Monday, September 14, 2009

The Politics of Identity

Jody Powell died Monday of a heart attack; he was 65 years old.

Powell and the late Hamilton Jordan were among the key architects of Jimmy Carter’s successful run for the White House in 1976 and they subsequently became part of the “Georgia Mafia” that invaded Washington along with Carter, Powell serving as the President’s Press Secretary.

As a pastor I find it prudent not to take sides publicly in elections and I as a rule don’t discuss for whom I voted in an election but I am willing to affirm here and now, 33 years after the fact, that I voted for Jimmy Carter in his contest with President Gerald Ford. Some of my acquaintances will be disappointed to hear that but to them I say, with all the love and grace I can muster, “Tough peanuts.” Other of my acquaintances will be pleased to hear of my choice but to them I must confess that my vote was not decided upon after a careful consideration of the policy differences between the two men; indeed, I probably could not have articulated what those policy differences were.

My two reasons for voting for Carter were much more visceral than intellectual, more emotional than rational, and more social than political.

My first reason was that President Ford, whom I regarded as a good, capable, honest, steady, albeit clumsy—no, wait, that was Chevy Chase—leader, had come into office as a result of the tawdry Watergate affair and I, who had first started paying close attention to national politics as a result of that scandal and whose political idealism at that point in my life would have made Mr. Smith (the one played by Jimmy Stewart in the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not the one played by Brad Pitt in Mr. & Mrs. Smith) look downright cynical, was in a mood to throw the bums out and, even though I did not regard President Ford as one of the bums, it seemed to me that he lived on the same street as the bums, and that was good enough—or bad enough—for me.

For what it’s worth, my desire to throw the bums out applied not only to Republicans. A few years before, when I participated at the tender age of fourteen in a Close Up (the educational foundation, not the toothpaste) trip to Washington, our Democratic congressman, one Rep. Flynt, ticked me off with an answer he gave during a question and answer session with our group and I pledged to myself that if I ever had the opportunity to vote against him I would and in 1976 I did, casting my vote for an obscure college history professor and Republican political novice named Newt Gingrich.

That’s right—I voted for Jimmy Carter and for Newt Gingrich in the same election!

Now I dare you—I triple dog dare you—to accuse me of blind partisanship. Of course I could also dare you to accuse me of any political logic whatsoever, couldn’t I?

My second reason for voting for Carter was that he was from Georgia—and so was I.
To quote the legendary Georgia Bulldogs broadcaster Larry Munson, “Get the picture.” The election of November 1976 was the very first election in which I was able to participate; I turned eighteen just six weeks before the polling took place. On election day I drove the thirty-six miles from the Mercer University campus to my home in Barnesville to cast my vote; I could have cast an absentee ballot but I wanted none of that—I wanted to stand in that long line with all of those people from the community in which I had spent my entire life and celebrate my American bar mitzvah, to say that, politically speaking, “Today I am a man.”

It was one of the proudest days of my life.

And my pride was compounded by the fact that I got to vote for somebody who was, like I was, a Georgian, who was, like I was, from a small town, and who was, like I was, a Baptist.

My pride was further compounded by the fact that when Jody Powell stood before the Washington press corps to answer their questions and to articulate the President’s policies, he sounded like I did—he sounded like a Southerner, and he did not try to mask it.

Put simply, I was pleased to vote for Carter because I identified with him and because I thought he identified with me; I was pleased to hear Powell speaking for the President because he sounded like I did and because I sounded like he did. I was proud—do you hear me, I said I was proud—to have Southerners in the White House. I was proud when the Atlanta Rhythm Section played there; I was proud when they served Sconyers Barbecue—the pride of Augusta, Georgia—there.

And I got mad when the northern “elites” and Washington insiders made fun of my Southern brothers and sisters who had moved into those swanky quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; I got mad when they acted like people who looked and talked like I did had usurped someone else’s rightful place in the halls of power; I got mad when it seemed that they couldn’t wait to remove Carter from office so that they could get their power back and get their party back and get their country back.

Of course, what they got was Ronald Reagan, but that’s another story, and a right funny—in the ironic sense—one at that, if you stop and think about it.

Now, I know that it’s a far different situation and I by no means—by no means at all—wish to imply that I equate the two situations, but I can at least imagine what it must have meant to African-Americans to see someone with whom they could identify and who could identify with them become President of the United States when Barack Obama was elected in November 2008. It was so moving on election night to see so many black Americans, tears streaming down their faces, celebrating the fact that their nation, many states of which not too many decades ago denied blacks the right to vote, had progressed to the point that we could elect a black man President of the United States.

And I can understand if they get angry when some people act as if such a man has no place in the White House, if they get angry when some people act as if someone who looks like they do has usurped others’ rightful place in the halls of power and if they get angry when some people act as if they can’t wait until they can evict Obama from office so that they can get their country back.

It was hard for me not to believe that, while much of the opposition that President Carter faced stemmed from legitimate opposition to his policies and from genuine frustration at the results of those policies, much of it also emerged from the prejudice of some toward those of us in the South. It is hard for me not to believe that, while much of the opposition that President Obama faces stems from legitimate opposition to his policies, much of it also emerges from the prejudice—perhaps subconscious—that some harbor toward those who do not look like they do.

I do not—I cannot—begrudge the natural and understandable pride that African-Americans feel in the election of Barack Obama any more than I think that people should have begrudged the natural and understandable pride that I felt as a Southerner in the election of Jimmy Carter—and in the work of Jody Powell as his Press Secretary.

It is the politics of identity—our default setting is to support those with whom we identify.

But people are capable of thinking; we should not simply and habitually and reflexively and blindly support those who look like we do or who talk like we do or who are from our region or our race or our religion.

Besides, even as an eighteen-year-old first time voter I realized that we were not really electing a President of Southern Americans—we were electing the President of all Americans; this time around we were not electing a President of African-Americans—we were electing the President of all Americans.

So, even when we disagree with the President’s policies, I hope that we will do the right thing and pray for him; I hope that people will put irrational fear behind them; I hope that people will acknowledge their latent or manifest prejudices, see them for what are, and move beyond them.

After all, the politics of identity should finally mean that we all identify with each as fellow members of God’s diverse human creation and secondarily that we identify with each other as fellow Americans.

There I go with that Mr. Smith idealism again!