Andrew Sullivan prematurely congratulates Obama for ending identity politics. It’s a weird column, because Sullivan basically concedes that Obama owes his overwhelming support within the black community to racial solidarity. He also admits that the most effective attacks leveled against Obama are rooted in conservative identity politics. To this list, I’d add a third factor that invokes cultural identification: namely, Obama’s appeal to middle class professionals, academics, and yuppies. On stage or in a debate, Obama projects a quiet, confident professionalism. What better way to pander to the upper middle classes’ sense of self than a campaign premised on hope, change, and managerial competence?
The problem with McCain’s appeal to cultural conservatism is that it’s much less resonant in the midst of an economic crisis. The Republican base no longer has the electoral clout to swing an election, and Obama’s countervailing appeal to middle class and minority voters is offsetting McCain’s advantage with conservatives. The economic crisis has also forced many people to suppress their intuitive suspicion of Obama’s background (the “I’m voting for the n*gger” line comes to mind). This doesn’t mean that identity politics have disappeared – the bile emanating from every McCain/Palin campaign appearance certainly suggests otherwise. Only that it’s been eclipsed by Obama’s political skills and the election’s extraordinary economic circumstances. Several conservatives have suggested that McCain would be winning if not for the subprime lending crisis and the subsequent bailout debate. I’m not willing to go that far – our economy, after all, has been ailing for quite some time now – but I suspect their intuition is basically correct. Had this campaign taken place amidst a period of economic tranquility, I think McCain’s message of bipartisanship, mavericky-ness, and leadership (coupled with a sub rosa whisper campaign about Obama’s background and associations) would have been much more successful.