A Discussion of Identity Politics In this election season, one candidate is identified as African-American; another as a woman. Does this change the way you view politics? Should it?
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A Discussion of Identity Politics

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Now, identity politics. It's when people of the same race, gender or ethnic group organize around a candidate of the same background. And it's been part of America's political landscape for several decades. Some decry the role of identity politics in our national life, while others argue it may be necessary to address historic injustices. And in this year's presidential election with a woman and an African-American battling for the Democratic nomination, identity politics could play a role in shaping the outcome of the campaign.

What does identity politics mean to you? Does it define your political views? Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And of course you can comment on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Joining us now to talk about this is Stanley Fish. He's an online columnist for New York Times. His most recent column, "When 'Identity Politics' is Rational." He joins us from member station WXEL, in Boynton Beach, Florida.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Fish.

Mr. STANLEY FISH (Online Columnist, The New York Times): Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

NEARY: Now in your article, your present a very specific definition of identity politics. A little different from the way I described it above. Explain what you mean by it.

Mr. FISH: Well what I mean by it and what I think is meant in some of the academic literature, is voting on the basis of a mocker of identity. That is someone's gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation rather than voting on the ideas and policies that a candidate advocates. So that you make what we might call the tribal identification - your primary and perhaps even your sole reason for voting.

NEARY: But you argue that there is a place for identity politics when - if I understand it correctly - when it's clearly tied to a person's policy views as well. Is that - am I saying that correctly?

Mr. FISH: Yes, that's absolutely right. That is there are times when you as a voter, if you're interested in some policy matter and especially want to see some policy changed or a new one introduced, you might rationally conclude that a candidate's identity as a woman, as an African-American, as a Jew might make him or her more likely to advance the policies that you favor. Therefore there would be an identity politics component or element in your vote but there would be more than that to it because there would be also a very large policy content to your vote.

NEARY: These all could be viewed almost as semantics, though, I mean, there's - the difference seems very subtle.

Mr. FISH: I don't think so.


Mr. FISH: I think it's quite obvious. It's the difference between saying I'm going to vote for her because she looks like me, on the one hand; or I'm going to vote for her because like me she's a woman and certain issues like medical research, which have not for woman's diseases, which have not been very well funded might be better funded if a woman were president. So that's a difference. On the one hand, just saying she looks like me therefore I'm going to vote for her or she doesn't therefore I'm not and thinking that her identity and the experience that that identity provides or produces might lead her or him to advance certain policies which you prefer. So I think that's a very clear distinction.

NEARY: Well, the reason, I guess, I said it was subtle - let just push out a little further because I have heard some women say I'm going to vote for Hillary because she's a woman and then back it up with the kind of argument that you're making and women do X, Y or Z and I agree with that more or they will be better at, let's say, child care than men would be.

Mr. FISH: Right.

NEARY: And it strikes me as a little bit of both. A little bit of tribal - I'm gong to vote for her because she's a woman and also because that might make her agree with some of the things that I agree with more.

Mr. FISH: The test would be if you voted for or against a candidate independently of his or her policies. You say I don't care what he or she advocates or is against, I'm just going to vote because of the color or gender or ethnic origin. That's the distinction.

NEARY: Yeah, okay. I see what you're saying, then. Now do you think that - how do you think identity politics is playing itself out in the presidential campaign right now - or do you?

Mr. FISH: I do, in fact, think so because if you watch the news reports on evenings when there are primaries and even when there are not, you'll see that all of the discussions are discussions in terms of the identity bloc voters and in terms of the identity appeal that the various candidates may have.

NEARY: Do you think we should be passed this at this point or not?

Mr. FISH: Well, the only way to be passed this is if you thought that there were category of interest that were merely human - interest that every one could sign on to no matter what his or her color or religion or national origin, and a lot of people thinks that's where we should be. And to that I respond - there are no such interest. Everyone claims to be speaking from a universal point of view but none of us can, in fact, speak from any point of view except the one that is in involved in our particular situation.

NEARY: Oh, I think that's interesting what you're saying because I think when people think about identity politics they often associate it with race - probably first and foremost and then perhaps with gender. But if they are not - if they're white, for instance, or the majority race, they may not think that they practice identity politics in any way.

Mr. FISH: Yes. And, in fact, some of the respondents to my column challenge me - would you, in fact, say that it was rational for a white voter to vote on the basis, at least partly, of his identity or the white identity of a candidate - yes, it would.

Now, I'm not recommending this. I'm just saying that it is not irrational that it does have a strong policy component to it whether if the identity is white or whether the identity is minority.

NEARY: Sometimes there's a very sort of visceral reaction to the whole idea of identity politics.

Mr. FISH: Oh, yes.

NEARY: People are angry about it - why? Let's talk about that a little bit. What's the basis for that sort of feeling of - this is wrong, we shouldn't have it in our politics?

Mr. FISH: Well, we think of ourselves as a democratic liberal institution -liberal not in the left political sense but liberal in the sense given to us by our founding fathers. That means that we believe in certain inalienable human qualities which we want both to protect and see flourish. So the whole rhetoric of the American democratic life is pitched in the direction of what we might call universalism rather than the particularism that it tends thinking about groups and group identities. So that's why you get the visceral reaction to identity politics to put it very simply, it seems un-American.

NEARY: Yeah. But it all - it sort of came into practice because it was sort of a way to address some of the injustices of our political system as well.

Mr. FISH: Well, I think that's part of an argument that's been made, let's say, in the latter half of the 20th century and now in the 21st century. But of course, identity politics was a part of American life from the very beginning from - for example, the time when large minorities entered this country and found themselves aligned with some interests and against other interests. So I don't think that we've ever had a situation when identity politics was not part of what was going on in our election process.

NEARY: All right, when we come back, we're going to be joined by columnist Clarence Page. We're going to talk a little bit more about the origins of identity politics and also how they might identify or define the coming election. And we're taking your calls at 800-989-8255.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

We're talking about identity politics this hour. Stanley Fish, a New York Times online columnist is with us, and in the minute, we're going to take a step back and look at the origins of identity politics.

And we want to hear from you. Do identity politics define your political views? Give us a call at 800-989-8255, and our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also read what our listeners have to say at our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Clarence page joins us now. He's with me here in studio 3A. He's a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

It's so good to have you with us.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): It's great to be here, Lynn. Thanks.

NEARY: Now, we were just talking - I was just talking to Stanley Fish about the origins of - the whole idea of identity politics and I said that my sense was that it had come into play in our national political life as a way to address injustices that had been in the political system. Mr. Fish was saying, it's been around for longer than that. What's your sense of the origin of - when - how did this come into play in our politics, the whole idea of identity politics?

Mr. PAGE: Well, first of all, Stanley Fish, very intelligently, as he always does, distinguish between tribal identity politics and interest identity politics or shared interest, in other words, interest that happened to - they're called aligned with one's identity group. And this has been going on ever since we had identity groups, let's face it.

You know, the very notions of that are based, you know, are grounded in the enlightenment that showed themselves when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution about majority rule, minority rights were put together by a group of wealthy, white and land-owning guys who saw themselves as the minority that they were. So they certainly didn't want everybody else to gang up on them. That is in itself, identity politics, if you will, in terms of shared interest.

NEARY: But didn't something happened in the '60s and '70s where, you know, when, you know, after civil rights came into play where African-Americans, women started saying we need to…

Mr. PAGE: Well, we become more honest about it…

NEARY: Right.

Mr. PAGE: That's all - we're more candid. There was - what Michael Novak's book on American ethnics. It certainly showed something that was true in urban politics and the rest built for decades. It puts - was that immigrant groups became formed communities in the cities where they moved. And those themselves became the basis of identity politics and balanced political tickets. And that's why today, when people ask me if Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton might get together, I say no, that would violate the old rule against having two firsts on the same ticket.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Well, you know, it's interesting because the Barack Obama campaign when it began, people were talking about the fact that perhaps this was a campaign - and it's still are, that perhaps this is a campaign that transcends race, at the same time, you do see large numbers of African-American voters voting for Barack Obama. And that people might interpret it as identity politics. Let's put that in…

Mr. PAGE: Well, you know, I'm glad you brought that up because I'll bring another example. Stanley Fish, for instance, on hypothetical, presents a very real example - the confirmation of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. That was a case - after the Thomas-Hill hearings, you saw a circling of the wagons by many African-Americans around because of a familiar scenario that he played to that of the black man being ganged up on. And, I think, almost overnight, the polling showed blacks report for Thomas rose from somewhere in the mid-30s to over 50 percent. And NAACP was been on defense, came out in his favor.

And the general consensus was, well, he's a brother, you know? We know he's a conservative but once he gets in that permanent seat, he will be able to just show how he really feels. And because he grew up black of the Segregated South and all, (unintelligible) like I did, he'll think like me. well, that's what Cornel West later called racial reasoning in his book, "Race Matters." And it backfired on the NAACP and other liberals who felt that way. It turned out Clarence Thomas was an individual who thinks for himself.

And that's why you did not see blacks jumping to Barack Obama's side right away. They wanted to check him out first. They want to check out Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, et cetera. It was white folks who jumped to Barack, much more enthusiastically. Remember those stories about is Barack Obama black enough to get black votes?

NEARY: Right.

Mr. PAGE: We don't talk about that now, do we? We talk about whether he's too black to get a white vote.

NEARY: Yeah. We're talking about identity politics with Stanley Fish, New York Times online columnist, and Clarence Page, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

If you'd like to join the discussion, our number is 800-989-8255. And we're going to take a call now from Brent(ph), and he is calling from San Antonio, Texas.

Hi Brent.

BRENT (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say that it would matter to me. It's not the sole reason but it would matter to me the fact that he is African-American because that would mean that for the first time, someone that looked like me, looked like my family. I would see them when I look to the White House. And that's a sort of powerful, emotional thing. It's not the sole reason like I said. I mean, I wouldn't vote for him if he had the politics of Clarence Thomas, so it's not just because he's African-American.

Mr. FISH: Can I…

NEARY: All right, thanks for your call, Brent.

Yes, Stanley Fish…

Mr. FISH: Can I respond?

NEARY: …I was going to ask you. Go ahead.

Mr. FISH: Yes. And I think, I understand what that caller has just said and it highlights a remarkable factor about the Obama candidacy that he's been able to take advantage of every permutation of this situation.

On the one hand, white people find him an attractive and well-educated person who as a black friend of mine says, allows to white to, in a sense, pay reparations without any cost.

On the other hand, voters like African-American voters like the caller recognize him as being like them an important respects and then he has a third constituency because of his mixed race status. He can appeal to those voters who like the idea of international outreach. So he's extremely well-positioned with respect to all of those criteria.

NEARY: All right, thanks so much for your call, Brent.

And here's an interesting e-mail. This is from Robert(ph) from Rockford, Illinois.

I am educated and pretty knowledgeable about the issues and I pride myself on being informed about what effects us as Americans but I have to say the first - and that's in capitals - the first reason I'd looked to Barack Obama for my support was because I knew he was a member of the United Church of Christ like I am. I think our denomination is unique and many of its teachings and beliefs - and this made me very comfortable with the idea of him being president before I knew much else about him.

So that's bringing religion. And I think actually, Stanley Fish, you actually mentioned being a member of the same church is…

Mr. FISH: Yes. But as your e-mailer indicated that he believes that he and Barack Obama may share beliefs…


Mr. FISH: …because of their co-religion as status, and that means that it's not just simply the religious identification but the ideas or perhaps policies that the religious identification includes.

NEARY: All right, we're going to bring another view in on this discussion. Jill Nelson is with us. She is an author and columnist for Nia Online and she joins us by phone from Crawfordsville, Indiana.

Good to have you with us, Jill.

Ms. JILL NELSON (Author; Columnist, Nia Online): Good to be here.

NEARY: What do you think? Does identity politics matter in this election at all?

Ms. NELSON: I think it does matter but I think something else is going on which I think something else is going on which is I think that a new identity is perhaps being created or forged which is sort of a larger, more inclusive American identity. And I actually think that that's one thing that Barack Obama's campaign has tapped into. And it is in many ways a desire to broaden and become more collective in the ways we identify as Americans - to break out of whatever our boxes were and figure out ways that we can pull together and create a uniquely American identity. And I find that fascinating, shocking, surprising, and exciting.

NEARY: So you think that his campaign does, in fact, transcend the idea of identity of politics on some level?

Ms. NELSON: On many levels I think it does. I think clearly we are - many of us are attracted to him; as an African-American woman, I am attracted to him because he is an African-American candidate but has Stanley Fish and Clarence has said, we look to policy. I think voting on the tribal identity level is over and I think that Clarence Thomas's (unintelligible) to the Supreme Court was kind of a seminal moment in ending that that tribal reaction to voting just (unintelligible) because they're an African-American, because they're woman, because they're Latino. I think Obama's campaign challenges us to further - to move forward and to look at ourselves as something more than the more obvious categories of identity that we may have accepted as for or been straddled with.

NEARY: We've focusing a lot on or it's been coming up a lot - the whole idea of Barack Obama's campaign but what about Hillary Clinton's campaign. She would be the first woman president if she got the nomination and were elected. And I think people expected that was going to matter perhaps more to more women voters than it has. How do you explain that?

Ms. NELSON: Well, I think, it's a very different moment than we thought it was going to be six months ago or 18 months ago or three years ago. I think what is needed in this country is articulated in a very different way by Senator Clinton, Senator McCain and Senator Obama, and clearly in many constituencies - Senator Obama talks about what we need to do and who we need to become in a way that's more persuasive.

NEARY: Stanley Fish, did you want to add something?

Mr. FISH: Yeah. I think that Hillary hasn't run as a woman candidate although she has occasionally admitted some of that rhetoric. She's run as a policy expert and so her campaign speeches were more information-based than inspirational, than calling perhaps for the American identity that Jill Nelson just mentioned.

And that, I think, is part of the reason why Barack Obama has increasingly gained an advantage because his lack of policy statements, at least on the campaign stump rather than being a hindrance to his candidacy, has turned out to be an important part of his success.

Mr. PAGE: I would say about Hillary Clinton has run as a woman when it was convenient and worked for her after Iowa. That weekend, she was much more upfront about her sense of solidarity - well, she was asked directly about what difference she might make and she said, well, just a look at me having a woman in that job - that's going to be a big difference in itself.

Gloria Steinem, of course, articulated - of many women in her op-ed piece the same day as - of the New Hampshire vote. And we found in the exit polling that the pollsters were right about Barack Obama's turnout; they underestimated a big surge of women over the weekend that came and put Hillary Clinton over the top in New Hampshire. And we've also seen some backlash when a number of women, when Bill Clinton has popped up as too prominent of a spokesman for her.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. PAGE: So, you know, I would not say that - I mean, you know, just like Barack Obama, she has tried to run on her own merit, certainly. But the fact that she's a woman is a very real presence in her campaign as race is in Barack Obama's.

Ms. NELSON: Let me jump in here, if I could and just say about Hillary Clinton. And I think that she also boxed herself in early by straddling herself with the obligation to make sure everyone knew how tough she was. And I think that where we are as Americans has changed. Obviously, the support and the opinions about the war have radically changed in the last years and yet she voted for the war, she recently supported the identification of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. I don't think that Americans - I think there are many American who no longer looking for tough and I think Hillary Clinton has misstep. I think she thought she had to kind of be a tough girl to get it and it's backfiring.

NEARY: All right, I just need to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we're going to take a call now. We're going to go to Spencer. All right, I'm sorry, we're going to go to Jim(ph) and he's in Spencer Iowa.

Go ahead, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi. You know, I guess I would say that as a white male who's been able to vote for white males all my voting career that, you know, it seems like if you would say I'm voting for this candidate because he's a white male that you'd get a lot more criticism than somebody who would say, well, I'm voting for this candidate because, you know, they seem to reflect me. And it's - I think, it's really easy for women to vote for men because they've been doing it for so long. And I think there's a lot of people that have to ask themselves, you know, am I backing this candidate because what's in it for me or what's the best for the country because that's the way it's always been ever since the early history of voting in this county - people have always voted for their own self interest and it's very difficult for people to see, you know, the side of the coin.

Mr. PAGE: Well, where blacks have been voting for white candidates for a long time too.

JIM: Well, blacks…

Mr. FISH: You know…

JIM: …have been voting for whites for a long time and I think that they've not been voting for the whites for a long time, too. And I think more will turn out as well they should for this election.

Mr. FISH: And I…

Mr. PAGE: I will say that, you know, I don't vote according to race but when I find a really well qualified candidate who does happen to be black for a position that no black person has ever held before, it's nice for me to have visual evidence that the system is fair, that the country is fair. My wife and I have been just marveling at how successful Barack Obama has been more successful than we thought he would be. We're - African-American and we've (unintelligible) a while and it's nice to know we live long enough to see a black man get that far.

NEARY: Let me read this e-mail from Joan(ph). She writes, I am truly sick of the media's fixation on identity politics. I'm a white woman. I originally supported Bill Richardson; I now support Obama. I object to the press thinking that the color of our skin or the fact that one has an X or Y chromosome is a reason for support. Please, let's focus on issues.

Ms. NELSON: Well, (unintelligible), I think, that it's a reason for interest and I think that that's fine, but I think as Stanley points out in his column, we, I think, that we now look at issues and most people do then. And I think that's where we should but let me say that, you know, we voted for white males for years because that was all there were. And I think, that we have to understand that people are naturally excited by diversity, by difference; I think, someone liked them. You know, in many ways, Barack Obama is like the black guy or the one woman on the three-person Jeopardy panel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: If you're black - if you want to root for the black guy or the black woman - and you do, unless they're dumb. And the minute they start missing their answers, you switch allegiance or you become neutral. But I think this inclination to sort of want to root for someone who looks like you and may well have experience things similar to you is very normal and is fine.

NEARY: You know, I have this sense that we really - oh, not a sense - I mean, we really are at an historic moment here in our nation's politics with this presidential election - and maybe everything's changing. Maybe the whole game is changing now.

Mr. FISH: Well, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: Amen to that.

Mr. FISH: …so far for progress, isn't it?

Ms. NELSON: Well, it should.

Mr. PAGE: But one other thing - one of the things that won't change - and I'm here responding to someone, two calls ago - is that the phrase what's best for the country is an empty phrase. It's a phrase that people like to invoke so that they can declare that they're the right kind of political thinker. But what's best for the country is always itself going to be identified in terms of some kind of set of partial interest. So I just hear that as rhetoric and self-congratulatory rhetoric when it's uttered either by candidates or voters.

NEARY: All right, I think we're going to have to end on that note because we are out of time.

Thank you, Stanley Fish, New York Times online columnist; Clarence page, Chicago Tribune columnist; and Jill Nelson, columnist for Nia Online. It was good to have you all here today.

Mr. PAGE: Thank you.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you.

NEARY: And coming up, it's time to ask Amy, and we're talking pet peeves. If the person in the cubicle next to you is driving you crazy - maybe their radio is too loud, we've got all the answers. Pet peeves in relationships on the road, at work, Ask Amy is next.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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