Thoughts about...Racial & Identity Politics
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Legislating Freedom from the Bench
The case for legalizing gay marriage by "judicial decree"

Terry Michael | October 28, 2008

As a 61-year-old, un-partnered, gay, atheist libertarian, I react with mixed emotion but some agreement to arguments against activist judges imposing same-sex marriage.

Such a case was published recently by one of the most persuasive libertarian-minded essayists in daily print journalism, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman. "Massachusetts, California and (just this month) Connecticut have all legalized gay marriage the wrong way—by impatient, unpersuasive judicial decrees," Chapman wrote. "Now California voters have the chance to do it the right way—by the free consent of the governed."

Part of that makes sense. With fewer divisions than the Pope, courts can ill-afford to jump too far ahead of the culture. To do so invites rebellion by activists, like those in California who initiated Proposition 8, which was placed on the ballot this November in an effort to nullify the state supreme court's May decision allowing same sex couples to wed.

I would remind Steve Chapman of something written about a hundred years ago by his fellow Chicago newspaperman, Finley Peter Dunne, as voiced by his famous fictional Irish pub character Mr. Dooley: "The Supreme Court follows the election returns." Certain they can read the minds of the Founders by perusing the Constitution's text with their conservative imaginations, even rabid originalists like Antonin Scalia might acknowledge that truth (though it might take a few drinks at Mr. Dooley's tavern for Scalia to come around).

Mr. Dooley made enduring good sense, because justices, one way or another, are products of elections. Many state justices have been directly elected. And those in Massachusetts and Connecticut, though theoretically shielded from the whims of the masses by appointment, are usually politicians named by other politicians, and confirmed by still other elected officials.

So it strikes me as curious that Chapman argues that appointed judges aren't following the "the free consent of the governed."
Pollsters have found significant percentages of voters in the left and right coast states backing gay marriage. A Survey USA poll released just two weeks before Proposition 8 will be decided showed support and opposition running within the margin of error (48 percent for, 45 percent against, and 7 percent undecided).

In fact, a third or more of adults nationwide now tell researchers they back same-sex marriage. But there is a real regional difference, with support at 51 percent in both the West and East, but only 35 percent in the Midwest and 30 percent in the South, according to a Gallup poll taken just a week after the California court ruled on May 5. Even more interesting, however, is how far the culture has moved just since the mid-1980's, when over 80 percent of Americans opposed gay unions. By the mid-1990's, that number had dropped to about 65 percent. And now, according to the Gallup poll from this year cited above, opposition has declined another 10 points.

Contrast where the culture has moved in just a few years on gay marriage with public attitudes towards school desegregation in 1954, when, with Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court completely reversed its Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896. Plessy sanctioned segregation by claiming separate facilities for blacks were not a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Shortly after the 1954 Court "decreed" an end to segregation, a May 1954 Gallop poll showed that only a bare majority—55%—of Americans nationwide approved of the decision, and 40% opposed it—very close to the current division on gay marriage. You don't need a pollster to calculate the tiny percentage of voters in Southern states who would have tolerated integration then.

Should the Court have waited for Southern voters to fall in line before overturning Plessy? And, 54 years later, should state courts wait for electoral majorities to extend gay men and women the fundamental contractual right of marriage enjoyed by heterosexuals? Opponents of gay marriage, like 19th century proponents of segregation, essentially are claiming the right to protect their cultural and religious beliefs by enshrining them in law. Both Republicans catering to a socially conservative base, and "liberal" Democrats appeasing a divided center, now argue that gays and lesbians can enjoy the same rights afforded to straight couples through contract law, while reserving the term "marriage" for heterosexuals. But they're being disingenuous. To be consistent, they'd support civil unions for straights, who could then take their state-issued licenses to priests, rabbis, and pastors and be blessed as "married."

Where you stand on gay marriage is surely influenced by where you sit in the gay-straight divide. Steve Chapman, who usually does a great job of upholding the most important original intent of our Founders—liberty—doesn't seem to get the urgency of those who are tired of sitting at the back of this particular bus. Even as he gives lip service to what he calls "a noble goal designed to serve both individual freedom and social health," he argues that "a wholesome end doesn't justify every possible means."

A few years ago, I would have been more sympathetic to the "wait-for-the-voters" approach. Never a fan of marital bliss, I find myself empathizing with Texas humorist and heterosexual Kinky Friedman's backhanded support for gay marriage: "Because (gays) have a right to be just as miserable as the rest of us."

But as a libertarian, I have no problem with any court actively "legislating" a fundamental extension of freedom of choice and equal protection of the law. The time to wait for voters has passed. The time to decree this liberty is now.

Terry Michael is Director of the non-partisan Washington Center for Politics & Journalism and former press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. He blogs at

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Obama as the
End of Identity Politics
as We've Known It
(And I Feel Fine)

Terry Michael | June 10, 2008

We are nearing the end of American identity politics as we know it.

Bearing that gift to those who prize the individual over the tribal is a messenger who shared a Hyde Park neighborhood with Milton Friedman, though with a public record that suggests he is more statist than classical liberal.

But Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), can’t be categorized that simply. He is, rather, an intellectual and ideological work in progress. Not stuck in cable-babble caricatured time, he may be traveling the circuitous path many “liberal-tarians”--or libertarian Democrats like me--treaded as we grew and found our way back to the self-reliant values that informed our pluralistic democracy.

We lost those values in the Industrial and Progressive eras, when advocates of centralized planning prized society’s perfection over individual liberty. While Obama’s positions don’t exactly channel the Cato Institute, his departure from usual Democratic Party left-liberalism is reflected in the left’s suspicion of him for not having all the 162-point plans of Sen. Hillary Clinton, or spewing the syrupy populism of trial lawyer to the underclass, Sen. John Edwards.

To me, this suggests the beginnings of a journey away from the Great Society mind-set of the Democratic Party. I was a 1960s teenage political junkie who wanted to complete the New Deal, with wealth redistribution and “social justice” managed from Washington. I morphed into a 1980s DLC centrist, embracing mushy “progressive” politics as a halfway house from statist liberalism. Now in my own sixties, I have rediscovered the founder of my party, Thomas Jefferson, in an information era in which we are desktop-empowered to seek our own way and make our own choices, much like the agrarian age inventors of our political system.

I can’t claim to know exactly where Obama is on this ideological continuum. He may not even know. But in his personal evolution, he has moved from the white world of boy Barry in Hawaii and Indonesia, to left-liberal enclaves at Ivy League colleges engaging with young conservatives, to a kind of noblesse oblige organizer bearing the white man's burden (half, in his case) on the streets of Chicago.

He went from a young state legislator too aloof, in too much of a hurry for his colleagues in Springfield, to a failed U.S. House candidacy against former Black Panther Bobby Rush, hobbled by an inability to translate the language of the Harvard Law Review to the vernacular of the street. From that latter experience, he drew lessons allowing him to grow as a politician, hearing and incorporating some of the style of the black preacher—including the one who was to later cause him so much grief. He returned to Springfield after that failed congressional bid a different man.

He seems to be a grounded but still searching, an intellectually curious 46-year-old, with a breadth and depth of life experience that will help him make informed choices in a pluralistic democracy that demands its leaders split a lot of differences.

Compromise is a word doctrinaire libertarians find more appalling than appealing. But there's a lot that is appealing in Barack Obama.

Look at his health care plan. While it certainly won’t satisfy free-market purists, it relies on private insurance coverage, encourages portability and choice, promotes competition, and allows purchase of prescription drugs from other countries. It wasn’t by accident he proposed fewer government mandates for purchasing coverage—and was pummeled for it in every debate by the politician who, back in 1993, seemed to seek personal control of a big chunk of our economy. Though drugs and crime can be political minefields for an urban black candidate who has acknowledged marijuana and cocaine use, Obama has no hard line positions in favor of neo-prohibition and has made promising comments about pulling back from America’s status as one of the world’s most prolific jailers. Immediately, his election will restore America's reputation around the world as an opponent of interventionist elective wars.

But perhaps most important to libertarians, his election will put the Jesse Jacksons, the Al Sharptons, and the white identity politics liberals out of business. No longer will they be able to peddle victimology or mau-mau their way through the political landscape, demanding diversity training, minority contracts, or other tribal reparations from bigots they find behind every bush. The myth of unassimilable “minorities” dies when a majority white nation selects a leader “of color,” just as religious social distance was diminished when a majority Protestant country chose a Catholic a half-century before.

There is no perfect leader in the wings. I'll settle for one whose election will signal the end of the world of racial politics as we know it. And, with a nod to R.E.M., I'll feel fine about it.

Terry Michael is director of the non-partisan Washington Center for Politics & Journalism. He came to Washington in 1975 as press secretary to newly elected progressive Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), was a press spokesman (1983-87) for the Democratic National Committee, and now offers “thoughts from a libertarian Democrat” at his blog.

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Pink Elephant at Party of Color

by Terry Michael
February 13, 2008

A pink elephant may crash the Party of Color in the next several weeks, but the intruder will not be some unwelcome Republican.

Like all such party animals, this one could be ignored by Democratic hosts who hope he’ll just go away. But if he’s not stopped now, he could be back to spoil the big celebration planned later in the year.

The pachyderm I am describing is a big problem that Democrats could face if, unlike Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, a significant number of Latino participants in key Democratic primaries “see race” when they cast their votes.

Hard as that will be for the elders and matrons of the Inclusive Party to admit, it suggests a more convincing scenario for why, to date, Hillary Rodham Clinton has outpolled Barack Obama in many of the barrio precincts. The polite explanation has been that Hispanic voters love the Clintons on their “issues” — whatever those are now or were in the 1990s.

Such possible electoral manifestation of prejudice is a two-way street, of course. You would have to be blind not to have observed the black and brown gang warfare that has gone on in some of our inner cities in recent decades, the jagged tip of an ugly social-cultural iceberg.

If one of the two finalists in this history-making election had not been black but had been named Juan, a different kind of cross-racial discrimination would be the subject of this essay.

So why do I risk being hated on by my friends in the Democratic Party for bringing this up?

Well, we are about to witness bloody hand-to-hand combat for every single delegate to the convention that will be held in Denver next August. And street fighting can bring out the worst among even the most enlightened multiculti paragons of virtuous political diversity (i.e., left-liberal Democrats).

Stipulated, I am a partisan of my fellow Illinoisan Obama, who I believe is transcending race in this campaign.

But, putting on my media critic hat, I would urge those whose business it is to interpret our politics, the press corps, to carefully observe how Clinton Inc. plays the “brown-black” race card as the campaign moves toward Texas. That extra scrutiny was earned by trash talk from the Supreme and Un-Fireable Manager of Clinton Inc. (our “first black president”) between Iowa and South Carolina.

All of this could have been predicted for a political party (I lament it is mine) that has been playing identity politics with a vengeance for the past several decades.

With an unfortunate focus on granting entitlements based on tribal affinity rather than celebrating the rights, liberties and personal responsibilities of individuals in a pluralistic democracy, strengthened by civic cultural assimilation, we Democrats have been courting racialist warfare for a long time.

As I tell my students, if you want to end race consciousness in America, stop being race conscious.

My advice to fellow Democrats: Kick that pink elephant out of the party. Don’t allow even the slightest hint of conflict to break out between Hispanic and black Democrats. Because one of the few good things John McCain has going for him is that he’s not in the anti-Hispanic-immigrant, wing-nut, Lou Dobbs wing of the Grand Old (very old this year) Party.

And my counsel to Obama would be to keep on talking about what Mexican-Americans and other Latin Americans can teach all of us when it comes to the importance of family and a strong work ethic in the pursuit of the American dream.

A long-ago Democratic National Committee press secretary (1985-1987), “libertarian Democrat” Terry Michael teaches journalism students about politics as director of the nonpartisan Washington Center for Politics & Journalism and writes personal opinion at

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Where's the outrage over Pace's prejudice?
by Terry Michael, March 19, 2007

In a mainstream media that regularly imagines the possibilities of racism in everything from medical mis-treatment of hypertension to inequitable application of agricultural price supports (actual stories, if you will check), there was surprisingly little attention paid this week to an actual example of bigotry voiced by the nation's highest ranking military official.

Is my hearing or vision bad, or didn't the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tell the Chicago Tribune that the daughter of the Vice Commander-in-Chief and tens of millions of other Americans are immoral because of who they love?

Would Gen. Peter Pace have lasted one day, would he not have been fired in five minutes, had he expressed the opinion that black people are inferior to white people? An assertion, to be sure, that a public official could have successfully portrayed as just "religious belief," or "what I was brought up to believe," not that many decades ago.

Of course, in true "hate the sin, love the sinner" fashion, Pace didn't exactly say homosexuals are immoral, just homosexual "acts" -- but that is a lawyerly distinction without a difference (imagine, in a different century, a politician arguing, to avoid offending Southerners while placating abolitionists, that "buying people in chains as property is an immoral act, but I'm certainly not saying slave-holders are immoral." Yes, you were, [fill-in the name of your favorite early 19th Century have-it-both-ways-on-slavery politician here.])

Yet The New York Times, which never tires of explaining the world through the prism of tribal identity politics, in its first story on the subject of Gen. Pace's theology devoted just sixteen paragraphs deep inside its "A" section to reporting the neanderthal musings of a man who is supposed to be leading our military effort to spread Age of Reason, Enlightenment-informed, pluralistic democracy to the Middle East.

And The Washington Post, which suggested in a silly piece of pseudo sociology on its front page Sunday that racism might be behind a reluctance by blacks to seek hospice care, relegated to page A-14 Pace's refusal to even apologize for his assault on the integrity of tens of thousands who serve under him via "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," including the many gay men and women he and his Commander-in-Chief send into harm's way in Iraq.

Maybe Gen. Pace got a pass from the press because he's part of an Administration that has become so discredited that this was regarded by editors as just another slip on the banana peel. Or perhaps "Seedy Gonzales," as "The Daily Show" portrayed our Attorney General, soaked up all the front page ink mid-week. And possibly the MSM noticed that even "liberal" Hillary! and ObamaOprah were even a little tongue-tied by their pollsters before they were finally able to condemn this religious "opinion" for the blatant bigotry it was.

In a small construct I devised to place modern public policy on prejudice in perspective, I regularly harangue my political journalism students with the observation that America has been through three phases in the modern era of civil rights.

The first was addressing the problem of government-enforced bigotry against its own people, happily resulting in Truman's integration of the armed forces and Eisenhower sending troops to Little Rock to enforce Brown v. Board of Education.

The second, while protecting the mythical "Mrs. Murphy's Boarding House" from the strong arm of the federal government, was putting into place protections against privately-produced bigotry in housing, employment and other individual and corporate acts of discrimination, partly over-ruling the Bill of Rights because of the hideous legacy of slavery.

The third, lamentably, has been several decades of a spoils system of favored identity group entitlements, written into law that mocks the moral authority of a civil rights movement that demanded we be judged by the content of our character rather than the color or our skin.

Whether or not you accept the wisdom of my three-phases-in-modern-civil-rights, surely it must be conceded that Gen. Pace should be stripped of at least a few medals by a president and a country and a press which may be nearing a consensus that ending government-enforced bigotry against another tribe of its own people (that first era noted above) is a good thing.

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Six Degrees of Liberal Racism

by Terry Michael, March 04, 2007

In the past week, if you made the mistake of reading New York tabloids or tuning into the reality-challenged world of cable babble, you were assaulted with the shocking (!) revelation of Rev. Al Sharpton's ties to slave-holding distant ancestral cousins of the late orange-haired senator from South Carolina, Strom Thurmond.

And now, quoting unauthenticated "research" by an amateur genealogist writing at his blog, the Baltimore Sun gets into the act with the equally amazing! disclosure that those of us with at least one Caucasian American parent, including Sen. Barack Obama, might have had slave holders in our family trees. Imagine that.

If all this reminds you of the six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, then welcome to the real world. If you aren't familiar with the small world concept, it is the reasonable statistical probability that everyone is no more than six "steps" away from each person on Earth.

Two words explain why the media find this nonsense so fascinating: liberal racism......

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Immigration Reform Stumbles
as Inarticulate President Bumbles
(Bush's "‘splain yourself, Lucy" problem)

Inarticulate on Immigration
Bush fails to gain the lead in the debate

By Terry Michael
May 18, 2006

There are many reasons President Bush’s approval ratings have sunk to Carter and Nixonian depths, but not least is his “‘splain yourself, Lucy” problem with English as his first language.

Mass-mediated politics demands that a leader be able to articulate, in simple and evocative terms, both policy and vision. Think FDR’s radio chats with the country, Kennedy’s televised press conferences and Reagan’s masterful State of the Union performances.

Mr. Bush is paying a political price for this deficit of leadership on one of the few things he’s gotten almost right lately, immigration reform. He can’t seem to explain himself any better than could the hapless, but well-intentioned, TV wife to her 1950s Latino immigrant husband. Instead of broadening public support with a clear, principled, history-informed case for liberal immigration policy, Mr. Bush’s poll-driven address Monday night muddled the debate even more by introducing the specter of a militarized border......

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     [Friday, February 17, 2006 Edition]
Identity politics as therapy

Gay Democrats upset by Howard Dean’s retooling of the DNC
should remember to focus on election wins.

By Terry Michael
Politics as therapy. That’s how Rich Tafel, the former head of Log Cabin Republicans, incisively described the focus of many left-liberal political activists and organizations that presume to speak for gay men and women (or lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered persons, in their politically correct mouthful).

The latest self-inflicted wound suffered by these practitioners of identity politics involves a faculty senate-style controversy around a decision made by Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean. ("Faculty senate politics," as in the decibel level of debate being so high, because the stakes are so low.)

Dean has apparently dissed some members of our gay faculty senate with his reorganization of the DNC’s political outreach operation, to focus less on identity groups and more on actual individual voters and state political party organizations......
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Those Poor Victimized Native Americans
y Terry Michael, Thursday, January 9, 2006

from the Washington Post, Jan. 7, 2006, Page 1:  "A Tribe Takes Grim Satisfaction in Abramoff's Fall"....
"It was thievery, tribal members said, that echoes the historic losses of Native Americans to European settlers....'Abramoff and his partner are the contemporary faces of the exploitation of native peoples,' said David Sickey, a member of the tribal council. 'In the 17th and 18th century, native people were exploited for their land. In 2005, they're being exploited for their wealth.'"

Thievery? Exploitation?

How about plain old unethical greed on the part of these modern day noble savages?

This takes identity politics victimology to soaring heights. The members of this tribe were just as slimy as Mr. Abramoff, attempting to purchase the public policy he was trying to peddle.

Both Abramoff and his "clients" were trying to get rich quick at the expense of taxpayers. If he ought to go to jail -- which he obviously should -- are the tribal elders victims, or fully culpable parties to a corrupt bargin? read the complete text, choose either: 
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Race and Hurricane Katrina

By Terry Michael
Published: Thursday, September 22, 2005

A half century ago, right-wing zealots could see a communist behind every bush. Today, self-congratulatory liberals envision a racist at the wheel of every pick-up truck.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unleashed a torrent of neo-McCarthy-ist racialism that has welled up in the liberal imagination for decades, since the morally authoritative civil rights movement of the mid-20th century ended government institutionalized racism.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the news rooms of America, where a couple of generations of journalists have been indoctrinated with a received wisdom that has led them to embrace racial or other identity group status as a paradigm for revealing most political, economic, social and even personal health experience........ read the complete text, choose either:
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