A new prejudice in American politics
APPLETON, WIS. — In 1928, a national atmosphere rife with nativism, Protestant fundamentalism, and Ku Klux Klan activity doomed Catholic Al Smith's bid to be president.
In 1960, when the word "diversity" referred to investment portfolios, not race or religion, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy felt impelled to appear before a group of Baptist clergymen and promise that, as a Catholic, he posed no threat to American democratic institutions.
In 2004, despite some media-hyped controversies over tensions between his religion and his politics, John Kerry's Catholicism was a nonissue for most voters. Windy, stiff, and irony-challenged? Yes. But Roman Catholic? So what?
If Mr. Smith lost because he was Catholic, Mr. Kennedy won in spite of being Catholic, and Mr. Kerry lost for reasons having nothing to do with being Catholic, has America transcended identity politics when it comes to picking presidents? Perhaps, but in so doing, it has replaced the politics of identity with the equally shallow and coarse politics of personality.
This new politics encourages voters to make judgments about candidates based on visceral reactions to surface attributes. The world's most important leader is now being chosen essentially on the basis of compatibility as a potential dinner companion.
The civil rights, women's, and other "identity" movements of the 1960s were cultural as well as political revolutions. They climaxed with the triumph of political correctness and multiculturalism in the 1990s, when it became impossible to publicly oppose a presidential candidate because he or she was a [fill in the blank].
This shift in political culture has permitted the list of leading candidates for the White House in 2008 to include a black of African descent (Barack Obama); a woman (Hillary Clinton); a divorced Catholic whose first wife was his second cousin (Rudy Giuliani); and a practicing Mormon (Mitt Romney). The identity politics generated in the 1960s have, ironically, made the politics of identity passé in the America of the early 21st century.
Americans can, of course, take a measure of pride in the distance they have traveled since a significant portion of the electorate believed that a President Smith would install Catholicism as the national religion.
Consider the last two presidential elections. Hanging chads did not cost Al Gore victory in 2000. That condescending sigh during his first debate with George W. Bush did. Who wanted to have dinner with a smug know-it-all? Well, maybe those who couldn't stand someone who reminded them of a frat boy. The 2004 election was even worse. It was almost feral in its fixation upon personal weakness. Kerry supporters seemed less attracted to their man than nauseated by his opponent's persona. Bush voters appeared to be revolted by Kerry as a human being – preferable, perhaps, to repudiating him for being a Catholic, but not by much.
The politics of identity, then, has given way to one of style. Racial, religious, and gender stereotyping are now impermissible, but there is no penalty for labeling on the basis of speech patterns, mannerisms, dress, or "gaffes" whipped up by the media. Smith's nasal New York accent, not his religion, would doom his candidacy today.
The journalistic flurry over the Mormon faith of Mr. Romney is thus misplaced. Romney can dispel concerns about the independence of his political judgments with one well-placed speech reminiscent of Kennedy's address to the ministers of Houston in 1960. What he cannot dispel will be voter perceptions based on matters as trivial as his posture or jawline.
Romney is surely aware that the presidential hopes of his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney, were dashed not by his ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by a single, ill-advised word. Romney was the front-runner for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination when he stated that he had earlier been "brainwash[ed]" into supporting the Vietnam War. He meant that US military officials had been duplicitous regarding the prospects for victory, but no matter. Romney was immediately branded as naive and weak. His candidacy never recovered.
This scenario is what George Romney's son, and all 2008 presidential hopefuls, must fear: not that they will be rejected for who they are, but for how they resonate in a culture that accords equal weight to a presidential pronouncement on Afghanistan and the death of Anna Nicole Smith. The identity politics that sank Al Smith and nearly did in Kennedy is no more, but in its place is a visceral politics that substitutes one set of prejudices for another. Mitt Romney's electability now hinges more on his haircut than his religion. I'm not sure we should be celebrating.
• Jerald Podair is a professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University.