Guest Commentary: The Poison of Identity Politics

June 12, 2012

TANCREDO: Appealing to blocs of voters solely on the basis of racial or ethnic or gender “identity” divides Americans into warring groups

Last week saw the return of identity politics in the Republican Party in the familiar guise of “smart politics.” Such is always the appeal of political panaceas: smell the rose, and ignore the thorns.

This week’s Republican folly takes the form of a bill introduced in Congress by Florida Rep. David Rivera, the “Republican Dream Act.,” H.R.5869.

While we could dismiss the proposal as just one more example of election-year pandering, it is also more than that. It is an example of a deeper problem in American politics – the poison of identity politics.

The proposed legislation offers illegal aliens a path to citizenship if they entered the country prior to their 16th birthday and have earned a high school diploma or its equivalent. The bill has been sent to the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.

Like previous versions of this proposal, the bill gives the secretary of homeland security authority to waive many of its eligibility provisions. Thus, it is impossible to know what the proposal would look like when fully implemented. But in truth, no one expects the bill to ever be enacted. It is the bill’s alleged political importance that is attracting attention, not the details of its provisions.

Immigration reform proposals can be discussed and debated in one of two ways, either as good policy or as “smart politics.” We could spend a lot of time discussing the bill’s evasions and flaws as immigration policy, but in reality, this bill will be promoted and presented only as a smart political move to “win the Hispanic vote.” It is the cynicism and perverted political opportunism of this strategy that ought to alarm citizens and patriots of all persuasions.

When presented and debated as a policy idea, as a needed change in immigration law, the so-called Dream Act has been rejected by Congress several times, the latest being only last year. So, proponents have repackaged the proposal not as good policy but as good politics for an election year. In truth, it is neither.

Precisely because it is presented as a political ploy, Rep. Rivera’s proposal exemplifies much that is wrong with modern American politics. It aims to win political support from a perceived bloc of voters by appealing to their ethnic or racial self-identification. It is being sold to the Republican Party as a special, targeted appeal to that group.

This myopic thinking sees Hispanic voters as interested and motivated primarily by this one issue, the problematic future of illegal aliens. In the world of identity politics, political consultants of both parties see Hispanic voters as Hispanic first and Americans second. Hispanics’ interest in other issues, such as the economy, jobs, national security, the environment, is thought to be unimportant.

The really amazing part of this picture is that this understanding of the typical “Hispanic voter” is not based in fact. It is based in political mythology. In the real world, in all recent polls including those sponsored by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic voters have consistently ranked immigration issues as fourth or fifth in importance behind other issues, the obvious issues that concern all Americans.

Thus, at bottom, the attempted appeal to blocs of voters on the basis of their assumed racial or ethnic or gender “identity” is not about winning elections in order to govern in a constitutional manner. It is about dividing Americans into warring groups that have one thing in common: they all depend on government for some targeted benefit. And guess who they will depend on to deliver those benefits? Politicians and bureaucrats, of course.

On its merits as a policy proposal, the so-called “Dream Act” cannot muster the majorities it needs to be enacted into law. Republicans who allow themselves to be seduced into thinking it is smart politics to play identity politics are moving backward, not forward.

As I have discussed previously in these pages, Obama is losing ground among Hispanic voters for the same reasons he has declining support among women voters, young voters, veterans, small-business owners, independents and others. To step backward into the third-world politics of “ethnic loyalties” is not only unjustified politically, it betrays a serious misunderstanding of the principles of constitutional liberty – principles we ignore at our peril.

Tom Tancredo represented Colorado’s 6th Congressional District from 1999-2009 in the U.S. House of Representatives and finished second to John Hickenlooper in the 2010 Colorado gubernatorial race.

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