Commentary Magazine


Topic: identity politics

The GOP Field and Liberal Identity Politics

How far can you go in pushing a public figure on his or her racial, ethnic or gender identity? If you’re a liberal, you know there are lines that the press dare never cross. If you’re a conservative, especially one despised by the liberal establishment, there are no such lines. We got a taste of that late last week when Mark Halperin interviewed Senator Ted Cruz on his BloombergPolitics cable show. After discussing some policy issues, Halperin decided to give Cruz a Hispanic identity test, checking to see if he could name favorite foods, music and then demanding that he speak in Spanish. As Ruben Naverette wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, Haplerin did everything except ask Cruz to “play the conga drums like Desi Arnaz.” Suffice it to say this is not a ploy Halperin would pull on a Hispanic Democrat. But rather than put it down to the usual fun and games of liberal bias and partisanship, this piece of snark is about something much more serious: the notion that Hispanics, blacks or women who are conservatives, aren’t authentic members of those groups. We can expect to see a lot of it in the coming months as the liberal media copes with a breathtakingly diverse Republican presidential field and seeks to brand them as inauthentic.

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How far can you go in pushing a public figure on his or her racial, ethnic or gender identity? If you’re a liberal, you know there are lines that the press dare never cross. If you’re a conservative, especially one despised by the liberal establishment, there are no such lines. We got a taste of that late last week when Mark Halperin interviewed Senator Ted Cruz on his BloombergPolitics cable show. After discussing some policy issues, Halperin decided to give Cruz a Hispanic identity test, checking to see if he could name favorite foods, music and then demanding that he speak in Spanish. As Ruben Naverette wrote in the San Jose Mercury News, Haplerin did everything except ask Cruz to “play the conga drums like Desi Arnaz.” Suffice it to say this is not a ploy Halperin would pull on a Hispanic Democrat. But rather than put it down to the usual fun and games of liberal bias and partisanship, this piece of snark is about something much more serious: the notion that Hispanics, blacks or women who are conservatives, aren’t authentic members of those groups. We can expect to see a lot of it in the coming months as the liberal media copes with a breathtakingly diverse Republican presidential field and seeks to brand them as inauthentic.

What Halperin did to Cruz was merely another example of the identity wars that are being fought in contemporary politics. Just as women who don’t support abortion without any restrictions are portrayed as not really female by the left, so, too are blacks and Hispanics who don’t toe the Democrat party line treated as somehow inauthentic minorities.

But while it’s one thing for political operatives to operate in that fashion, it’s quite another for a reporter who likes to pretend to be playing it down the middle to play this game. Halperin is best known to television audiences as a frequent member of panels on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program where he masquerades as one of the adults in the room. But as Naverette wrote, neither Obama’s Housing Secretary Joaquin Castro, nor his twin brother Rep. Joaquin Castro speaks fluent Spanish. Yet it is as unimaginable that either would be quizzed in the same manner about their background, as it would be to probe anyone of any other ethnicity about whether they were entitled to it. In this instance it would be instructive to recall the way most of the liberal media ignored the kerfuffle about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s somewhat dubious claims to the status of Native American.

As it happens, Cruz has never made his Cuban lineage central to his political career except in the sense that his father’s experience as an immigrant that fled Cuba taught him valuable lessons about American exceptionalism and the need to struggle for opportunity and liberty. But because he’s a vocal opponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants, he’s assumed to be a fake Hispanic. You don’t have to be a fan of Cruz’s politics to understand that this sort of journalism isn’t about finding out more about someone who is running for president. Rather, the purpose was to try and label him as an inauthentic minority. Had Halperin or anyone else done this to the Castros, apologies would have been demanded and suspensions would be discussed.

But this minor controversy does go to the heart of what is wrong about most of the talk about the need for Republicans to appeal to Hispanic voters.

Pundits are right when they say the GOP must do more to reach out to Hispanics. But the discussion about this issue centers almost exclusively on whether Republicans are prepared to embrace a path to citizenship for illegals or stop talking about the need to secure the border against new waves of people crossing the border without permission. There are cogent arguments to be made about the need for resolving the status of those already here by means that don’t include unrealistic expectations about them being deported. But as important as that may be, Hispanic voters, who come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and are not monolithic in nature, have other interests beside the fate of illegals. And, contrary to the assumptions of the mainstream media, they can differ about amnesty just as women can differ about abortion.

It’s one thing to denounce conservative Hispanics as wrong on the issues. It’s quite another to treat them as crypto Anglo-Saxons. But with two Republican presidential candidates of Hispanic background (Cruz and fellow Cuban-American Marco Rubio) and one GOP hopeful that is a woman (Carly Fiorina) and another an African America (Ben Carson), the liberal authenticity police will be out in force. But rather than merely ignore them as Cruz, who kept his cool with Halperin did, this insidious bias needs to be shown for what it is: a desire by the media to delegitimize anyone who doesn’t conform to their ideas about identity politics as interpreted through the catechism of liberal ideology.

Update:

On Monday, Mark Halperin apologized to Senator Ted Cruz for his egregious questions. But the apology, which claimed the interview was intended to be “lighthearted” rather than an effort to test Cruz’s authenticity as a Latino, was delivered in standard non-apology style in which he said he was sorry “to those who were offended

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GOP Convention Lesson: Biography Matters

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.

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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.

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