understanding that the interests of various groups could be filtered through democratic activity and should be underpinned by human rights. Elected majorities would rule while minorities would have protection. That, at least, was the promise and the model. But the escalation of neo-liberal globalization has eroded the relevance of the basic unit of democracy—the nation state—and in so doing disabled the levers previously available to assert our collective will on the world. In the absence of any meaningful way to advance their interests as citizens, many retreat into their laagers of place, race, religion – to name but a few – as a means of self-defense.

But 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. None of the identities we generally work with are even remotely as definite as commonly believed. The dividing lines of who is what and why shift and blur. The French government’s efforts to combat Islamic extremism by banning headscarves in schools were triggered by two sisters who converted to Islam, whose father is a Sephardic Jew. Despite America’s self-image as the primary 21st-century civilizing force, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe in angels and miracles and, among countries where people believe religion to be very important, America is closer to Pakistan and Nigeria than to France or Germany. The world champion in the women’s 800 meters, South African Caster Semenya, had to undergo gender-verification tests in 2009 to prove she was really a woman.

It is in no small part because the borders of our identities are so porous and fluid that some seek to police them so rigorously. Appeals to the innate, fixed, pure and essential nature of any identity are the stock-in-trade of any fundamentalist and generally have the same effect – to isolate one particular group from the rest of the human race.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections,” wrote Edmund Burke in Reflections on the French Revolution. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.”

On the face of it, to underline our common and universal humanity seems obvious to the point of being trite: a “Kumbayah” for all seasons; the weak, inadequate balm applied to minimum effect by the vicar, stoner or diplomat; an agenda for those who espouse global citizenship, Esperanto and a whole litany of other worthy utopian projects that are never going to happen. And yet, at the root of all of this lies the deeply radical notion that those various ways in which we are distinct are dwarfed by the essential facts of our commonality: facts that have simultaneously been brought to the fore by global issues—from climate change to various epidemics— that pose a potential threat to us as a species, even as they have been diminished by efforts to dismantle the post–World War II consensus that human rights are universal.

The United Nations charter on asylum is routinely ignored, while the Geneva Convention on torture has been declared obsolete. Meanwhile, freedom of movement is now only supported in the most abstract terms. The world’s poor quite simply do not have the right to travel in an effort to improve their lives, while many governments have assumed the right to snatch people off the street and transport them across the world to be tortured. For the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who roam the globe without papers, rights or citizenship, the crucial issue is not to have their particular identity recognized but to have their essential humanity acknowledged and respected.

In 2009, more than 100 immigrants, roughly a quarter of them children, were found living in a sewer system under Rome’s railway stations. Above ground, an anti-Gypsy pogrom took place in Naples while prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (who would later become embroiled in a sex-scandal with a teenage Moroccan model) branded undocumented workers “an army of evil” and voiced his opposition to a multiethnic society. It was just one, graphic metaphor in a world of many illustrating global economic inequality, local racial fragility and general political anomie.

But to evoke universal humanism also throws down a gauntlet to the Pan-Africanist, Islamist, Zionist, patriot, radical feminist and others, to reach beyond their immediate term of reference and make common cause on the basis of a common bond – our humanity. Women may have led the charge for suffrage, but there were many men who supported them, and many women who did not. Ghanaians may have led the campaign for independence, but there were Britons who supported them and Ghanaians who did not. Ghanaian independence and feminism, in turn, had their ideological roots in aspirations of liberation and equality that go beyond either anticolonialism or gender equality. People are not hostage to their identities – we have free will, imagination, morality and principle.

“The acorn becomes an oak by means of automatic growth,” writes psychologist Rollo May in Man’s Search for Himself. “No commitment is necessary. The kitten similarly becomes a cat on the basis of instinct. Nature and being are identical in creatures like them. But a man or woman becomes fully human only by his or her choices and his or her commitment to them. People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage.”

Easy decisions take no courage at all. Most of us grow into our identities as easily as acorns do into oaks – rarely questioning, resisting or protesting those events that do not appear to affect us directly. It is the difficult decisions, the ones that have consequences, challenge orthodoxies, bear risk and threaten status, that take real courage.

One would think such courage would easily find a political home. The Left, after all, made great strides through the sixties and early seventies thanks to the advances of civil rights, gay rights, feminism and anticolonialism, and still nominally supports its historical contributions. But by the early nineties, much of the Left had come to regard the politics of identity as an obstacle to further progress rather than an opportunity for it.

For others on the Left, the journey into the more vague area of identity marks so great a departure from the hallowed class struggle that they are simply unable to take it seriously. Orthodox Marxists believe anyone who has been distracted by the fickle matters of gender, region, ethnicity, race, religion – anything that cannot be reduced to the relations of production – has essentially been duped.

They have half a point. To the extent to which class is about the distribution of resources, there is very little in politics that makes sense unless one understands its class dimension; but, similarly, there is very little that makes sense when viewed only through the prism of class. So while it may be true that the powerful exploit difference in order to divide the powerless and thereby strengthen their grip, it is no less true that the powerful did not invent difference and oftentimes need do little to keep it alive. Otherwise, the only way to explain poor white Republicans or Hindu nationalists is as people who don’t understand what’s best for them.

“The anguish and disorientation which finds expression in this hunger to belong, and hence ‘the politics of identity’ is no more a moving force of history than the hunger for ‘law and order’ which is an equally understandable response to another aspect of social disorganization,” writes Eric Hobsbawm in Nations and Nationalism. “Both are symptoms of sickness rather than diagnoses, let alone therapy.”

This would be news to Zimbabwe’s Shona, Serbian nationalists and British jihadis—to mention but a few—who have “moved history” through their identities in ways that have little connection to the therapeutic.

While liberals occasionally pay lip service to an agenda of social equality that they no longer believe in, conservatives have done the opposite. In principle, the Right has long been opposed to the very idea that identity has any relation to politics at all.

In practice, however, it was always only particular identities the Right had a problem with. Appealing to white, male and national identities has been a central part of conservative politics for more than a century. Indeed, over the last couple of decades, the most full-throated claims of powerlessness and discrimination have come from conservatives in their defense of the most powerful groups in society. When Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina of Puerto Rican parentage, to the Supreme Court, the Right behaved as if the sky would fall in. Even though the court contained six white men—and one black man and one white woman—the threat to white men was, apparently, palpable. “God help you if you’re a white male coming before her bench,” said Republican leader Michael Steele (who, incidentally, is black).

Shortly after the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European elections in 2009, its leader, Nick Griffin, conceded there was a “huge amount of racism in this country,” before going on to explain that “overwhelmingly, it’s directed against the indigenous British majority [by which he means white people]. . . . It’s the indigenous majority who are the second-class citizens in every possible sphere, not as a consequence of themselves but because our ruling elite has made us second-class citizens.” The BNP’s magazine is called Identity.

Oftentimes the Right will appropriate the symbols of the Left, to hilarious effect. Back in 2003, Roy Moore, the former Republican chief justice of Alabama, led a failed bid to keep a monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. “If the ‘rule of law’ means to do everything a judge tells you to do,” he said, “we would still have slavery in this country.” I remember standing in amazement on the steps of the courthouse watching people in T-shirts that proclaimed “Islam is a lie, homosexuality is a sin, abortion is murder,” as they sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and waved the Confederate flag – the emblem of the slave-holding South.

The absurdity is not the Right’s use of identity per se. There is nothing inherent in any identity, or the politics that emerge from it, that makes it necessarily either reactionary or progressive. The rights of white people, Christians or men are no less important than those of black people, Muslims or women. The issue is whether those who seek to rally those groups are campaigning for rights that should be exclusive or universal.

The only arena in which identity has been explicitly and consciously embraced in recent years has been marketing. At the Republican convention that nominated George Bush as its presidential candidate in 2000, the leadership felt the need to transform the party’s image, which many Americans regarded as backward-looking, narrow and elitist. To counter that impression, the three cochairs for the convention were an African-American, a Latino and a white single mother. The headline speaker on the first day was Colin Powell. The primetime news slot the next day went to Condoleezza Rice. On the opening night, the pledge of allegiance was delivered by a blind mountaineer while a black woman sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On one later night of the convention, the entertainment featured Harold Melvin (black) and Jon Secada (Cuban). The convention was closed by Chaka Khan.

But while the emphasis in presentation was on race and ethnicity, the message was not directed at minority voters (whom the Republican party would effectively disenfranchise in order eventually to “win” the election). “What the Republicans are doing is aimed more at white Americans,” said David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “Moderates do not want someone who’s negative on race. It says something very significant about America as a whole.” Race had simply become a signifier of the Republican desire not to appear mean-spirited.

Similarly, in 2002, the British newspaper the Daily Mail printed a picture of a range of non-white Metropolitan police staff with a caption stating: “It is a picture that reflects changing times and attitudes within the police service . . . this exclusive picture of Yard employees shows forces are beginning to reflect the racial mix of the community they serve.” The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. At the time, ethnic minorities made up 25 percent of the capital’s population but only 4.5 percent of Met staff. Just a month earlier, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner, had conceded he might look abroad for black and Asian recruits because he could not attract them in the UK.

They call this “diversity.” A decent idea – that an institution should look like the people it serves and the world in which it operates – has spawned an industry of consultants, advisers and departments that, between them, have corporatized identity beyond all meaning. Having eviscerated from the issue of representation all notions of fairness, equality and justice, “equal opportunities” morph effortlessly into photo opportunities – a way of making things look different but act the same. It is what radical Angela Davis once described to me as “the difference that brings no difference, the change that brings no change.”

So identity lay abandoned – publicly derided and hypocritically exploited by the Right; willfully neglected or carelessly promoted by the Left; shamelessly embraced and marketized by the corporate world. The notion is vulnerable to cynicism but can also act as the lynchpin to great acts of solidarity. It has the potential to be both source and pollutant: the starting point for some of the most inspirational moments in politics; the endpoint for some of the most insidious.

“At a market, a Hutu can spot a Tutsi at 50 meters, and vice versa,” Innocent Rwililiza, a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide, told Jean Hatzfeld in Into the Quick of Life. “But to admit to any difference is a taboo subject, even among ourselves...We have never been comfortable with these nuances which exist between us. In certain ways, ethnicity is like AIDS, the less you dare talk of it the more ravages it causes.”

But the way you talk about it matters. So let’s talk about it properly.

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