Claims of Republican race-baiting have a way of descending into self-parody (especially at this point in the campaign season), but there is obviously a thread of what I’ve previously described as white identity politics woven into contemporary conservatism — not a politics of white supremacy or traditional racial animus, but a politics of racial/ethnic/native-born grievance, which regards contemporary liberalism as fundamentally hostile to the interests of middle class and working class whites. (David Frum’s attempt to channel the mood of G.O.P. convention delegates captures what I’m talking about pretty well.)
This sense of white grievance can be noxious, divisive, and deeply problematic for Republican politicians trying to broaden their party’s appeal. It can help harden divisions and increase tensions between otherwise like-minded Americans. But it isn’t likely to diminish so long as the Democratic Party continues to be a vessel for the much more explicit identity politics that Klein’s column deplores, and to support policies that often resemble a kind of racial/ethnic spoils system for non-whites: Permanent racial preferences in education and government, a “disparate impact” regime that can blur into a de facto quota system, immigration gambits that don’t even pretend to be anything other than plays for the Hispanic vote, and so on.
This kind of ethnic/racial patronage is hardly a new thing in our politics, and it doesn’t make today’s liberals the “real” racists, or prove that President Obama is actually some kind of post-colonial score-settler, as the Michael Moores of right-wing identity politics are wont to claim. But it does means that when it comes to exploiting America’s ethnic divisions to mobilize key constituencies, today’s Democratic Party sins as much as it is sinned against. And it means that the Democrats’ struggle to reach Klein’s “plain old white insurance salesman” and the Republicans’ struggle to reach Hispanics and African-Americans are in some sense mirror images of one another. They’re both a consequence of party leaders taking the path of least resistance on racially-charged issues, and they’re both reminders of the hard truth that the more racially diverse America of the future could easily become, and remain, a more polarized society as well.