The debate over Barack Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court reveals just how powerfully identity politics has corrupted our political discourse. But like so much about the 1960s, what was originally a leftist plot to "subvert the dominant paradigm" is now being used to reinforce that paradigm, as white male Christian America attempts to reassert its control of our institutions in the face of the unavoidable truth of a new, multicultural nation.
Despite the dearth of Kagan's legal paper trail, her political and philosophical views might be profitably extricated from a close critical reading of her memos and briefs as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration and as solicitor general. Alas, these could hardly matter less. Kagan, you see, is a single New York female Jewish refugee from Manhattan's Upper West Side. In our political context that counts as five, possibly six, strikes against her, depending on whether one believes all single women to be likely lesbians. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen kvetches that she is not a mother. National Review's Ed Whelan worries that she doesn't know how to drive. This year's Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, Kathleen Parker, complains that Kagan grew up in an urban environment with nary a "Baptist church" or "ballet class." MSNBC's sometime fascist sympathizer Pat Buchanan states the case most forcefully: "Jews, who represent less than 2 percent of the US population, will have 33 percent of the Supreme Court seats." Add it all up, explains Parker, and Kagan is "miles away from mainstream America."
This idea of "mainstream" or "the real America" is a curious one. It comes up repeatedly, when Tea Party types attack Obama, Sonia Sotomayor or just about anyone who could not be comfortably cast in It's a Wonderful Life. In its inception it arose from the collective imagination of a group of heavily accented Eastern European Jewish immigrants who "invented Hollywood," as their biographer Neal Gabler put it. Sarah Palin, as is her wont, demonstrated its malevolent potential when it is combined with ideological obsession and willful ignorance when she announced during the 2008 campaign, "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns...and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the 'real America,'" which she equated with "very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation." Sorry, Sarah, but if small towns are the "real America," then the nearly 80 percent of us who live in metropolitan areas are saying, Thanks, but no thanks. (Oh, and by the way, quitter, Guilford County, North Carolina, where you made your dumb remarks, went for Obama by eighteen points.)
Of course, this phony "real America" is obviously a state of mind and not much more, though it is hardly less powerful for being so. In fact, the less it comports with reality, the stronger its believers need to cling to it. How else to explain the anti-tax vehemence of Republican radicals arising at exactly the moment when Americans are paying the lowest tax rates since 1950? Why is John McCain succumbing to the know-nothing nativism he built his entire persona opposing? What's happening, as Mark Schmitt predicted in 2008, is that the Republicans are settling on white Christian identity politics as the only card they have left. Why else would McCain have adopted the embarrassing slogan "The American president Americans have been waiting for"? Schmitt also noted that David Frum—second only to David Brooks as the liberals' favorite conservative—endorsed this poison politics when he wrote, "Republicans have always been the party of American democratic nationhood," while Democrats "attract those who felt themselves in some way marginal to the American experience...intellectuals, Catholics, Jews, blacks, feminists, gays.... As the nation weakens, Democrats grow stronger."
Most Americans can look at their lives and see the fallacy of these claims. As a certain Illinois state senator said to the Democratic convention in 2004, "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states." But when times are tough, Americans take comfort in such claims nevertheless. Sadly, they receive considerable encouragement in this endeavor from the so-called liberal media. For instance, MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski famously sympathized with Palin's decision to quit her job as Alaska governor and cash in on her celebrity as something that could be well understood in "real America," which she contrasted with "urban America." This came months after the same network planted a correspondent outside Zabar's—ground zero of Upper West Side Jewish life—who demanded to know why so few people in the neighborhood supported McCain and Palin. Nearly everyone responded politely with reasons to prefer Obama. Still, the MSNBC hosts were shocked that a famously liberal neighborhood contained real liberals. "That is an important cultural piece, and it proves why so many people are so right—no pun intended—to really loathe so many on the left. Those people are so close-minded," explained admitted plagiarist and MSNBC host Mike Barnicle. "There's some really, really hostile people on the left who just think they are intellectually superior," added the program's conservative host, Joe Scarborough. And remember, MSNBC's programming—even with Scarborough, Brzezinski, Barnicle and Buchanan—is typically treated as the liberal equivalent of the ferocious conservatism one finds 24/7 on Fox News.
Ironically, by picking a dedicated establishment centrist to replace Stevens, Obama has replicated this tiresome political pattern: unleashing the dogs of right-wing culture war without giving the left much of a reason to want to fight back.
If not now, Barack, when?