The Democratic Party has an identity-politics meltdown on its hands, and right now it looks like nothing will stop it. The clash between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has core constituencies of the party in a game of chicken, and neither side wants to swerve. The movers and shakers worry about reconciling the intraparty rift that has become increasingly bitter, but they may need to worry about how the rest of the nation sees the party in the general election:

The protracted and increasingly acrimonious fight for the Democratic presidential nomination is unnerving core constituencies — African Americans and wealthy liberals — who are becoming convinced that the party could suffer irreversible harm if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton maintains her sharp line of attack against Sen. Barack Obama.

Clinton’s solid win in the Pennsylvania primary exposed a quandary for the party. Her backers may be convinced that only she can win the white, working-class voters that the Democratic nominee will need in the general election, but many African American leaders say a Clinton nomination — handed to her by superdelegates — would result in a disastrous breach with black voters.

“If this party is perceived by people as having gone into a back room somewhere and brokered a nominee, that would not be good for our party,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the highest ranking African American in Congress, warned yesterday. “I’m telling you, if this continues on its current course, [the damage] is going to be irreparable.”

That fear, plus a more general sense that Clinton’s only route to victory would be through tearing down her opponent, has led even some black Democrats who are officially neutral in the race, such as Clyburn, to speak out. …

Campaigning for Clinton in Gary, Ind., yesterday, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (Ohio), who is black, said she does not share her colleagues’ concerns. “I don’t think Bill and Hillary Clinton will ‘do anything’ to win this election,” she said. “They are trying to be successful, but I disagree they will do anything or they are trying to hurt Barack Obama.” She added that black voters “are not a monolith, and we recognize the importance of this election.”

This primary has demonstrated the endgame of identity politics, perhaps even worse in real life than it did in theory. Democrats have exploited racial and gender politics for decades, but the irony is that it only succeeds when the groups don’t compete directly against each other. Once they do, the party has to stop pandering to one or the other, and the animus they stoked gets turned onto their coalition partners instead of the Republicans.

Under a rational primary system, this would have resolved itself by now, or at least by the end of the voting. However, Democrats a generation ago decided that they couldn’t trust voters to select a nominee any more than they could trust Americans to choose their diet or take responsibility for their own health care. They created a system where voters only account for 80% of the delegates to the convention, leaving the party establishment with the deciding vote in any close contest.

And what does that mean? It means the party will have to select a favorite between its two biggest identity-politics constituencies, women and African-Americans. In fact, with the pressure party bigwigs and money rainmakers have put on Hillary to withdraw, they’ve already made that choice. Unfortunately, Hillary refuses to withdraw and now got $10 million in small-donor contributions within 24 hours of her Pennsylvania victory.

On several levels, the Democrats are reaping what they have sown over the last forty years. For those in the Democratic Party who don’t get that reference — one familiar to the bitter Bible-clingers — it’s akin to chickens coming home to roost.