The term identity politics has been talked about in many a political debate in the past couple of years, but it has been a cornerstone of Democratic Party for decades.
It was as a member of the New York State Assembly that I first learned how deeply interwoven the concept of identity politics was, and still is, in the Democratic fabric.
I’ve been a Republican since switching in 2010 to run for Governor in New York. For the 25 years prior, I served as a Democratic county and state legislator, and then Suffolk County executive for two terms.
In the Assembly, you didn’t just show up to vote for bills that appeared on the calendar on a first-in, first-out basis. Actually, the bills were lumped together based on their targeted audience. While in the county legislature the bills laid on the table were rather random, in the Assembly — an institution run under the iron grip of the Democratic establishment — committee chairs were instructed to move out those bills that played into the political theme of the week.
It might be the week of the woman, in which case we’d see bills on expanding coverage for contraceptives, abortion rights, and breast cancer screenings, as well as pay equity bills. Seconds after the session concluded, the career staffers would be punching out newsletters funneled to every Democrat’s district, touting the good work the member had employed on behalf of women.
The next week would center on minorities: bills to enhance quotas for minority owned businesses, tax breaks for enterprise zones (which were mostly in minority areas), and bills to curtail predatory lending. All, of course, followed by more newsletters targeted to certain minority zip codes within the districts.
Then it was the week of the seniors, with bills to expand senior tax deductions and the meals on wheels programs, and to tout heating assistance for the elderly. Those newsletters, of course, would be targeted to any resident whose voter card showed he or she was born before a certain date.
Once campaign time came around, there was no need to hire an operative to crank out the political literature. They were already prepared, courtesy of the political operatives who were already on the public payroll.
Now, nothing about this was illegal. And certainly, the Republicans, who controlled the Senate, had their version of targeting. But Republicans would tend to concentrate on broader statewide issues, such as across-the-board tax cuts to jump start the economy to trickle down to all residents. That’s a harder newsletter to hit home. Telling a woman that Democrats are protecting them from Republicans looking to void their right to abortion has much more personal impact than a message that, maybe, eventually, the Invisible Hand of the market, spurred by deregulation, will raise their wages and get them more jobs and opportunity.
This was borne out this past November, as Republicans had a hard time selling the broader public on a very real economic boom, while Democrats successfully catered directly to Hispanics on immigration, women on “Me Too” issues, younger voters on free education, and the underclass on their newly gained Obamacare policies.
Republicans try to play the Dems' game by targeting gun owners, for instance, but that demographic is just a relative blip compared to how the left has cornered the market by carving the electorate into a dozen or so different voting blocs.
Identity politics can indeed help win elections, but it also contributes to sorely dividing the nation. Gays feel held down to a far greater degree than their numbers on upward mobility would indicate. College women feel vulnerable to rape even though the odds of being sexually assaulted on campus are lower than in the general population. African Americans feel preyed upon by police, though the numbers show there are far fewer shootings of blacks by white officers than at any time in history. Now, even the term “nationalism,” which used to stand for underplaying our differences, while accentuating our common love of country, is deemed offensive.
I once heard a presidential candidate preach: “There are no blue states or red states, just a UNITED States of America.” It seems so long ago.
Steve Levy, former New York state assemblyman, Suffolk County executive, and candidate for governor, is now a distinguished political pundit. Levy's commentary has been published in such media outlets as Washington Times, Washington Examiner, New York Post, Albany Times, Long Island Business News, and City & State Magazine. He hosted “The Steve Levy Radio Show" on Long Island News Radio, and is a frequent guest on high profile television and radio outlets. Few on the political scene possess Levy’s diverse background. He’s been both a legislator and executive, and served on both the state and local levels — as both a Democrat and Republican. Levy published Bias in the Media, an analysis of his own experience, after switching parties, with the media's leftward slant. Levy is currently Executive Director of the Center for Cost Effective Government, a fiscally conservative think tank. He is also President of Common Sense Strategies, a political consulting firm. To learn more about his past work and upcoming appearances, visit www.stevelevy.info. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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