Rep. Michelle Bachmann and her cohort of right-wing Republicans are using identity, religion, and race as a permanent wedge issue – most recently in their unsubstantiated attack on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Muslim aide Huma Abedin. When Ms. Bachmann was criticized for her suggestion that Ms. Abedin be investigated for potential ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh rushed to her defense.
By tapping into the powerful undercurrents of race and religion, Ms. Bachmann and others are using language to satisfy their immediate political ends, by dividing Americans and thereby America into pro- and anti-American parts.
In a diverse country built by immigrants, why are some Republicans taking this divisive approach?
At its most fundamental level, politics is about the creation of ideological communities where an individual can find a home. These political homes provide a sense of belonging and a safe place for individuals in a political and physical environment that can often seem hostile or confusing.
As documented in the 2010 Census, the United States is in the midst of a demographic transformation. Minorities, now roughly one-third of the US population, are expected to become the collective majority before the middle of the century. These changes will have a long-term cultural and political impact, but they are also fueling an immediate backlash.
It appears that a small group of Americans have met these demographic changes with a mixture of fear and anxiety. America is changing too quickly and too uncomfortably for some, and it seems they have looked to their political home for reassurance and guidance.
It is this fear of the “un-American” that undergirds the persistent assertion by 17 percent of registered voters that President Obama is Muslim. Others label him a socialist. Such mistrust has also led to the ongoing “birther” movement – those who question the validity of Mr. Obama’s birth certificate, alleging he was born in Kenya. Republican celebrities like Donald Trump have at times tacitly or overtly endorsed such groups.
Instead of reassuring their members, this fringe group of Republicans has exploited the environment of mistrust to secure votes and fill their campaign coffers. By fashioning themselves as defenders of what Sarah Palin once termed “real America,” these melancholic preachers have used nostalgia to contrive a vision of a homogeneous America that is supposedly slipping away.
Not all Republicans are guilty of domestic divisiveness, but it is an unfortunate reality that members such as Bachmann and Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas (who is continuing the accusations of Muslim Brotherhood influence in America) are allowed a prominent home under the Republican tent. The tragic irony of their vision is not that America is slipping from their grasp, but rather that the Republican fringe is increasingly hostile to the American ideal of a multi-cultural and pluralistic society.
While presidential campaigns are often decided on wedge issues, a continued strategy within parts of the Republican Party to vilify those from diverse backgrounds as “un-American” is incredibly shortsighted.
Attempts by the Republican Party in Pennsylvania, Florida, and more than a dozen other states to implement voter ID laws renews concerns. These voter ID laws, supposedly meant to combat voter fraud, have the potential to disenfranchise millions of voters – create road blocks to voting for millions of Americans who are predominantly from minority backgrounds.
Though such restrictions may be politically expedient to Republicans in the short-term, they ignore a more pressing challenge. The proportion of the population represented by Ms. Palin’s and Bachmann’s “real Americans” (white) is shrinking, and America is in the midst of an era of change and renewal. As our nation continues to diversify, the Republican Party will be unable to remain relevant unless it embraces a set of more enlightened policies and a more unifying message.
The lack of diversity within the Republican Party is already marginalizing them in what were once competitive states. Even Obama, in a fundraising trip to deep red Texas last month, declared that Texas could be a battleground state “soon,” an allusion to the increasing Hispanic population there and the potential for such demographic shifts to reshape the political landscape.
Both parties must acknowledge and try to solve the real issues facing all Americans, beyond momentary political gains. If some Republicans continue to resist the changes taking place, then a common effort to solve our problems will likely not be possible. There is an urgent need for an emphasis on solving problems and less on divisive rhetoric.
How we treat those who appear different from us reflects the degree of faith we have in the success of the American experiment – the great melting pot. And if our current times are filled with anxiety and unease, they also give us an opportunity and a challenge to open our eyes and hearts to a new generation of Americans, no matter their political, ethnic, religious, or racial background.
Bassam Gergi is a Master of Philosophy student in Comparative Government at Oxford University.