Identity Politics, and the Divisible Nation for Which It Stands
I was halfway through the preparation for this essay on identity politics when Procter & Gamble handed me my free promotional gift — an online ad for Gillette razors that showed men and boys being bad and that asked, “Is this the best a man can get?”
Well, no — it’s not. It should be obvious that bullying and street-fighting are not the “best a man can get,” whatever that means. It is bad behavior — plain and simple. To show pictures of boys fighting and suggesting that this represents anyone’s ideal for male behavior is not only flagrantly dishonest; it is stupid as well. To show an example of online bullying and suggest that this is the sole domain of boys and men is not only stupid; it is flagrantly dishonest — girls are at least as ruthless as boys when it comes to online bullying.
This ad illustrates, probably better than anything I can think of, both the allure and the danger of “identity politics.” It must have seemed like a great idea to the advertising geniuses at Procter & Gamble to capture the angst of the modern man in this era of “Me Too” and “Toxic Masculinity,” but instead of celebrating the positive aspects of maleness, they decided to shame men into changing their hormonal spots. (Wait a minute, isn’t “shaming” just another form of “bullying”?)
Sooner or later, it should become clear that “identity politics” is really just Tribalism 2.0, and has the same strengths and weaknesses as the old version. By encouraging blocs of people to band together, you magnify the power of the individual as a representative of a group, but by segregating people into discrete groups, you isolate them from those who are unlike them. That has never worked well — whether in Rwanda, where the Hutus tried to wipe out the Tutsis, or in India, where a nationwide partition was required between Hindus and Muslims in order to prevent them from killing each other.
We won’t see genocidal war between men and women, for obvious reasons, but turning the sexes against each other won’t work out well either, especially not if one of the genders is seen as superior and oppressed and the other is seen as inferior and oppressive. As a historic fact, most cultures of the world have been patriarchies and thus men have wielded power more readily than women, but that doesn’t mean women are necessarily going to do better at it when they wrest power away from men. Yet that is the implicit — and often explicit — assumption of political analysts when they study the increasing political power of women. David Gergen, for instance, in an article for CNN co-written with researcher James Piltch, said that “a large increase in female leaders could be a saving grace for the country's hyperpolarized, venomous politics. They may just be better at leading than men.”
What? Really? On what basis?
Gergen and Piltch have this to say to back up their outrageous claim:
“When it comes to the respective leadership strengths of different genders, it's hard to be sure what is absolutely, verifiably true. But research suggests women possess two leadership qualities that our country needs right now.”
“Research suggests...”? Really? That’s it?
Here’s what my research suggests: Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters, Hillary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mazie Hirono, Sheila Jackson Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida (“Impeach the m-----f---er”) Tlaib are not a “saving grace for the country's hyperpolarized, venomous politics.” They are instead the poster girls for venomous politics.
Yet according to Gergen and Piltch, “women tend to bring something as leaders that is sorely lacking in Washington: Ethics and integrity.”
This can be challenged on two fronts. One, it is an implicit indictment of men across the board in Washington, D.C., yet the absence of real indictments would suggest that a vast majority of men serving in Congress, the administration or the bureaucracy are beyond reproach when it comes to ethics and integrity. Second, there is zero evidence that women are more ethical than men, unless wearing pussy hats is a de facto declaration of decency. Oh, yeah — Alice Eagly wrote a book that claims women are “seemingly” less likely to encourage unethical practices “when on corporate boards or other positions of leadership than men.” As the Gergen article concedes, “research confirming Eagly’s findings remains limited,” but hey, there is a lot of unscientific anecdotal evidence we can rely on to prove what we already believe to be true. Oh, wait — that’s called confirmation bias. Never mind.
What Gergen’s “think piece” really illustrates is not that women are better at leadership, but that men are still masters at sweet-talking women. In writing an article titled “Why Nancy Pelosi is good for America,” Gergen and Piltch are telling women what they think women want to hear, but smart women aren’t buying it. Human frailty is not gender specific; nor is leadership. Nor do all people of a particular gender, race or sexual orientation think or act alike — despite the goading of Gillette or Gergen. Nancy Pelosi is good for America in exactly the same degree as Donald Trump, and for exactly the same reason — they both fight for what they believe in.
You see, for conservatives such as myself, our identity is not tied up in our skin color or our gender, but rather in our beliefs. That’s why I could support Ben Carson for president in 2016 and want to see Nikki Haley run for president in 2024. Like most people who value ethics and integrity (and, yes, that includes both men and Republicans) I am pleased to find those qualities in anyone, and considering the range of temptations available in public life, I am not surprised to find them lacking in either men or women.
Ultimately the problem with identity politics is that it is divisive politics. On Martin Luther King Day, we should acknowledge that oppression by race, gender and religion does happen, and must be rooted out, but we should also have the courage, like King, to envision an America that judges people “by the content of their character,” not what group they belong to. If we are going to condemn white nationalism (and we most emphatically should) then we ought also condemn other forms of tribalism. When people celebrate being a woman, for instance, they are also celebrating being a NOT-man. We are celebrating our differences rather than that which binds us together — our American identity and, ultimately, our human identity.
Most of us grew up reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance,” and mouthed the words by rote “one nation, indivisible,” but yet today we support every assault on that union by pitting one group — one race, one religion, one gender — against another.
There is only one way to imagine a good end to all this division. What is the smallest indivisible unit? As Red Skelton described it in his remarkable version of the “Pledge,” it is “I, me, an individual, a committee of one.” When all those I’s put aside our differences and join together with others who are both like and unlike us, then we may rediscover the strength of a republic that was born with the remarkable words “We the People.”
Let’s hope that day is not far off.