Opinion

Identity Politics: Part Two

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Posted: May 28, 2016 12:01 AM
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Identity Politics: Part Two

My column last week about identity politics in the U.S. caused quite a stir. I received requests for television and radio interviews stretching all the way to Russia. For those who missed it, my thesis was that this year's election is stirring up racial and ethnic animosity on both sides of the partisan divide. Hillary Clinton has remarked that Republican government officials' acts are reminiscent of Jim Crow, while Donald Trump is warning whites that Mexicans and others are stealing their jobs and bringing crime to their neighborhoods. It's a nasty formula to divide Americans, not unite them.

But how is this different from the ethnic appeals that have been a part of American elections going back to the 19th century? It is no secret that the New York City Democratic machine in the 19th and early 20th centuries used political patronage to give jobs, rent money and give other support to immigrants, ensuring that their votes would keep the machine in power for decades. But Republicans, too, made direct appeals to voters based on their ethnic backgrounds. Some 80 percent of Germans in St. Louis, Missouri voted for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, in part because of his renunciation of the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings of the era. And more recently, President Richard M. Nixon led a well-orchestrated effort to appeal to Mexican-American voters in 1972, which paid off handsomely when he won about a third of the votes of traditionally Democratic voters.

But today's identity politics are different. They are not made on the basis of positive appeals to voters based on economic self-interest or shared values. It is one thing to say to black voters, "Vote Democratic because we promise a wider range of social programs that will help your communities," and quite another to say, "Vote Democratic because the other side will take away your rights as American citizens." The latter is based entirely on fear and plants the seed of racial mistrust.

And it's the same when Trump plays the Mexican card to appeal to white working-class voters. He could have made the case that wages are stagnating among lower middle-class voters, and could have even argued that immigrants have contributed to the problem. (For the record, most studies show no such correlation, but a few economists argue that low-skilled immigrant workers depress wages for those at the bottom of the income scale, most of whom are immigrants who arrived earlier.)

But that isn't the route Trump chose. Instead he blamed Mexicans: "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," he said. "They're sending people that have lots of problems...They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." He has consistently tried to provoke fear among whites that Mexicans are going to steal their jobs, rape their daughters and even rob and kill them, frequently asking families who have experienced crimes at the hands of illegal immigrants to join him onstage.

This is about as ugly as it gets in politics, and yet Trump has largely been given a pass by the media and his fellow Republicans. It is unimaginable that a candidate could say similar things about blacks or Jews, for example, and get away with it. But Trump hasn't had to stir similar resentment toward those groups. Some of Trump's followers among the white identity movement have done it for him, launching anti-Semitic attacks on Jews who say a critical word about Trump, and making up a fantastically wrong statistic on the number of whites who are victims of crimes committed by blacks, which Trump retweeted.

If the 2016 election turns on racial and ethnic identity, we are headed for dark times in America. Since our founding, America has represented the best hopes of mankind to build a nation not on the ties of blood and soil, but on the principles of liberty and freedom for all.

Americans don't share a common racial, religious or ethnic history, but we are one people because we choose to be. If that comity breaks down and we retreat to our tribal roots, it will be the end of the great American Experiment. It's time for those who believe in one nation, indivisible, to speak out and tell the politicians on both sides of the aisle that we reject identity politics, no matter what partisan flavor they take.