Will the “White Party” (Republicans) Accent Identity Politics?

In a recent issue of The American Prospect Mark Schmitt, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former aide to Senator Bradley, anticipates the coming campaign approach of the “white party” of the US, better known as the Republican Party, to the candidacy of Senator Obama. He suggests that their only alternative for a win will a focus on “who is American” identity politics, which he sees as already

embodied in the slogan of McCain’s first general-election advertisement: “The American President Americans Are Waiting For.” It’s the politics of identity–not necessarily racial or ethnic identity but identity as an American…. David Frum calls explicitly for this brand of identity politics, declaring that while the Republican Party’s issue positions have evolved over the years, “there is one thing that has never changed: Republicans have always been the party of American democratic nationhood,” whereas Democrats “attract those who felt themselves in some way marginal to the American experience: … intellectuals, Catholics, Jews, blacks, feminists, gays–people who identify with the ‘pluribus’ in the nation’s motto, ‘e pluribus unum.'” … in Frum’s Latin, “pluribus” means “parasites,” and he tells us helpfully, “As the nation weakens, Democrats grow stronger.”

Schmitt accents the key point about the real meaning of the GOP’s attacks on “liberals”:

The GOP’s attack on “liberals” was always an attack on people not quite like “Americans”–secular, cosmopolitan, educated, egalitarian. When Republicans went after Michael Dukakis for his policies on crime, they weren’t just saying his policies were bad. They were saying, he’s not like us.

Thus, the Republican Party focus will likely be to accent who is the “real American”:

This year the Republican argument is reduced to its barest essence: Americans versus “pluribus,” unprotected by the politeness of issues or safer symbolism. Hence McCain’s slogan, the politics of the flag pin, the e-mails charging that Obama doesn’t salute the flag, and the attempt to associate him with the anti-American politics of 1968…. If it works, it will be in part because we–by which I mean the media and many Democrats–believe it will.

Schmitt captures what is already part of the McCain campaign and a general Republican orientation, and notes how many groups of Americans get marginalized. Yet, he underestimates a bit how much “American” is centrally linked in most minds, especially white minds, to “white.”


Indeed, for scholarly analysts, media pundits, and ordinary citizens–inside and outside the U.S.– words like “American” and “Americans” are routinely used to mean “white Americans.” Even terms like “American dream” or “American culture” typically refer to the values or preferences of whites. Interestingly, in psychological studies Thierry Devos and Mahzarin Banaji examined how strongly certain racial groups are associated with the category “American.” Their respondents saw African Americans and Asian Americans as less associated with the category “American” than whites. (Another unpublished study found the same for the oldest Americans, the Native Americans!)


These researchers conclude that, “Together, these studies provide evidence that to be American is implicitly synonymous with being White.” Reading newspapers and other media here and abroad, one easily sees this association of “American identity” with whites is true not just for white people, but also for most people of color in the United States and overseas.


Given this association, constant references to being real “Americans” or to “American” nationalism are clear appeals to the old white racial frame, and thus to whites. This appeal says that we need “real Americans” to run this country, and not “those people” of color, who after all are loaded in the white mind with many negative traits.


Recall too my arguments some months back that the Republican Party has since the 1960s effectively made itself into the “white man’s party” and the “white party” of the US. For example, there has only been a modest handful of black delegates at recent Republican party conventions, and the Republican National Committee has had few black members. The percentage of black delegates at party conventions has oscillated between 1.0 percent and 6.7 percent since 1964. Service at highest decision-making levels of the Republican Party has in the last few decades been almost exclusively white. (Today, all black members of the U.S. Congress, and 98 percent of the 9,000 black officeholders at all government levels are Democrats.)


This highly segregated pattern of political party interests and participation has characterized U.S. politics now since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In southern and border states, Rocky Mountain states, and numerous states of the lower Midwest, white voters tend to vote in the majority for the Republican Party in general presidential elections, and for that reason some refer to the Party as the “white party.” The Republican party has brought about its political resurgence since major losses in elections of the 1960s by explicitly using a politics of “real Americans” and “race” that works mainly because of racist legacies of slavery and legal segregation have persisted aggressively into contemporary U.S. society. And they will almost certainly use those strategies again, and aggressively.