The Bored Identity

by Jonathan Chait | November 19, 2008

A few days ago, I wrote a column about identity politics and Democratic presidencies. My argument was that the focus on social issues in general and identity politics in particular derailed the first two years of the Clinton presidency, and the return of identity-politics mau-mauing represents a threat to Obama’s presidency.

Ann Friedman of The American Prospect has written a response that offers a symptom of the illness I tried to diagnose. Very little of her rebuttal even attempts to engage with my argument. In my column, I noted that the Clinton attorney general fiasco hurt Clinton in part because it became clear that the job had been reserved for a female. Friedman asserts, without offering any support for her contention, that the administration simply bumbled its attorney general vetting process, and “the fact that ‘the spot was reserved for a woman’ was not the cause of this bumbling.”

Friedman is doubly wrong here. First, the administration’s mania for diversity played a direct role in the haste and shoddiness of its appointment process. As The New York Times reported at the time,

A senior official of the Carter Administration, who is not in the Clinton Administration, drew a second moral. The emphasis placed by Mr. Clinton on diversity, she said, “became almost a quota system as things got out of hand in the final days of the transition, and that was a mistake because it led to a game of musical chairs, with not enough concern for who was best qualified for what job, and not enough thought about political consequences.”

In the interest of finding enough women, blacks and Hispanic-Americans, several prospective nominees were shunted aside during that period, and Ms. Baird was moved hastily into the attorney general's slot.

Second, the revelation that Clinton had reserved the attorney general position for a woman was indeed damaging, for the obvious reason that set-asides were and are highly unpopular. Clinton had to publicly deny that the A.G. position had been a set-aside, though the reality that he had done so was obvious enough to be reported as fact in the press. Even those who supported his decision conceded that it was politically costly. Clinton, wrote Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, “took a lot of heat for singling out women as his primary contenders for attorney general. Even some women worried that he would devalue the job by making it seem an affirmative-action appointment.”

I further contended in my column that the complaints from minority groups, and the perception that Clinton was scrambling to meet their demands, was the most damaging aspect of all. This, along with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” helped change the primary subject from the economy, where Clinton enjoyed strong majority support, to social issues, where he did not. Here is what Newsweek reported:

Aides portray Clinton as "dumbfounded" by his image as a star-struck, old-fashioned liberal. The notion that he is preoccupied with gay issues strikes him as particularly preposterous. He often protests that a time-management survey of his first hundred days showed he only spent two and a half hours on the military ban. "I don't understand it," he recently told a friend. "I'm working on the economy all the time, and everything is ‘gay rights’." What Clinton is beginning to understand is that any highly sensitive cultural issue, like gays or quotas, is a magnet for controversy.”

Friedman does not explain why she thinks my interpretation of Clinton’s troubles is wrong. Instead she treats her readers to straw man arguments, such as “Raising concerns about the makeup of Obama's Cabinet is not the same thing as threatening to defect from the coalition altogether.”

Of course it isn’t. I never said that left-wing feminists would stop voting Democratic, nor do I believe it. (Nor, for that matter, do I categorically oppose Cabinet-level affirmative action. What I wrote in opposition to was ruling out a clearly superior candidate solely on the basis of since-retracted comments that are irrelevant to his job, and a pundit who demanded that Obama appoint a women or minorities to Treasury and Defense.)

Near the end of her column, Friedman offers up this odd note: “I don't think Obama is losing sleep over whether appointing Larry Summers to Treasury would piss off feminists. He's losing sleep over how he's going to fix the major economic mess this country is in.” So, after devoting more than a thousand words to defending the identity politics left, she concedes in the end that Obama will probably ignore them, and therefore succeed? Then what on earth is her point?

Her point, as it happens, is perfectly clear. Read these excerpts from her column and see if you can detect a theme:

Now (mostly white, mostly male) commentators are arguing that unless Barack Obama can keep the Democratic Party's "identity groups" in check, he's going to have a hard time being a successful president. …

The valiant defenders of the place of white men in the Democratic Party are worried, once again, that women, people of color, and gay folks will screw it all up for them. …

The subtext? Women, people of color, and gay people are the ones making things difficult for Obama, and if they don't stop speaking up for their interests, they are poised to screw it all up for the Democratic Party and its all-important straight-white-dude constituency (you know, the constituency that doesn't have an identity), which clearly knows what's best for everyone. …

Chait uses his version of history to warn women/people of color/queers to stop speaking up…

In the context of this debate about Cabinet appointments, "identity politics" is more or less derisive shorthand for "women, people of color, immigrants, gay people speaking up for themselves." …

I don't think the white dudes have anything to fear…

A healthy Democratic coalition is not one in which women and queers and people of color are told to sit down and shut up.

Hey, did you know that I’m male? And white? As a writer, I have a morbid curiosity as to how an editorial product like this could have come about. (Friedman: “So, how do you like my draft?” Editor: “I think you need to make it a little more clear that Chait is a white male.”) But as an ideological matter, it’s a drearily familiar trope.

She’s trying to imply that I’m bigoted or that my views are illegitimate because I am not a member of an oppressed class. I prefer the old-fashioned notion that an idea can be judged on its merits, quite apart from the identity of who makes it. But Friedman clearly subscribes to the identity politics critique that all ideas reflect race and gender perspective, and to protest otherwise is a cover for white male privilege. Friedman accuses me of dismissing other people’s views on the basis of their race or gender. But I’m not doing that. Friedman is doing that.

This style of political discourse is relatively harmless when confined to liberal campuses and the other small left-wing enclaves where it predominates. But, when it’s let loose upon the national stage, the vast majority of Americans run screaming in the other direction. Friedman’s column perfectly illustrates the very problem she’s trying to deny exists.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.


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