The Identity Politics of Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal
The Daily Beast’s Tunku Varadarajan argues for identity politics as the thing that keeps Indian American liberals from positions of prominence within the Democratic Party:
Why has no Indian-American liberal risen as high in the Democratic ranks as Jindal and Haley have done in the GOP? Could it be that because Democrats put more of an emphasis on identity politics, an Indian-American Democrat would have to contend with other ethnic constituencies that might think that it’s “their turn” first? And once you go down the “identity” route, your success as a politician tends to rest more on the weight of numbers—the size of your ethnic constituency, or your racial voting bloc—than on the weight of your ideas.
Varadarajan seems to think that identity politics are nonexistent within the Republican Party, when in fact, the opposite is true. The identity politics of whites — and particularly Southern whites — have defined American politics for the better part of thirty years, and they’ve been completely operative in the careers of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley.
Bobby Jindal’s persona is probably authentic — I have no reason to think otherwise — but it’s clear that his Christianity, his unassuming name and his recognizable accent are all part of his appeal to white Southerners. It’s hard to imagine a Piyush Jindal rising as rapidly through the ranks of Southern conservative politics. The same goes for Nikki Haley, whose birth name is distinctively South Asian, and who repeatedly stressed her Christianity in order to dispel rumors about her religious beliefs. This doesn’t make her any less authentic, but it does suggest that it might be difficult to succeed in Southern conservative politics if you insist on retaining the cultural markers of your ethnic heritage.
In order to explain the rise of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Halley, Varadarajan puts forth a Southern conservative electorate that is hyper-ideological to the point of “color-blindness.” To Varadarajan, Southern voters are looking for reliable standard-bearers, race be damned. But that doesn’t fit with anything we know about the history of conservative politics or politics in the South. In all likelihood, Jindal and Haley owe some portion of their success to their ability to assuage the racial anxieties of white Southerners, and to assure them that their backgrounds notwithstanding, they aren’t too ethnic.
Photo credit: Patrick Collard/AP