The electoral strategies of both the Republican and Democratic parties contain an element of identity politics, though generally of very different kinds. Republican identity politics usually centers on faith and a middle America culture distinct from the coastal elitism of the Democrats. The Democratic Party bases its electoral strategy more and more on race to the exclusion of almost anything else, though this year the Obama White House has conjured a “war on women” to highlight gender as well.
Republicans and conservatives often complain that the Democrats’ race-obsessed political outlook has two major faults: one, that candidates and voters are judged to an overwhelming degree on the color of their skin, and two, that when a member of a racial or ethnic minority group that usually votes Democratic becomes a high-profile Republican, the left seeks to destroy their career with unusual ferocity. (Think Miguel Estrada, Clarence Thomas.) But at the Republican National Convention this week conservatives saw just why the left’s identity politics can be so effective, and why they try so hard to tear down any dissenters: biography matters.
Of the politicians who spoke this week, easily three of the most impressive were Condoleezza Rice, Marco Rubio, and Susana Martinez. Their values are conservative values, and their political outlooks consistent with the conservative movement’s message: America is a place where, thanks to freedom and free enterprise, anyone can succeed. But, as the Democrats learned with President Obama, when you have spokesmen for that vision who embody the potential for its greatest achievement, the words take on a heft they don’t possess when spoken by others.
So when the preternaturally likeable Martinez, the Republican governor of New Mexico who is also the country’s first Hispanic female governor, took the stage, she said: “Growing up, I never imagined a girl from a border town could one day become a governor. But this is America. Y, en America todo es possible.” It’s a simple message and one that American politicians repeat quite often (though not always in Spanish). But it meant a bit more coming from Martinez, who told a charming story about how little girls often see her in public places, stare, point, and finally run up to her and ask “Are you Susana?” and then hug her.
And when Condoleezza Rice said that “Ours has never been a narrative of grievance and entitlement,” it was all the more powerful because she also said this:
And on a personal note—a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham–the most segregated big city in America–her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant–but they make her believe that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she can be president of the United States. And she becomes the secretary of state.
Rubio, as the son of Cuban immigrants and now a popular senator from Florida, often speaks about American Exceptionalism in the tone, and with the authority, of someone who is only standing before you because of that exceptionalism. Biography was a centerpiece of his address as well. He said:
A few years ago during a speech, I noticed a bartender behind a portable bar at the back of the ballroom. I remembered my father who had worked for many years as a banquet bartender. He was grateful for the work he had, but that’s not the life he wanted for us.
He stood behind a bar in the back of the room all those years, so one day I could stand behind a podium in the front of a room.
That journey, from behind that bar to behind this podium, goes to the essence of the American miracle — that we’re exceptional not because we have more rich people here. We’re special because dreams that are impossible anywhere else, come true here.
That’s not just my story. That’s your story. That’s our story.
That last bit is a particularly effective line, since the conservative movement has consistently stressed the fact that this country was founded on an idea, and it is that idea, rather than a common ethnic heritage, that produces a national identity.
Martinez recounted the story of when, before her campaign for district attorney, two Republicans invited her and her husband for lunch. Martinez knew they were going to try to convince her to join the Republican Party, but she didn’t take the idea seriously. They never asked her to switch parties—they didn’t have to. At the end of the conversation about a whole range of political issues, Martinez turned to her husband as they left and said, “I’ll be damned, we’re Republicans.”
That’s because the conservative message has broad appeal. But the convention seems to have shown that conservatives have realized how well that message translates across cultures, and the personal engagement that is sometimes necessary to get it across. The message doesn’t have to change, but sometimes the choice of messenger is just as important.