Identity politics! Let’s see, I am pro-choice or pro-life and therefore a Democrat or Republican. Unstated: I am willing to suspend disbelief as long as I identify with a candidate or a Party on a visceral level. And today, there is nothing more visceral than the legal boundaries of abortion law.
Political parties respond. Data lists are accumulated, rationalized and then the separation occurs. Data becomes real people and they are targeted. Hot buttons are lit up.
Identities: Evangelicals, LBGTQ, Ethnicity, Rural, Urban, Degreed, and on and on. Can an evangelical vote for somebody who is in the LBGTQ community? What if the two persons share points of view on most issues?
What does United mean? What does E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many One) mean? Our nation’s founding was inspired by unitedness. The politics of the day are defined by division. Can you define by division and then act unitedly?
Is there room, in the 21st Century, when communication is often instantaneous, targeted, emotional, and commercial, for quiet, patient relationships and decisions? Is it possible to step back from our political identity groups?
I have a lot of questions about our attempts at successful self-government. And, by nature, I am not reluctant to offer answers, by way of opinions. But, I must admit that I am stumped. While it is relatively easy to look ahead to medical breakthroughs, transformations in travel, and the like, it is maddeningly difficult to anticipate uniting answers. It is even increasingly difficult to follow facts where they take you. Failing this, how is good policy created?
Here is what I do know. Politics is attracting fewer and fewer idealists and/or realists and more and more manipulators. While idealists can get it wrong, manipulators work against the grain of unity—wrong defines their work. The Russians were able to use outlandish claims in Facebook ads because it fit a pre-existing pattern. Political parties and candidates are busily targeting their opponents with half-truths or worse. The Russians joined in.
Indeed half-truths now, largely inform politics. Candidates call for balanced budget amendments to our Constitution, but vote regularly for unbalanced budgets. Candidates and Advocates fly here and there to give speeches on freeing the atmosphere of carbon. Hypocrisy is not new, but a “take no prisoners” approach to identity politics makes it more egregious—cynicism sure to follow. And as regular politicians, those who come from more conventional backgrounds, attack Trump for his irregularity, it makes his base support even stronger.
A path-breaking journalist died on May 15, her name: Georgie Anne Geyer. A Wall Street Journal reflection on her career noted, “In the beginning she “operated in a virtually all-male world.” She became a columnist after more than a decade on the road. After the Cold War, she watched with distress as the U.S. descended into identity politics. “The grievance activists,” she wrote, “create sovereignties that compete with the sovereignty of the nation.” In one of her last articles, she argued that America needed to “develop a renewed sense of common purpose.”
Sovereignty. Have we yielded our own sovereignty? Have we become actors in emotionalized morality plays directed by the manipulators? I gave to a candidate recently and now get almost daily emotional appeals to give more. I can recall many years ago a campaign in which the candidate I worked for rejected a pro-life ad that featured a fetus in a bottle of formaldehyde. How many today reject incendiary ads?
We are now in a long, long campaign period as 24 Democrats campaign against each other and Trump. The actual election of a new President will not occur for about seventeen months. And, most assuredly, in the age of Trump, this will be a demolition derby. The car, or should I say survivor, will not look pretty.
My closing thought recalls the words of the sergeant from Hill Street Blues, a 1980s TV show. Each morning, he urged the police officers to “be careful out there.” Only careful voters will insist on truth. Only truth will restore our great experiment (yes, experiment) in self-governance. And, to those who should feel honored to be called journalists, truth should be your North Star.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.