The Flathead Valley’s Leading Independent Journal of Observation, Analysis, & Opinion. © James R. Conner.


27 September 2012

Memo to Kim Gillan: stop playing identity politics


Kim Gillan has a problem she needs to solve: how to restrain herself from playing identity politics. In her closing statement at the 25 September debate in Missoula, she shamelessly argued that she should be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives because she’s a woman.

And it didn’t stop there.

In her post-debate press release claiming victory, she said:

Kim is running an aggressive campaign to become the first woman elected to Congress from Montana in 72 years. Last week, Kim’s campaign was named a top-tier, “Red to Blue” campaign by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was put “On the List” by Emily’s List.

If she wins, she will be the first woman sent to the House from Montana since Jeanette Rankin — but so what? Why should that be important to any voter? Is she running to represent just women, or primarily women?

Her campaign’s press release could have read:

Kim is running for Congress to support legislation creating jobs, and to stop Republican plans to replace Social Security and Medicare with Wall Street high risk, low benefit, you’re on your own schemes. That’s why last week, Kim’s campaign was named a top-tier, “Red to Blue” campaign by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was put “On the List” by Emily’s List.

Instead, she’s shouting “Vote for me because I’m a woman!” and sending to men the silent message, “Vote for me, boys, then shut up.” That’s identity politics, and it’s hurting Democratic candidates.

As Time’s Joe Klein put it earlier this month:

…The Democrats have a serious problem. It is a problem that stems from the party’s greatest strength: its long-term support for inclusion and equal rights for all, its support of racial integration and equal rights for women and homosexuals and its humane stand on immigration reform. Those heroic positions, which I celebrate, cost the Democrats more than a few elections in the past. And they caused an understandable, if misguided, overreaction within the party—a drift toward identity politics, toward special pleading. Inclusion became exclusive. The Democratic National Committee officially recognizes 14 caucuses or “communities,” most having to do with race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity.

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But if I’m a plain old white insurance salesman, I look at the Democratic Party and say, What’s in it for me?

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A few years ago, a leading Democratic thinker said, “The only way my life makes sense is if regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, these essential human truths and passions and hope and moral precepts that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that is the core of who I am.” That was Barack Obama, of course, in an interview with the author David Maraniss, reminiscing about his own struggle for identity, expressing the American Dream as purely as it can be done.…

Obama’s thoughts notwithstanding, many Democrats, especially activists, embrace identity politics with an unthinking conviction as deep as a faith in a divine being. They believe the practice proves inclusion, not exclusion, regard critics of identity politics as racists, sexists, and worse, and point to generations of coalition building along ethnic and racial lines as evidence that the practice is good. Yet, as Stanley Fish, no enemy of certain kinds of identity politics, points out, identity politics is fundamentally illiberal:

An identity politics voter says, in effect, I don’t care what views he holds, or even what bad things he may have done, or what lack of ability he may display; he’s my brother, or he’s my kinsman, or he’s my landsman, or he comes from the neighborhood, or he’s a Southerner, or (and here the tribe is really big) my country right or wrong. “My country right or wrong” is particularly useful in making clear how identity politics differs from politics as many Americans would prefer to see it practiced. Rather than saying she’s right on immigration or he’s wrong on the war, the identity-politics voter says he looks like me or she and I belong to the same church.

Identity politics is illiberal. That is, it is particularist whereas liberalism is universalist. The history of liberalism is a history of extending the franchise to those who were once excluded from it by their race, gender or national origin. Although these marks of identification were retained (by the census and other forms of governmental classification) and could still be celebrated in private associations like the church and the social club, they were not supposed to be the basis of decisions one might make “as a citizen,” decisions about who might best lead the country or what laws should be enacted or voted down. Deciding as a citizen means deciding not as a man or a woman or a Jew or an African American or a Caucasian or a heterosexual, but as a human being.

What matters in this election is not whether Kim Gillan is a woman. What matters is that Blue Dog Democrat through she is, still she is a Democrat, a Democrat who supports jobs and Social Security and the good things government does for all citizens, women and men alike. She needs to stop providing the impression that she believes otherwise.