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Identity Politics and the “Super Tuesday” Primary Results

by William McGaughey, Jr.

Something is happening with the politics of identity, both on the Democratic and Republican sides. A profound political adjustment is taking place. Let me start with the Democrats.

While watching CNN on the evening of Super Tuesday (February 5th), when such a large percentage of delegates in both the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions were to be selected, I was struck by an early report on the California primary results. Hillary Clinton was ahead in the state vote total, but Barack Obama had the largest share of both the black and white votes. How could this be? The commentator explained that Clinton was far ahead with respect to two other voting blocs that were important in California politics: Hispanic and Asian voters.

The standard paradigm that has governed Democratic politics is that black Americans and other racial or ethnic minorities are oppressed or discriminated against by the white majority population. They are all in the same political boat. By that logic, then, Hispanic and Asian voters should have voted for the black candidate, Barack Obama, rather than for the white female, Hillary Clinton. They voted for Clinton instead. Why should this be?

Back in June 2003, when I ran for President and made a point of protesting identity politics, I had the opportunity to meet the chairman of the California Democratic Party, who was Hispanic. Perhaps supposing that I was a white racist, this man greeted me with the remark that Hispanics were white people. This may have been a conversational gambit anticipating my supposed political views but it may also been a reflection of the fact that tension exists between the black and Hispanic communities. Black and Hispanic gangs fight each other in Los Angeles. Many Hispanics are repelled by black ghetto behavior and are not afraid to say so. (They have an immunity against “racist” accusations that would be leveled against whites who expressed similar views.)

Hillary Clinton, being white, does not carry that baggage. Guided by her campaign manager Terence Mc Auliffe, she practices the standard Democratic politics of racial, ethnic, and gender division, which in the past has been able to capture a majority of the black vote and, to a lesser extent, the vote of females, Asians, Hispanics, and other groups.

But this year there is a black man, Obama, who stands a real chance of winning the Presidency. After some hesitation concerning electability, most blacks have jumped on the Obama bandwagon for understandable reasons. White voters, in turn, like his message of racial unity. Some Democratic partisans may grumble that Barack Obama is not “black enough” - meaning, in part, that he refuses to practice the politics of black victimhood - but most whites, I think, are tired of being cast in an unfavorable light in the type of politics that was launched by the Civil Rights movement. Whether or not they will admit it, they’re grateful to Obama for calling for an end to that politics and helping them recover some of their racial dignity.

Therefore, we have an alliance between black people and upper-middle-class whites - and I would count myself in that camp - who favor Obama over Clinton. In contrast, Hillary Clinton enjoys support from working-class whites, who are competing with blacks for jobs, and from Asians and Hispanics, who have victimhood status in the Democrats’ “rainbow coalition”. As the first prominent female candidate for President, Clinton enjoys a certain favor from women generally. My wife, who is Asian, feels a womanly kinship with Hillary Clinton and all she’s gone through.

Obama, in contrast, is a dynamic force heralding a new politics. His special tie with Oprah Winfrey means that he will also gain support from a certain number of white women who identify with Oprah’s “personal recovery” message. There is even an indication that some white men, who previously supported John Edwards, are coming over to the Obama camp.

While the Democrats this year have the first “black” and first “female” candidates with a serious chance of being elected President, the Republicans have the first Mormon. This may not seem so big a deal after John F. Kennedy’s election as President in 1960 supposedly ended the influence of religious prejudice in national elections. Being a Mormon, however, has proven to be a formidable barrier in Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican nomination.

Romney, a deeply religious man, might have thought that Christian evangelicals would consider him a kindred spirit. He initially based his campaign upon appealing to social conservatives, making common cause with them against encroachment upon religious values by secular society. Romney did not take into consideration the degree of hostility toward Mormons by Christian fundamentalists. He tried to placate such groups by making a Kennedy-like statement separating his personal religious views from his political orientation. Even so, Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister, moved in to take away Romney’s support among evangelical voters in Iowa and other states.

This was an appeal to raw prejudice, but it worked. At this point (a day after Super Tuesday), Mitt Romney is either finished as a serious contender for the Republican nomination or else he is severely wounded. (Note: Romney ended his campaign on February 7th.) For some reason, appealing to anti-Mormon prejudice is not seen as reprehensible as appeals to race prejudice, for instance, would be.

While Mitt Romney was beginning his presidential campaign. a Hollywood film came out that shamelessly cast the Mormon patriarch, Brigham Young, as a man who orchestrated or condoned mass murder. Romney also had his detractors in the media. But Mike Huckabee’s success as a presidential candidate was his worst nightmare come true; and unquestionably the most deadly arrow in Huckabee’s quiver was the fact that Mitt Romney belonged to that cult-like organization, the Mormon church.

Republicans, of course, do not make as much of group discrimination as the Democrats do. With our declining educational institutions and the rise of politicized religion, we may be a less tolerant people than those who a half century ago forgave John Kennedy for being a Catholic after he convinced them he would not let the Vatican dictate his policies as President. The old anti-Catholic prejudice from the 1920s was partly based upon supposed connections with a foreign power. At least, if Mitt Romney took dictation from the Mormon hierarchy, it would be from a domestic power.

Whatever one might think of its doctrines, the Mormon church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, is as American as apple pie. In fact, its prophet, Joseph Smith, was a candidate for U.S. President before he was killed by a lynch mob. Therefore, I cannot overlook the hypocrisy of letting religious prejudice ruin Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations while in our country it has become almost a civic duty to oppose prejudice and discrimination against nearly every other minority group.

See: My Strange Relationship with the Romneys

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