The irony of identity politics

The 2008 presidential election has proven historic, with a certainty that either a woman or a black man will head a major-party ticket this fall for the first time in American history.  With identity politics in full play in the Democratic primaries, Gail Collins notes the irony of its end result.  The key demographic for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has become white men:

It was probably inevitable. The historic contest between a woman and an African-American for the presidential nomination is now all about white men.

Not that the white male voters asked for this. They’ve been uncommitted, supporting Hillary in one contest and Barack in the next. But all that hemming and hawing has turned them into the deciding factor in the big upcoming primary in Pennsylvania. …

The candidates’ desperation to make contact is showing. Barack Obama goes bowling in Altoona — with disastrous consequences. Hillary Clinton attempts to compare herself to Rocky Balboa, prompting many people to note that Rocky lost to a black guy. Obama, rather cruelly, points out that Rocky is a fictional character. Clinton, in turn, reveals that she owns her own bowling ball.

It’s got to be irking women and blacks. This was supposed to be all about us! But in modern politics, the people who choose up sides are doomed to be taken for granted while the whole world goes running after the folks on the fence. That is why this fall the presidential campaign will be taking place in 13 states, and the would-be presidents will spend more time worrying about Iowa than New York and California combined.

Unfortunately for Collins, that’s about the end of the line for trenchant analysis in this piece.  She figures that white men either have been too addled to make up their minds between Obama and Hillary or deliberately withheld their support to get some attention.  At one point, she talks about white-guy frustration about seeing so many non-whites on basketball courts and manages to inject the Three Stooges and lawn care incoherently into the essay.

It’s unfortunate, because she almost makes a good point.  When identity politics meant cobbling together disparate factions such as women, blacks, Latinos, and so on, these groups got more attention because of their lack of enthusiasm for the series of white male candidates that vied to represent them.  Now that the primaries have come down to two non-white-male candidates from competing identity-politics factions, the two major groups left out are Latinos and white males, and not surprisingly, both candidates have focused on these voters.

Collins gets close to this when she mentions New York and California.  Republican presidential candidates only cursorily compete in either state for general elections because the results are usually foregone conclusions.  The voters in each state make themselves irrelevant by tipping their hands too early.  The GOP won’t bother to spend a lot of money in New York, and the Democrats won’t spend a lot in Texas, either, preferring to save their money for states in which they have a reasonable chance to prevail.

This isn’t exactly ground-breaking analysis, but it does explain why identity politics winds up ironically making the voters in a represented bloc less powerful in the short run of this election cycle.  If Obama wins the nomination, he will focus his attention away from his own base of African-American voters, which will mean that they will be especially taken for granted.  If Hillary wins it, women’s issues will get little attention while she chases blacks and Latinos.

And now, for good measure, both will have to chase a voting bloc that has always been taken for granted — the bowling, lawn-mowing, cheesesteak-eating, Three Stooges-watching demographic that both candidates have made themselves look foolish in chasing the last few weeks.  These voters finally figured out what really gets attention from politicians: ambivalence.