The apotheosis -- and nadir -- of identity politics

Should we thank Mark Halperin for finally exposing the hypocrisy and shamelessness of identity politics? After all, Halperin really didn’t do anything all that much different than other reporters have done, especially with Republicans. He just took it to an extreme, perhaps as he said in a rush to generate some colorful banter, but seemingly more intent on authenticating the obvious about Ted Cruz’ ethnicity. (His father was a refugee from Cuba, which is about as authentic as it gets, no?)

Jorge Bonilla writes that while Halperin’s interview was indeed objectionable, it results from “permission structures” created by Hispanic media such as Univision, an outlet deep in the bag for Democrats:

Mainstream media takes its cues on these matters from Hispanic media generally, and from Univision specifically. Both the network’s multiple attempts to vitiate Marco Rubio and news division president Isaac Lee’s smearing of those who oppose the network’s agenda (which, by the way, extends far beyond immigration) laid a foundation for the rest of the mainstream media to engage in the same behavior. When Jorge Ramos makes the media rounds and tries to disqualify Hispanic conservatives, it signals that the rest of the mainstream media can engage this behavior without repercussion.

Let’s play What If Fox for one quick second, and imagine that HUD Secretary Julián Castro were interrogated by Sean Hannity regarding his authenticity as a Mexican-American, quizzed on his mastery of the Spanish language, hectored into disclosing his favorite Mexican band, and were directed to provide a list of his favorite Mexican foods. Then imagine Hannity chiding Castro into a command performance in Spanish. Dudgeon would be stratospheric, and a pitchfork-wielding mob would immediately descend upon the corner of 50th and Rockefeller. On the contrary: because Castro is on the side of the “Allied Expeditionary Force”, to use Isaac Lee’s parlance, his non-mastery of Spanish is magically absolved, and his authenticity remains unquestioned.

The problem is hardly limited to Halperin, in other words, and Halperin is by far not the most malicious player in this particular game. (I’m inclined to think Halperin was sincere in his apology, although perhaps not entirely honest with himself about his motivations.) Getting caught out in this manner might be the best outcome for politics in general, I argue in my column today for The Week, because it’s the purest form of identity politics — at its most obviously embarrassing:

The media loves it when Democrats engage in identity politics, but get a little more critical when Republicans attempt to even the field. Ethnic and gender identity are accepted without question among Democrats, but the media routinely challenges Republicans who run, or even appear to be running, on the basis of identity.

The scrutiny of Republicans on identity always carries with it an implicit suggestion, if not outright accusation, that the claim of identity is somehow illegitimate. Joni Ernst got dismissed as an attractive nutcase. Carly Fiorina is similarly discounted for relying only on her gender identity, even though Fiorina has engaged voters and the media much more on her record than Hillary Clinton has. Clinton’s use of gender politics is a core part of her candidacy — but one on which she is rarely challenged by the media. …

This should serve as a lesson to the rest of the media. Halperin’s example was only the most obvious of the double standard in the media’s handling of identity politics, and an object lesson into how embarrassing the whole concept truly is. Politics should not be about group identities, but about policies, experience, competence, and integrity. Let’s stick to authenticity tests on those qualities, and dispense with checkbox identity politics altogether.

Ernst and Fiorina are both interesting examples of this phenomenon. When Fiorina entered the race, the media tended to focus on her identity as a woman to underscore her lack of seriousness. “I don’t think we would be taking her seriously at all if she weren’t a woman,” Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus told Meet the Press on Sunday. Why not? After all, people took Steve Forbes seriously in 1996 when he ran for the Republican nomination that eventually went to Bob Dole. Forbes had made a fortune in the financial sector, but had never run for public office before. H. Ross Perot turned his spectacular business career into the first viable independent run for president in decades, helping Bill Clinton to defeat George H. W. Bush in 1992, a campaign that delighted the media. Fiorina certainly has enough of a similar background to be taken seriously or not seriously on the basis of her record without dismissing her impact as only gender-based, especially when the national media spent considerable time over the last couple of decades lecturing Republicans on the need to find women for public office.

Ernst ran for former Senator Tom Harkin’s seat after he retired on the basis of her conservative track record in the Iowa state legislature and her experience as a military officer. Harkin tried to boost Democratic candidate Bruce Braley by telling Iowa voters that Ernst was “really attractive and sounds nice,” but “she votes like Michele Bachmann.” The media did criticize Harkin for that comment, but let pass an analysis from Politico’s Dave Price titled “Can Hillary Overcome Iowa’s Woman Problem?” Price argued that Iowans hadn’t elected a woman to statewide or federal office, ignoring Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, who had been in office for four years at that point. The only hope of overcoming this gender inequity, Price suggested, was for Iowa to reverse its 2008 outcome and back Hillary Clinton for president – even though Ernst was on the ticket in just five weeks, whom Price finally mentioned in the 37th paragraph.

There are two problems with the media and identity politics. One is that they play it with two different standards for Republicans and Democrats. The other is identity politics itself. Halperin will have done this nation a great favor if he embarrasses the media into ignoring identity and focusing on achievement and policy.