Last week, Senator Rand Paul, who has voiced support for voter ID laws and denied that they suppress black turnout, nonetheless acknowledged that the GOP might not want to “go too crazy” on the issue, because some people find its efforts offensive. For a brief moment, Paul seemed to be edging away from party orthodoxy—but, as soon as it had begun, the flirtation with decency was over. First, Paul’s office rushed to clarify that his stance on voter-ID had not changed. Then the senator made penance on Sean Hannity’s radio show, insisting, “There’s nothing wrong with it … I don’t really object to having some rules with how we vote.” The apology tour was complete with an appearance on Fox News during which Paul repeated a favorite conservative talking point: “There was a time in our history when the vote was suppressed. Actually, it was mostly by Democrats back then. But for some reason, [black Americans] think Republicans are part of this historical suppression of the African-American vote. They think this is just another ploy.” The reversal was so sudden, and so craven, that Andrew Rosenthal wondered: “Did someone get to Mr. Paul? It sure sounds like it.”
Yet some observers were more forgiving. James Poulos, at The Daily Beast, thinks Paul’s voter-ID remarks, along with his views on sentencing reform, have the makings of a “political earthquake” which could change “the politics of race.” (In fairness, Poulos wrote his piece just as Paul was beginning his walk-back tour.) Poulos admits that there was no actual policy substance to Paul’s voter-ID remarks, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that Paul is showing “genuine awareness” of something most other politicians have allegedly ignored: the unique historical experience of African-Americans. Republicans, Poulos writes, largely have no interest in doing this—“they are on the verge of giving up on [black Americans], of trying to forget they exist.”
But that’s not the only problem. Liberals, too, are guilty of ignoring the special nature of African-American struggle, Poulos claims, because they have a higher commitment to identity politics. As a result, “too many liberals” equate “every struggle for justice” with “the centuries-old ordeal of black Americans.” They subsitute “a culture of generic, ubiquitous ‘privilege checking’” for “an unstinting confrontation with the specific harm continuously visited on black America from the beginning.” They belong to “the cult of diversity,” which, “in its celebrations, lures its faithful into acting as if no grievances are more fundamental or more rooted in history than others.”
This is all pretty hazy, and it’s hard to know who exactly is being accused of diminishing the historical uniqueness of the African-American experience—or how, in specific policy terms, you’d know if that were happening. Poulos suggests that the left’s devotion to identity politics has become divorced from the “reality of material conditions”—noting that “two of the most prominent features of a college education today are outsized identity pride and outsized student debt.” The causal connection here is unclear, but the thrust of the charge seems to be: Liberal attention to the claims of identity politics has crowded out the old-fashioned focus on pocketbook issues.
The question is whether, in the context of national politics at this moment, the division of identity politics from material reality makes sense. Perhaps, on certain issues, it does. But on many big-ticket items, the line is blurry. Consider the attention lavished by liberals on universal healthcare. Did that diminish the African-American story by focusing too much on the plight of the uninsured? Rand Paul, who has turned repealing the ACA into a favorite cause, might (on Poulos’s reading) want to make this argument. But because of their unique healthcare situation (part of that special historical legacy that Paul, according to Poulos, is “almost alone among national political figures” in appreciating), the ACA is hugely important to African-Americans. Does that make healthcare an identity politics issue or a pocketbook issue? And most importantly to Poulos’s argument, can Paul speak convincingly to African-Americans on either dimension of it? (It probably doesn’t help that Paul resorts to using the word “slavery” when discussing his opposition to Obamacare.)
On the mainstream American left, noting the unique historical struggle of African-Americans isn’t some grudging acknowledgement made in spite of other commitments to the “cult of diversity.” It’s exactly the opposite: you can’t understand American history—the Constitution, Western expansion, the Civil War, 19th-century economics, the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, the rise of the New Left and the Reagan Right, and more—without understanding the centrality of the African-American story. It would be great if American politics dealt more squarely with racial injustice, but it’s baffling to read that Paul, on the basis of one or two policy positions and some milquetoast remarks about the optics (not the substance) of voter-ID laws, is “alone among national political figures” in appreciating a fact that has long been central in the historical narrative of American liberals—including, I hope it’s not too obvious to note, the current occupant of the Oval Office. And in any case, if the GOP wants to start broadening its appeal to black voters, I’m not sure Paul is the right guy for the job.