National Commentary

David Brooks: The Identity Trap

When Hillary Clinton is good on the Sunday talk shows, she is really, really good. But when she is bad, she's atrocious. When she talks about policy, she will dazzle you. When her own ambitions are on the line, it's time to reach for the sick bag.

On "Meet the Press" Sunday, it was the latter. Clinton refused to admit any real errors. She implied that Barack Obama is unfit to be president, without ever honestly taking responsibility for what she actually believes.

She broadcast her own humility: "You know, I'm very other-directed. I don't like talking about myself." She also described the central role she plays in the lives of all living creatures in the universe: "The Iraqi government, they watch us, they listen to us. I know very well that they follow everything that I say."

But the Democrats' real problem is that their candidates are caught in a trap, which you might call The Identity Trap.

Both Clinton and Obama have eagerly donned the mantle of identity politics. A Clinton victory wouldn't just be a victory for one woman, it would be a victory for little girls everywhere. An Obama victory would be about completing the dream, keeping the dream alive, and so on.

Fair enough. The problem is that both the feminist movement Clinton rides and the civil rights rhetoric Obama uses were constructed at a time when the enemy was the reactionary white male establishment. Today, they are not facing the white male establishment. They are facing each other.

All the rhetorical devices that have been a staple of identity politics are now being exploited by the Clinton and Obama campaigns against each other. They are competing to play the victim. They are both accusing each other of insensitivity. They are both deliberately misinterpreting each other's comments in order to somehow imply that the other is morally retrograde.

All the habits of verbal thuggery that have long been used against critics of affirmative action, like Ward Connerly and Thomas Sowell, and critics of the radical feminism, like Christina Hoff Sommers, are now being turned inward by the Democratic front-runners.

Clinton is suffering most. She is now accused, absurdly, of being insensitive to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Bill Clinton's talk of a "fairy tale," which was used in the context of the Iraq debate, is now being distorted into a condemnation of the civil rights movement. Hillary Clinton finds that in attacking Obama, she is accused of being hostile to the entire African-American experience.

Clinton's fallback position is that neither she nor Obama should be judged as representatives of their out-groups. They should be judged as individuals.

But the entire theory of identity politics was that we are not mere individuals. We carry the perspectives of our group consciousness. Our social roles and loyalties are defined by race and gender. It's a black or female thing. You wouldn't understand.

Even in this moment of stress, Clinton wants to have it both ways. She wants to be emblematic of her gender and liberated from race and gender politics. As she told Tim Russert on Sunday: "You have a woman running to break the highest and hardest glass ceiling. I don't think either of us wants to inject race or gender in this campaign. We're running as individuals."


What we have here is worthy of a Tom Wolfe novel: the bonfire of the multicultural vanities. The Clintons are hitting Obama with everything they've got. The Obama subordinates are twisting every critique into a racial outrage in an effort to make all criticism morally off-limits. Obama's campaign drew up a memo delineating all of the Clintons' supposed racial outrages. Bill Clinton is frantically touring black radio stations to repair any wounds.

Meanwhile, Clinton friend Robert Johnson, a one-man gaffe machine, reminds us of Obama's drug use and accuses him of being like Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Another Clinton supporter, Gloria Steinem, notes that black men were given the vote a half-century before women.

This is the logical extreme of the identity politics that as been floating around this country for decades. Every revolution devours its offspring, and it seems the multicultural one does, too.

The final two points I'd make are: First, this whole show seems stale and deranged to the younger set, as Obama and Clinton seemed to recognize when they damped down the feud Monday afternoon. The interesting split is not between the feminist and civil rights Old Bulls, it's between the establishments of both movements, who emphasize top-down change, and the younger dissenters, who don't. Second, this dispute is going to be settled by the rising, and so far ignored, minority group. For all the current fighting, it'll be Latinos who end up determining who gets the nomination.

At last, a bridge to the 21st century.

            c.2008 New York Times News Service