The Politics of Me

Okay, that’s it. All politics is identity politics. And we should know that by now. If you’ve been around long enough you remember that classic question about Richard Nixon. Would you buy a used car from this man? Sure, that was a shorthand way of saying this man could never be trusted, and of course had nothing to do with any policy issues – stuff he would do if elected. Were he to be elected he would certainly establish new policies – that’s the job after all. But what he was saying he would do, and the merits of all that, were not at issue. Such considerations are for policy wonks and process-nerds. Most people find policy talk painfully boring. They don’t want the details. They don’t want analysis of this policy or that, and they don’t want to sift through the evidence of what might happen if, say, we raised the capital gains rate by fourteen basis points over two months. Evidence is also boring. And of course the used-car question was evidence-free. No list of lies was offered. That was the point. Something seemed shifty about this man. You just knew it.

But Nixon’s presidency wasn’t a total disaster. He opened relations with China – the actual one – and there was the Equal Rights Amendment on his watch, and ending the draft, and he was largely responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency – and he was the only President to achieve a balanced budget between 1961 and 1998 – and there were the summit meetings with Brezhnev that produced the first treaty to limit strategic nuclear weapons. In 1973 he announced an accord with North Vietnam to end American involvement in Indochina – way late, but there it was nonetheless. In 1974 he had Kissinger negotiate disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt and Syria, settling things down over there, for a moment. But there was the secret bombing of Cambodia on his watch, and Kent State, and his enemies lists. And of course there was Watergate and his absurd notion that he was above the law – and his resignation in disgrace, with his usual self-pity and whining, disguised as nobility, with a slight hint of martyrdom. The whole thing was a mixed bag, and Nixon may have been a troubled man – unstable and paranoid and deeply anti-Semitic and a bit of a racist – but not all the used cars he was selling us were lemons. He was just a thoroughly unpleasant man.

So what was that used-car salesman stuff about?

Actually it wasn’t so much about Nixon. It was about the smug people asking the question. It was a way for them to describe themselves, as the sort of people who couldn’t be fooled by jingoism and mean-spirited attempts to scapegoat minorities or the poor or hippies or people who had degrees from Ivy League schools and all the rest. It was a way of saying we’re smarter than that, and those who support Nixon are not. And that produced the inevitable counter-smugness from the other side, folks who were fed up with hippies and uppity minorities and the whining poor and all those fancy-pants experts with their fancy-pants degrees and so on. They were also describing themselves, as the much put-upon Real Americans. America, Love it or Leave It. You remember that.

The result of all that was that what was being contested had less to do with Nixon than with personal promotion. Nixon and Humphrey could have spent the fall in Altoona playing Pinochle – the rest of the nation was full of people asserting who they really were, and claiming superiority for who they were. Nixon was a minor matter, just a place to start the discussion. It was identity politics run amok – or at least untethered from the actual candidates and what they proposed to fix what ailed us. And everyone would rather talk about themselves anyway.

The same sort of thing happened four years later with Nixon and McGovern. Which of the two you supported you supported because of what that said about you. And we saw it in the Bush-Gore campaign years later, with all that talk about which of the two you would rather have a beer with, out in the back yard, by the grill. And with the Bush-Kerry campaign that intensified – Kerry also spoke flawless French and if you thought he should be president you’d probably end up eating brie and driving a Volvo. It seems Karl Rove understood identity politics far better than the Democrats ever would – they’d talk policy while Rove understood that the whole point was to get people to think about what supporting Bush said about you, and then just letting people do what they love more than anything else in the world – talk about themselves, endlessly. Identity politics is all about harnessing the vast and endless power of narcissism. Everyone eventually ends up talking about themselves and nothing else at all. If that is going to happen anyway, why not use it? Advertisers know all about this – you can talk all you want about features and price, but what works are ad campaigns that really don’t talk about the product, or even show it. You just ask the public if they are the sort of cool person who would own a low-slung four-hundred-horsepower Quaalude GT – and let them do the work of getting themselves one of those in their driveway. What you buy makes a statement, about you. And you are what you care about, after all is said and done. You don’t have to say much of anything about the product, really. Rove understood the same goes for politics.

The Democrats never understood that, but they were saved when the product turned out to be a lemon. In the end, that question about Nixon, as a used-car salesman, turned out to be not that far off base. Bush fulfilled Nixon’s legacy, in an odd way. You may have felt good about yourself in voting for Bush and then defending him – that meant you were a no-nonsense manly-man who knew that talk doesn’t matter, nor does thinking too much, as it’s all in just following your gut instinct and just doing something, and squinting at the sun then just walking away. That made a statement about you. Only later did you find out that people would think you were a total jerk. It was kind of like buying a brand-new giant tricked-out Hummer in the summer of 2001. Oops.

But the principle still holds – get people talking about themselves. That’s all they care about, really. And the latest way that is playing out is examined by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate with her surprisingly serious question – “Can we please stop talking about Supreme Court nominees like they are real people?”

Actually, she’s quite serious:

Every few years, history throws us a fresh, new Supreme Court nominee who – both by design and temperament – is completely unknowable. This forces the country into a brief round of political speed-dating, wherein we try to fall in love with a nominee just as that nominee attempts to float in the ether above us. And as is often the case when you are speed-dating someone who will not speak, the only option is to spend most of the time talking about yourself. So, “Is Kagan an Ivy League elitist” may actually mean “Am I an Ivy League elitist?” “Is Kagan a soulless careerist?” may be read as “Am I a soulless careerist?” and “Hey! Why isn’t Kagan married?” starts to sound an awful lot like “Hey! Why am I not married?”

Yep, for that Ivy League stuff see Peter Beinart:

From left to right, just about the only thing that liberals and conservatives have agreed upon since Elena Kagan’s nomination is that there are too many pointy-heads on the Supreme Court. “I think it would be good to have a nominee that stood up against powerful interests like the elite law schools, which are a powerful interest in the U.S. and have done a lot of damage,” explained William Kristol recently. Several days later, in what may be a sign that the apocalypse is nigh, the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein quoted Kristol with approval.

I’d like to propose a backlash against the backlash. (And yes, shoot me, I attended an Ivy League college myself.) When critics bemoan the fact that if Kagan gets confirmed, every Supreme Court justice will be tainted by the Ivy League, what they generally mean is that the Supremes won’t have anything in common with average Americans. But in one sense, they’re not supposed to. The Supreme Court is not supposed to comprise a cross-section of the American public, or of the American legal profession. It is supposed to constitute an intellectual elite. Brains aren’t the only thing you want in a Supreme Court justice. But they’re up there. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the judge reading the brief – like the radiologist reading the X-ray – to have graduated at the top of her class, not in the middle.

He goes on to cover the whole controversy, such as it is. And it does seem to be people using Kagan to make statements about themselves, and how they’re not like those Ivy League assholes – they’re better people than that, more down-to-earth. And he ends with this:

Under cover of anti-elitism, people like Sarah Palin love to conflate unearned privilege with hard-won educational achievement. The former is pernicious; the latter is glorious. And if the latter is the story of Elena Kagan, and our current Supreme Court, it should be a matter of national pride.

As for Kagan being a soulless careerist, see David Brooks:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged. As one admissions director told me at the time, they were prudential rather than poetic.

If you listen to people talk about Elena Kagan, it is striking how closely their descriptions hew to this personality type.

Brooks concludes with this:

I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest – and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind, for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

Yep, it’s like being a columnist for the New York Times, writing a column of no more than eight hundred words twice a week and keeping it simple. Brooks knows.

As for the whole issue of why Kagan isn’t married, see this:

For the second time in a year, a childless, unmarried woman in her 50s has been nominated to be a justice on the Supreme Court and the critics have come out swinging. This time Elena Kagan, the former dean of Harvard’s law school, who is now solicitor general, has been described as having sacrificed a home and personal life in her quest for a brilliant legal career.

It all sounds eerily like when Sonia Sotomayor, who is 55 and single after a brief marriage when she was younger, was appointed to the Supreme Court last August and had to deflect suggestions that she treated colleagues and close friends like an extended family because she had no children of her own. Deborah Rhode, director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School, said such stereotypes are unfair but common given society’s double standard when it comes to single women and work.

She said she got a phone call last week from a reporter questioning whether Ms. Kagan was equipped to rule on workplace issues considering that she had never had children. “I didn’t think you needed to actually be a mother to appreciate the challenges facing working mothers,” Ms. Rhode said she told the reporter. “I do think it is a step back if we start to penalize women for not making the conventional choice.”

Besides, Ms. Rhode added: “I resist the notion that the only way to be happy in the world is you have to be married. We want a world where people can make a variety of choices and be happy.”

That’s Laura Holson in the New York Times, in the Fashion and Style section, and there’s more at the link. It’s all about people talking about themselves, really, and that’s probably why it’s in the Fashion and Style section.

And all this bugs Lithwick:

Now you’d think that with the dumping last night of tens of thousands of pages of Kagan’s professional writings, we would be able to lay aside this game of dressing her up as the Choose-Your-Own-Anxiety Barbie. Yet we remain fixated on Kagan’s looks, her sexuality, her gender, her singleness, her hotness, her not-ness, and her personal ambition. Who cares what she really thinks about the merits of the exclusionary rule? This is not the stuff of which TV talk shows are made.

Since we can’t spend these few weeks before the confirmation hearings getting to actually know the nominee – indeed we will find ourselves knowing slightly less about her every day if the White House manages things properly – we instead take the opportunity to get to know ourselves a little better. How much does race still matter in America? Here’s what I think Kagan’s minority hiring record tells us! Does religion still divide us? Here’s what I think Kagan’s religion tells us! As social commentators, we expand to fill the enormous space the nominee has left vacant.

So we’ll talk about ourselves, starting with the indisputable fact that Kagan is unmarried:

Maureen Dowd, having just skewered the White House for painting Kagan as a Girls Gone Wild party girl, is certain that Kagan’s singleness has been spun by the White House as pathetic spinsterish loneliness. Really? I haven’t seen much evidence of the White House spinning Kagan as lonely or too hardworking to marry. Maybe I just get the wrong press releases. It seems to me that a few of Kagan’s friends talked about how she dated when she was younger but just didn’t get hitched, and the choice to freak out about her unmarried status was ours. This was a proxy for the awkward conversation we’re having about (or really around) sexual orientation. But it’s also a proxy for how being unmarried still freaks Americans right out.

The Maureen Dowd item is here – if you really what to know what makes Dowd tick, because Dowd has no solid information on Kagan – but Lithwick sees it this way:

What I see in the national obsession over Kagan’s unmarried status is precisely the same thing I saw in the national obsession over David Souter’s: We want Supreme Court nominees who are diverse and interesting, but as soon as we get one, we treat their unique qualities like hideous communicable diseases. Sonia Sotomayor was the first Latina. So we called her a racist. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a feminist legal pioneer. So we called her a radical. And we thought David Souter (mother, farmhouse, perennially unplugged TV) was just so much tragic marital road kill.

Is there a double standard when it comes to unmarried women versus unmarried men and the Supreme Court? I really don’t think so. I think we’re so in love with marriage in this country that we refuse to accept that not everybody does it. We prefer a thrice-married William O. Douglas to a celibate David Souter.

Lithwick makes the parallel explicit:

Take a look at what they were saying about poor Souter when he was nominated to the Supreme Court in July of 1990. David Margolick at the New York Times wrote of a “quiet concern over (Souter’s) circumscribed way of life” and noted that “[a]s a young man he was briefly engaged to the daughter of a State Superior Court justice, but he never married, and even his admirers wonder whether his solitary style has limited his empathy or level of human understanding.” His old girlfriends were rousted out and interrogated just as Harriet Miers’ old boyfriends and Kagan’s old roommates are being trotted out like trial exhibits.

And Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was so worried about Souter’s creepy bachelorish ways that he told NPR before the hearings that “the court is facing a whole range of family issues and that Judge Souter does not have the experience of family life – a wife and children – to draw on to help him with these decisions. I’ll be exploring that with him because, frankly, right now it makes me uncomfortable.”

Uncomfortable, you know, the way single men hanging out at the ice cream truck make you uncomfortable?

But Lithwick points out that Benjamin Cardozo also had to explain his single status to the world at his confirmation hearings:

Whether Cardozo was gay, celibate, or in love with his sister is still unknown to court historians, but you can be sure he would have failed Sen. Hatch’s icky bachelor-test. The Supreme Court confirmation process shows us to ourselves in rather stark relief, and the truth is that people who aren’t exactly like us make us unbelievably nervous, especially when we’re about to give them one of the most powerful jobs in the land. We want our outsiders to be insiders, our women to be men, our minorities to be white, and our singles to be married.

So here we go again, as we always do:

But given that the next few weeks are guaranteed to reveal nothing new or deeply personal about Solicitor General Kagan, agonizing publicly about her deeply personal qualities seems rather pointless. If we’re going to talk about Kagan, let’s stick to her record, her writings, and her speeches. And if you want to talk about your love life, looks, academic anxieties, ambition, dreams of marriage, or dating history, I’m also all ears. But maybe let’s just leave her out of it?

Yep, think about 1968 and how Nixon and Humphrey could have spent the fall in Altoona playing Pinochle, as the rest of the nation had left them far behind and was full of people asserting who they really were, and claiming superiority for who they were.

But Kagan has to go through her confirmation hearing – no choice. And as each senator puffs and preens about himself (or about herself) – which has little to do with her – she has a real challenge. She has to appear as if she’s not bored, and she can’t even play Pinochle to pass the time.

But all politics is identity politics. And we should know that by now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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