The Dead-End Street of Identity Politics

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, it was suggested that his election stood for a repudiation of race and ethnicity as qualifying factors for political success in American society.  However, two years into the Obama presidency, it is not difficult to see that this post-election analysis and its self-congratulatory tone could not have been farther from the truth.

The reality is that in Obama's campaign, we witnessed two entirely distinct and frankly dissonant messages on the issue of race.  Obama presented himself as the unifying, transcendent consensus leader of all Americans, while simultaneously holding himself out as the standard-bearer and kinsman of America's historically disempowered minorities carrying the promise of "redistributive justice."  When speaking to minority groups, he announced that "I am one of you" and appealed to racial solidarity.  When speaking to the rest of America, he was simply a product of the great American melting pot, and he urged an abandonment of racial identification.

In the midterm elections that followed, this conflicting and unsustainable message simply collapsed.   Middle America's unmistakable repudiation of Obama was exemplified by the election of Republican Scott Brown for Senate in Massachusetts and Chris Christie as governor in New Jersey.   In each of these cases, Obama campaigned heavily for the Democratic candidate in a traditionally strong Democratic area.  Yet he was incapable of duplicating for his allies the victory that he achieved for himself in the presidential race a year prior.  On the other hand, white Democratic candidates running in democratic bastions, such as Heath Shuler in North Carolina's 11th Congressional District and Joe Manchin running for Senate in West Virginia, who avoided Obama (and opposed significant aspects of his legislative agenda), won.

The message is clear.  

The white middle-American voters who put their faith and trust in Obama in 2008, and without whose support Obama could not have won, lost that faith almost immediately after Obama took office.  Similarly, the non-white racially motivated voters who identified personally with Obama and flocked to the polls for him in 2008 failed to assist him in 2010 by supporting white Democrats in the midterm races.  White Americans did not suddenly wake up to the realization that they had voted for a black man; rather, they were confronted with the unavoidable fact that Obama was not the "post-racial" president of all Americans that he promised to be.  Instead, it turned out, Obama was committed to reinventing America in order to address perceived past injustices at white Americans' expense.  Believers in identity politics (from both the left and the right), however, always knew what they were getting: a man dedicated to the inversion of America's social order.

This is one of the great tragedies of Obama's caustic and divisive political strategy; at the precise moment when we as a society were poised to move beyond race as a relevant social and economic issue, race was forcefully injected back into the national consciousness.

When Obama tells Hispanic-Americans to join with him and "punish their enemies," and when Attorney General Eric Holder scornfully tells America that bat-wielding Black Panthers patrolling a polling place do not warrant prosecution because "his people" once experienced far worse, white race-baiters tell incredulous white Americans to embrace their own racial consciousness as an act of self-defense.  When all who disagree with Obama's social and economic policies are reflexively labeled racists by the president's supporters, an attitude of fatalism begins to set in, and a frustrated electorate becomes cynical.  The tedious and predictable repetition of racial platitudes takes its toll on logic, civility, and unity.

Rather than healing old wounds and developing a cohesive sense of national identity independent of race or ancestry, Obama instead has rubbed salt in those wounds.  He then perversely suggests that we need to study the wound and delay its healing with an "honest discussion" about race.

However, the 2008 presidential election was a test for the degree of racism in American society, and we passed with flying colors.  Regardless of his appeal to racial minorities, Obama could not have been elected in an endemically racist society.

Additionally, the election of Obama brings new attention to a growing number of conservative Americans not of European descent -- people who believe that the American Dream is a product of freedom, personal responsibility, individual merit, and determination, and not a race-based entitlement.   Paul Thurmond, the son of former arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond, was defeated in the Republican primary in South Carolina by Tim Scott, a more conservative black candidate who went on to win the general election in the state's 1st Congressional District.  Nikki Haley, an American of Indian descent, won the governorship of the same state for the GOP.  In Florida, conservative war veteran Allen West -- who also happens to be black -- handily defeated Democratic incumbent Ron Klein and delivered Florida's 22nd Congressional District to the Republican party after years of Democratic control.  The rise of Republicans Marco Rubio in Florida and Bobby Jindal in Louisiana also coincides with Obama's ascendancy.

The success of non-white political candidates in both broad-based and predominantly white electorates in states below the Mason-Dixon Line contributes to a growing body of evidence that the embrace of core conservative values is a viable, powerful, and uniquely American alternative to race-based politics.

In addition, there are emerging conservative candidates of non-European ancestry across the nation who gained ground in the recent elections but fell short of electoral victory.  They will surely return stronger, wiser, more politically skilled, and better-positioned to challenge the dogma of identity politics.

Ironically, Obama is partially responsible for this phenomenon, which is a reaction to his divisive policies.

But history will judge Obama harshly.  Rather than leaving the United States stronger, more unified, and more resolute in its commitment to the founding principles of liberty and self-determination, Obama will leave behind the bitter fruits of class warfare, racial identity politics, and a redistributive economic policy that will fundamentally alter the American social compact.  With "comprehensive immigration reform,"and the tangled web of race that it entails, as the next objective in Obama's ideological crusade, we can expect the pattern to intensify in the immediate future.   If so, rather than leading America to a bright, glorious, and transcendent future, Obama will leave us with a legacy of anger, increased mistrust, and the dream of American cultural unity even farther from realization.

Still, we can hope that the unintended consequences of the Obama presidency -- those which inspire Americans to look beyond race and ancestry and find common ground in the rejection of  a misguided economic and social agenda -- will take root and flourish in the years to come.  The future of our society as a diverse yet unified American culture depends upon it.

Dean Malik was a candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania's 8th District in 2010.  He is an Iraq War veteran and former assistant district attorney in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.