Identity Politics and the 2008 Campaign

Dan Drezner makes an interesting point about identity politics and how it’s playing out in this campaign:

I don’t doubt that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have suffered a multitude of small slights in their professional and personal lives because of their gender or race. However, if you think about this as a contest to see who has suffered the greatest because of their identity, it’s not even close.

The candidate who has suffered the most in his lifetime is…. John McCain. As an individual, he has paid a much higher price for his identity as an officer in the United States military than Obama or Cinton has individually paid for their race or gender. And there’s simply no way to spin it otherwise.

As a collective entity, of course, African-Americans and women have white males beat on the suffering front. It is interesting, however, that the avatars of identity get all jumbled up once we look at the candidates’ individual biographies.

Indeed, it’s pretty hard to make the case that Obama or Clinton have suffered much at all.

Obama’s only slightly older than I am and thus grew up in an era when blacks were fully integrated into society. The Brown decision happened years before he was born and he was a toddler when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. For that matter, his formative years were in Hawaii and Indonesia. Biologically, he’s biracial and metaphysically he’s post-racial. As he wrote in his autobiography, “That my father looked nothing like the people around me—that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk—barely registered in my mind.” He graduated Columbia and Harvard Law and went on to teach at Chicago before getting elected to the Senate. Presuming he’s ever been on a bus, he wasn’t sitting in the back.

As for Clinton, she grew up in a wealthy family and lived a life of immense privilege. She went to Wellesley and then Yale Law, the elite of the elite schools. Her husband, Bill, almost immediately got elected Attorney General of Arkansas and then served 12 years as governor before getting elected to two terms as president. She turned that into a United States Senate seat and automatic frontrunner status for the Democratic presidential nomination. It’s pretty difficult to feel sorry for her.

To be sure, McCain didn’t exactly grow up in poverty. He was the son and grandson of four-star admirals, went on to the United States Naval Academy, and certainly got quite a few breaks along the way. But the privilege of the officer corp comes with some pretty significant strings attached; he paid a much higher price than most.

Of the three, McCain is the only one who can be said to have had a hard life. Had he not had the misfortune of being shot down and held captive by a brutal enemy, however, it couldn’t be said about him, either. All in all, all three of them have led rather charmed lives.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Gender Issues, Military Affairs, Race and Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Scott Swank says:

    “Obama’s only slightly older than I am and thus grew up in an era when blacks were fully integrated into society.”

    Really?

    What about Reagan’s 1980 “state’s rights” speech at Philadelphia, Mississippi? What about GHW Bush’s Willie Horton ads? What about GW Bush’s push poll claiming that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child? That doesn’t sound terribly integrated to me.

  2. James Joyner says:

    That doesn’t sound terribly integrated to me.

    If those are your examples, I’m not sure that word means what you think it means.

  3. Hal says:

    If those are your examples, I’m not sure that word means what you think it means.

    I guess “fully integrated into society” means having to put up with political parties and politicians using your race as a wedge issue which helps them with bigoted parts of the electorate.

  4. Triumph says:

    Of the three, McCain is the only one who can be said to have had a hard life. Had he not had the misfortune of being shot down and held captive by a brutal enemy, however, it couldn’t be said about him, either. All in all, all three of them have led rather charmed lives.

    What is the point of this whole discussion? None of them is running for “most oppressed.”

  5. bains says:

    What about Reagan’s 1980 “state’s rights” speech at Philadelphia, Mississippi? What about GHW Bush’s Willie Horton ads? What about GW Bush’s push poll claiming that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child?

    Nice talking points bro. Especially suited for the intellectually dishonest and the willfully ignorant.

  6. Michael says:

    What is the point of this whole discussion? None of them is running for “most oppressed.”

    Agreed. “Someone I can feel sorry for” is no where on my list of attributes I look for in the President of the United States.

  7. Kenny says:

    “All in all, all three of them have led rather charmed lives.”

    As have most all modern high-profile candidates for the office.