The Politics of Mistaken Identity


Sarah Palin has us all thinking about identity politics these days.  My godson has Down Syndrome, and his mother, my dearest friend, says people keep saying things to her like “of course you’re going to vote for McCain, since Sarah Palin has a child with Down Syndrome.”  She finds this terrifically offensive, and has no intention whatever of voting for McCain.  She says, not only does she not share an identity with Palin by virtue of having a child with Down Syndrome, but her child does not share an identity with Palin’s child by virtue of having Down Syndrome. 


And an increasing number of women are saying that their gender does not make them any more likely to vote for McCain now than they would have before he picked Palin for a running mate.  Would African-Americans have voted for Condi Rice if she were running?  Would Hispanics have voted for Alberto Gonzales?  One suspects not.


I think identity politics works only for people with very uncomplicated identities.  For that reason, I’m surprised that it has caught on as well as it has in the US, and I suspect it may not last much longer here.  The identities of most Americans are anything but uncomplicated. 


Sample case—me:  my biological ancestry is Sefardic Jewish, highland Scot/US redneck, with dashes of Dutch and Italian.  My cultural ancestry is British, Hispanic, and New England.  I am Jewish by religion, but my parents were Catholic, several of my uncles and cousins were/are Christian Scientist, one of my other cousins is Buddhist, and my brother characterizes himself as a Reform Druid.  By education and occupation, I am an overeducated professional; by income I am working-class.  My personal life is a model of traditional family values, except that I spent my late college and early grad school years as a hippie of sorts, and I now hang out with a congregation most of whose members are gay and lesbian.  Politically, I consider myself a radical, but since most of the people who ask me these days don’t remember the word, I call myself a liberal. I can still remember when liberal was a synonym for wishy-washy. For many years, I was part of a Jewish collective that spent a great deal of time discussing the relationship between their Jewishness and their leftist/feminist politics.  I have inclinations toward communitarianism and socialism, but also toward anarchism and libertarianism.   If I were to try to practice identity politics, i.e., to find a candidate enough like me that that would be sufficient reason to vote for her (obviously it would have to be a her), the search would exhaust all of my political energy, and I would probably never get around to voting at all.


This situation raises a serious philosophical problem: What is it we want our elected representatives to represent? Are we, increasingly, accepting the proposition that African-American voters can be represented only by African-American representatives, and Hispanics by Hispanics?  If so, does it follow that Italian-Americans can be represented only by Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans by Polish-Americans, and so on?  And does that in turn mean that ethnicity is the most important characteristic of the voter or candidate?  Or should Episcopalians vote only for Episcopalians, football fans for fellow fans, and free-lance writers only for their own kind?  Where do we draw the line? Is it a line that should properly be drawn at all?


This is a triple issue: First, do we believe that a citizen can be effectively represented only by a representative who shares with the citizen some important defining characteristic? Second, if so, must that defining characteristic be ethnicity? And third, whatever that defining characteristic may be, what does it do to our current system of  legally defining a constituency by geographical residency for purposes of political representation?


There was a time when representative government meant electing someone whose integrity and judgment you trusted, and then leaving him alone to be guided by that judgment and restrained by that integrity.  This was pretty much what the Framers of the constitution had in mind (except for the more cynical Madison.) When American politicians turned out to be as human as anybody else, that model fell out of fashion.


For a while afterward, the elected representative’s job was defined as representing the obvious interests and expressed desires of his constituency (or at least its most vocal components.)  This might be done through the mechanism of the political party, which was expected to take a particular set of ideological positions. The voter voted for the candidate of the party that most nearly represented his positions.  It didn’t matter who the representative was or what he personally believed. His job was to do what his constituency wanted. If he failed to do it, he was unlikely to be re-elected.


Now, apparently, we are not willing to trust our elected officials even to that limited extent.  I can trust my representative to represent his own interests. That’s human nature, after all.  So I had better make sure his interests are the same as mine (a  thoroughly Madisonian position.)  Which means he has to be like me in some way that shapes his interests, as it shapes mine.


The persisting realities of racial segregation do make a powerful argument that race has a stronger effect on a person’s interest than many other components of personal identity. Conveniently, that same racial segregation results in geographical agglomerations of African-American voters easily large enough to constitute legislative districts. Does this mean the geographic district is still a reliable way to organize political representation? Is where I live a reliable index to my most important interests and concerns?


On the micro-district level–for instance, wards and precincts–it appears to be all too reliable. Our metropolitan areas are segregated not only by race but even more rigidly by income (this is assured by the real estate market and zoning codes) and by age and family status (assured by the kind of housing available, as well as its price.) Singles congregate in certain urban neighborhoods and suburban complexes, young married couples with children in the less pricey suburbs and outer city neighborhoods, senior citizens in their public and private housing developments, and so on. Geography is a remarkably useful tool for organizing political representation on this level.


The problems arise in macro-districting, and still more in at-large, statewide, or nationwide elections, in which the electorate, of necessity, consists of a widely diverse assortment of micro-districts.  Who, if anyone, does a senator represent? The interest of the nation as a whole, as seen by the senator (and, perhaps, by her party?) That was pretty much what the Founders had in mind.  The predominant economic interest of her state (tobacco, or coal, or tourism, or whatever?) Historically, most senators try to represent both. A senator, who, on top of these delicately balanced considerations, is a member of some group which is sparsely represented in the upper reaches of government–women, gays, people of color, Vietnam veterans, people with disabilities, or whatever–is also likely to become the de facto representative of that group, even if most of its members live in various other states and are in no position to vote for her or him.


And finally, what kind of representation can legitimately be demanded by a white voter who happens to reside in a mostly African-American district with an African-American representative (or vice versa)?  Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once suggested a system in which, instead of election by geographical district, representatives were chosen by petition.  If a person could collect enough signatures from whatever constituency s/he chose to appeal to, s/he could represent them.  So there could be no sore losers, since every citizen could choose whose petition to sign, and every representative by definition represented only his/her supporters.  This still doesn’t solve the problem of citizens with such complex and idiosyncratic identities that there aren’t enough of them to elect anybody, but it’s a start, and a whole lot better than what we have now.






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