If asked in a public forum, most Americans from across the political spectrum would likely agree that where candidates stand on the issues should take precedent over their gender, race, or religious backgrounds. Yet when the curtain is closed in the voting booth, tribal loyalty often shoves rational thought aside.
On the Democratic side this election season, we have already been subjected to "first woman president" and "first black president" scenarios that are partly media creations, but also partly true. The left, being the original home of multicultural philosophy and the champion of "diversity," has no qualms about emphasizing identity politics, where Marxist concepts of sex and race are as important, if not more important, than ideas and issues.
An honest observer would have to admit that the greatest difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton doesn't concern policy, but chromosomes and skin tone. Throw in a smooth-talking famous husband and a smooth-talking agent for "change," and the combination of identity, personality, and triviality will easily shield the next president from any serious questions about their ability to govern, right up until the day they are sworn into office.
And the Republicans are no better. The GOP race this election year has been a competition over who can be the toughest on illegal immigration, despite the fact that nearly everyone has a lousy record thus far, and who can be the toughest on terror by continuing the failed policies of a president with arguably the lousiest record in history. After that, the identity politics that have long since defined the Democrats — and which the Republican have repeatedly criticized — is alive and well in the GOP.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this would be to look at the recent Republican presidential primary in South Carolina and ask ourselves who voted for whom and why. Victor John McCain won due primarily to the military vote, while his most significant rival, second place winner Mike Huckabee, made a good showing thanks to the evangelical vote.
In recent weeks, Rush Limbaugh has called McCain "unacceptable" and has stated flatly that Huckabee is not a conservative. What Limbaugh doesn't realize is that for the supporters of both candidates, identity trumps ideas. The same veterans who cursed McCain's name over his amnesty proposal now pretend it never happened in order to vote for a fellow soldier. Indeed, a dear relative of mine is voting for McCain simply because he once donned a uniform. Likewise, no matter how many times Huckabee raised taxes or was criticized for governing Arkansas more liberally than Bill Clinton, if you're an evangelical, you're voting for the former preacher. As neither a soldier nor a Southern Baptist, a man like Limbaugh simply wouldn't understand.
As for the other alleged frontrunner, nothing shows the power of identity politics more than the huge victory by Mitt Romney in Nevada. Romney's a Mormon. Nevada is filled with Mormons. Case closed.
In the final days before the South Carolina primary, the Confederate flag was again brought up, as Republican politicians used and abused the South's most famous symbol for temporary political advantage. But for pundits to laugh at Southerners who vote based on something the media considers trivial like a flag is to ignore the comparative ridiculousness of voting for someone simply because they are female, black, a soldier, a Baptist preacher, or a Mormon.
If identity politics has indeed replaced serious debate and thought-provoking questions, then Southern identity is no more trivial than any other. In fact, voting based on pride in your Southern heritage might make the most sense, as the politically correct candidates of both parties, particularly the Republicans, keep insisting every four years that those who support the Confederate flag must always lose.
As long as I can remember, conservative commentators have criticized black Americans for being beholden to the Democratic Party, telling them again and again to "get off the Democratic plantation." But as the 2008 election has proven, the Republicans are every bit as enslaved to the same identity politics that has long defined the left. So far, choosing our next president has had more to do with race, sex, religion, or rank than what the candidates actually believe.
This is nothing new, and in fact, it's human nature do so, at least in part. But in a field of frontrunners that agree on virtually everything and are wrong about virtually everything, the degree to which identity continues to trump reason does not bode well for those interested in injecting new ideas into a body politic that sorely needs it.