Thursday, September 11, 2008

Identity Politics

Today, in my Culture of Dissent class (taught by the inimitable Jan Urban, a Czech dissident from the Velvet Revolution and an excellent journalist in Bosnia, and Kosovo), we discussed the rather difficult question of why Communism proved to be popular.

The answer, from my point of view, is one having to do with the nature of identity in the 20th Century. There are many people who don't believe themselves to be very philosophical in their everyday life (philosophy being a very 'elite' passtime), but in point of fact, everyone has philosophical ideas and worldviews. And one of the big philosophical questions is, "Who am I? What is my identity?"

People base a surprising amount of their political convictions and idealisms based on who they think they are. For instance, one of the reasons that Americans have consistently voted for tax cuts for the wealthy is an array of polls which show that Americans consistently think that they are wealthier than they actually are (which corresponds to the way that they think they're thinner than they actually are).

We talked about the appeal of communism in the Industrial Revolution era. In order to understand it, you need to take a village-eye view of the change. The poor serfs, living in small rural communities, lived in an era with very little mobility. They were engaged in occupations passed down to them from generations, among a small community of people they knew. As the industrial revolution came to pass, serfdom was abolished: they were not necessary anymore. A vacuum formed, which sucked these serfs into the city. Suddenly they were in a huge community, much larger than themselves. Whatever they had previously been known for, through their family, was no longer a mark of identity. They passed by nameless and faceless masses everyday; they worked alongside nameless and faceless masses that did exactly what they did. There was no honor in their new work: they were (proverbially) just another cog in the machine; just another brick in the wall. They had been robbed of their identity, their purpose, and their security.

It was rather like going to a large college after being in a small high school.

At any rate, they needed a new identity. Communism provided that. It gave them a name for themselves: proletariat. It gave them a cause for their misery: bourgoisie. It told them that not only were the proletariat powerful, they were the single most powerful force of history: and that it was historically determined that they must succeed.

So, to turn to contemporary politics: during the Cold War, these identity politics broke apart into large dualisms: Communists and Capitalists on the world stage, and Democrats and Republicans on the American stage (note that third parties were still a noticeable force until World War Two). Ideology became, for one of the few times in American history, a primary source of identification: Democrats, Reds, Anti-Communists, Republicans, Socialists, Peaceniks, Hippies. All of these tags were ideological in nature. They gave people a sense of identity.

Today, these two grand coalitions seem more fractured. At least, the Republican camp seems to have split decisively into moderates, libertarians, neoconservatives, and social conservatives. A messy primary season filled with candidates who did not fully appeal to any of these groups (with the exception of Mike Huckabee for social conservatives and the Ron Paul movement for Libertarians) left people on the right with a lack of a sense of direction. Many of these people identified themselves as Republican strongly, without being on board with many of the actions or beliefs of other Republicans.

A big tip-off to me that this identity politics is coming apart? Obama has a large following of so-called Obamicans (Republicans for Obama). Notice, of course, that they are still calling themselves Republicans despite voting for Obama. I'm not necessarily saying that they aren't actually Republicans, but I'm noticing that their insistence is on defining themselves by a party affiliation which, in this election, may not be entirely accurate.

One of my favorite sayings to hear is "I've been a life-long Republican, but I'm considering voting Democrat." Notice the phrase "life-long." This is put forward as a positive, even though being a life-long Republican might imply that you've supported characters like George W. Bush, Nixon, or Reagan (in the same way that a life-long Democrat must have supported Carter, Dukakis, McGovern).

But this is the way people have previously identified themselves.

But with a hyper-specification of polls, there is a new level of identification going on. We hear it today on the news all the time. Demographics. Very small clusters of identity. How are middle-aged women going to vote? What about older men? Young black men in rural towns? These statistics can all be coallated. And apparently, they matter. And although women's groups have been condemning Palin since she was first put on the ticket, the latest poll shows that McCain has indeed spiked among women.

The question, I suppose, is whether we can move past identity politics. Barack Obama (in my opinion) has a way of addressing that. He appeals to people to vote not as Democrats, or Republicans, or as black and whites, but as Americans. This isn't just a trite slogan of identification: he's asking us to identify ourselves as America, and vote in such a way that doesn't just benefit my group or your group or any group, but benefits all of America.

And the question is: will it work.