Identity Politics Is A Dead End
Discern political identity from policy choices and outcomes.
I think that on some intuitive level, I have always known that political identity didn’t matter to me. I remember when I was a young Republican. I remember voting for Ronald Reagan in my first election. I remember that I was somewhat focused on the policy positions he promoted. Still, I was young, and I had an idealized notion of what he wanted to do. I didn’t identify with Reagan, but I was interested in the policy choices he promoted.
As I grew older, I became disenchanted with politics. I was even “apolitical” for a few years, avoiding elections altogether. But I kept coming back to it. For about a year, I solicited signatures for petitions in California as a day job. For a couple of years, I was a member of the Libertarian Party, and I helped a tiny bit in the campaign to unseat Bob “B-1” Dornan by promoting the Libertarian Party candidate, Richard Boddie. As I approached middle age, I became liberal, and I registered as a Democrat.
Throughout the years, in all of my activities concerning politics, and party affiliation, I was more concerned with public policy agendas than I was with personalities. Long ago, I heard someone say, “principles before personalities” and that kind of reinforced my philosophy about politics. Generally, I’m non-partisan. I’m agnostic about the party or the candidate because what matters to me is the policy agenda.
Over the decades that I’ve participated in politics, I’ve become keenly aware that there are good and bad ideas across the political spectrum. There is something for everybody across the spectrum of politics. I’ve found that some ideas attract my attention more than others. Some ideas deserve my support more than others, and there are some issues that I’m passionate about.
I think it was in 2016 that I began to take an interest in the party machinery. I followed the story of Bernie Sanders very closely. I noticed how the elites in the party worked against Sanders and his allies. I saw how hard the top brass in the Democratic Party worked to keep Sanders and his delegates out of the decision-making process concerning the party platform. Even now, in 2020, there is a very intense struggle to prevent progressives from getting their hands on the levers of power within the Democratic Party.
I used to think it was just Democrats doing this. I’d watch their elections and see how the money primarily worked to keep or elect moderates at all levels of government. I also noticed that progressives have been landing some severe blows on the Democratic Party leadership over the last two years. First, with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and then with a few of her peers running in 2018. And this year, I’m noticing that quite a few progressives are winning primaries around the country, and one of them defeated a 40-year incumbent. I am mindful that this election is not about who wins or loses. This election is about who is involved in setting the policy agenda.
For a long time, I had thought that it was just the Democrats trying to limit the progressive influence on their platforms. The Democratic elite is always trying to restrict outsider influence on the party platform. But then I notice articles that were describing the same thing with the Republican Party. In particular, I’d like to point out and highlight an article on this topic that I found to be instructive.
“Life of the Grand Old Party”, from US News And World Report, starts out discussing the “autopsy” of the 2012 election, a report on what went wrong in 2012 with suggestions on how the GOP could improve voter relations and make their tent bigger. You might recall that in 2012, Mitt Romney lost the race to the White House to Barack Obama. You might also remember that the GOP lost a fair number of seats in Congress that year, enough seats to give them pause to reflect on what happened.
Though many of the suggestions made in that “autopsy” report did make it to see the light of day in the GOP, there were some glaring omissions. The biggest omissions concerned minority voter engagement. The US News article notes that today the elites in the GOP maintain a distant and aloof relationship with minorities. The GOP talks a good game about minority engagement, but they have been unwilling to allow minority influence on the party platform and policy positions.
As the US News article notes, giving minorities many positions within the GOP without giving them any say on the platform’s direction and shape is like selling a car without an engine. This dynamic implies racism in the Republican Party. I’ve debated racism in the GOP with others in social media. GOP supporters will often tell me about all the great things that the GOP has been doing for minorities in America.
They will tell me how great the economy was. They will say to me how low unemployment has been for blacks under Trump, and yet they speak not a word about the quality of the jobs that minorities, more often than not, get. They will go on to tell me that the GOP is not nearly as racist as the Democrats. They wax on about how liberal policies foster a dependence on the government in African Americans and other minorities. But they seem unaware of how disconnected minorities are from the levers of policy decisions in the GOP as described by the Newsweek article above.
When I see a struggle over power, in any party, in any jurisdiction, within any group, I know that struggle isn’t about political identity. Power struggles are about who gets to make the decisions. This is what I appreciate about the story of Bernie Sanders. He said, “it’s not about me; it’s about us.” He was and still is raising awareness of the many ways that people have been disenfranchised.
When I use the term “disenfranchised,” I’m not just talking about the right to vote. I’m also talking about the right to participate in the policymaking process. I’m even talking about the right to participate in the nomination process. I am reminded of Larry Lessig’s video from a TEDTalk; our democracy no longer represents the people. Here’s how we fix it. In that video, Lessig quotes a famous politician of the 19th century, “Boss” Tweed:
“I don’t care who does the electing, as long as I get to do the nominating” (see video at 2:23)
Again, we see this exclusionary dynamic in the Democrat and Republican parties. Both political parties strive to limit outsider influence on the party platform and agenda. Both parties seek to limit the power of people outside of their power structures to have a voice in determining the fate of the people in the country. When people are excluded from the decision-making process at the party level, that’s a subtle form of disenfranchisement. It’s more subtle than and not that far from being excluded from the nomination process.
In any political system, people who seek to disenfranchise other people seek the power to determine the fate of another with impunity. In other words, one group seeks to impose its will upon another group without consequence. This dynamic is a common thread throughout American history. We know this to be true because people have been protesting in the streets for weeks now.
People protest when they cannot be heard any other way. If you deny people the power to choose the nominees and the planks of a party platform, you will almost certainly be confronted with angry citizens at the city hall, or pitchforks at your house in the dead of night.
The stated reason for the protest is the killing of many men by the police, George Floyd being the latest in a long train of abuses. The underlying reason for the protests is that public policy decisions have been made that allowed the police to act without being held accountable. This lack of accountability was further enabled by the courts and the legislatures and police unions who are incapable of policing themselves.
Remember what I was saying about how the elites seek to limit the influence of the governed on the rules of the government? Well, in New Jersey, a familiar drama is playing out. After many court rulings intended to force the police to be accountable to the citizens served by the police, the police union has exerted enough influence to prevent meaningful outside oversight. The police union used its power to avoid oversight from those who are governed to hold the police department accountable. Again, we see that one faction seeks to determine the fate of another with impunity.
When a police officer viciously beats a citizen with a baton while his fellow officers look on and then petitions the court for qualified immunity, he asks for impunity. Is it any wonder why police are the target of rocks, bottles, and other projectiles in some jurisdictions? If the police can be violent with impunity, and the courts say so, there is no mystery.
This dynamic, the tendency of one faction to exclude another from the decision-making process, exists on many levels, too many to go into here. I just wanted to highlight a few here. I want people to notice that it’s not enough to know the rules — understanding the rules is essential — we must also participate in the rulemaking process. But that’s rather hard when you’re not allowed to participate.
Many Americans have been working 2 or 3 jobs. Many Americans work full time and still can’t make ends meet. Many Americans are lucky if they have the time to show up at the city hall on Tuesday nights to see what’s going on. Many American’s can’t afford or have no access to an internet connection with the bandwidth to stream the city council in action.
Many more Americans cannot afford to attend the state convention of either major political party. Only a select few can visit the national convention, Democrat or Republican. That select few can be seen sitting at the US Open for tennis, following the leaderboard of the US Open in golf, taking in a baseball game at the World Series, or attending the Super Bowl. That’s political power in America.
While I don’t know the solution to the problem at hand, I think it’s essential to define the problem: some very wealthy and influential people in America believe it is their right to determine the fate of others with impunity just because they have the power to do it. I think we can start there.
That is why I believe identity politics is dead. Politics is not about the identities of the leaders of our country. It’s about the public policy agendas they promote.