Sunday, March 29, 2009

"American Identity" Politics

PHUTATORIUS
Michelle Bachmann really got under my skin with her dollar-mongering constitutional amendment. I know I should just laugh it off as stupid and inane, then move on, but it's still bugging me, and I'd like to know why. So I've spent a day or so working through my thoughts, and this is what I've come up with:
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We've all heard the phrase "identity politics" thrown around a lot — generally as conservatives (see, e.g., here, here and here) fault liberals for what they regard as strategic exploitation of a voter's identification with an historically disempowered minority group. Yeah, fine — certainly cynical, probably divisive. I don't think I like it.

But I think it's time right now to spend some time talking tough about a preferred tactic of the right, which is — to coin a term, right here at FO — "American identity" politics. Note the placement of the quote marks, for purposes of clarity: I'm talking about the "politics" of "American identity," and not an "American" brand of "identity politics." When I speak of AIP, I am referring to the poisonous practice by which folks like Michelle Bachmann endeavor to construct and promote a particularized American identity for purely political purposes — usually to score political points against an opponent by casting his/her policies (or, very often, the opponent personally) as a threat to some enduring "American" value or symbol:

It's not enough that Barack Obama is trying to turn us into EUROPE with his socialist budget and his plan for a National Health Service — he's making plans to get rid of the U.S. DOLLAR!

I regard this kind of politics as lousy and poisonous for a number of reasons. First and foremost, our public officials should not subordinate practical, tangible concerns like economic policy to an abstract proposition like the preservation of an "American identity." Policies should be assessed and judged on their merits: will they make the nation stronger? Its people safer? Better off? If a global supercurrency for national reserves would, on the whole, have the practical effect of improving the lot of the American people (and I must confess that I have no clue whether or not it would), we should not let concerns like Bachmann's — that the dollar is an American institution, and to turn away from it would be profoundly un-American — color our judgment. When confronted with a policy question, we should look for the right answer, not the American answer. Indeed, I should have thought that it was experimentation and risk-taking, trial-and-error and utilitarian "cleverness" that made America great, such that it would be most "American" to chase the "right" answer after all.

And with that last bit of rhetorical prestidigitation I've illustrated my second point: anyone's construction of what is "American" is always going to be self-serving. The Christian right declares that "America is a Christian nation." Go figure. We're told by an opponent of the TARP plan that bailouts are "un-American," apparently because they're a form of "socialism." If small-town folk rally to your cause and big-city folk jeer and fear you, then surely it's the small-town folk who are the "real Americans." It's all too easy, isn't it, to gerrymander a space and plant an American flag in it?

Anyone with half a brain knows that America is far too complex and multifaceted a place to submit to these reductive descriptions. I'm living the American Dream without a white picket fence. Henry James and Thomas Pynchon have written The Great American Novel.

Third, "American identity" politics is at least as divisive as straight-up identity politics, if in a different way. It doesn't appeal — not directly, at least — to considerations of race, ethnicity, or gender. But the cynical invocation of "American-ness" to add argumentative weight to one's position or policy preference has the effect of treating anyone who disagrees as by definition un-American — and often, anti-American. Although you may have had the groundwork in place for a vigorous, possibly insightful policy debate — or maybe you didn't, and that's the problem — you've chosen instead to pick a snit-fight. Then the left blunders back with its "Special Comments" and DISSENT IS AMERICAN bumper stickers, and all hope of a constructive debate on the underlying policy issue is lost.

Of course, the master practitioners of AIP aren't fighting issue battles: they're manufacturing issues and trumping up threats to our jointly-revered "American-ness" to bring the fight to their opponents. Michelle Bachmann wasn't even playing the "American" card to support more serious and principled concerns about the supercurrency proposition: she only saw an occasion to develop her thesis that Barack Obama is anti-American, that he'll destroy America As We Know And Treasure It. So much the worse.

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