Q: Are Ethic and Gender-Based Special-Interest Groups Good for America?

Article excerpt

Yes: These groups serve as useful way stations on the long road to political maturity.

A current debate considers whether political activity by groups with similar characteristics or interests is good for our democracy. Without a doubt it is. Agencies that identify and advocate for specific groups -- whether racial minorities, gender-based coalitions or the physically disabled -- encourage the involvement of these groups in the electoral process and they deserve citizens' support. So-called "identity politics" provide a benefit as a preparation for mainstream political leadership, as a supportive network during life transformations and as an enhancement to our democratic process.

Some contend that such groups make their political decisions based only a few criteria, such as race, gender or religious belief, and that politicians elected by so-called special-interest groups may ignore opposing concerns of their other constituents. However, such groups not only provide a necessary and appropriate orientation to the larger society, but those issues they select for special consideration indeed carry greater impact for the identified group and therefore deserve increased attention as political priorities.

The first engagement of an individual or group in identity politics can be compared to the process of maturation within a family setting. Early stages of either physical or political maturation are, by definition, stages of dependency and close-knit relationships. At this early stage we begin to develop fundamental skills for communication and learn to meet our basic needs for survival. At home, we learn to eat, speak, walk and dress. In the political arena, we learn to understand our rights and responsibilities in our political system. Consider the tentative first steps a citizen takes to claim his or her rights in City Hall, or the stammering first sentence uttered to a member of Congress.

All political behavior is learned. However, not everyone is equally supportive of that learning process, especially when it comes to new citizens. In a 1993 article in the Washington Post, David S. Broder pointed out the cynical and cyclical relationship between election-reform proposals and immigrant waves in our American democracy. Broder astutely observes that many of our good government (even populist) reform movements actually may take power from special-interest or identity-politics groups and preserve it for socioeconomic elites. Campaign-reform movements have, Broder claims, suspiciously coincided with increases in Irish, German, Italian (and now Latin-American and Asian-Pacific) immigration patterns in the United States.

According to Michael J. Sandel in The Politics of Community: Robert F. Kennedy vs. Ronald Reagan, the contribution of identity politics to American political culture is a proven good: "The civic education and social solidarity cultivated in the black Baptist churches of the South were a crucial prerequisite for the civil-rights movement that ultimately unfolded on a national scale. What began as a bus boycott in Montgomery [Ala.] later became a general challenge to segregation in the South, which led in turn to a national campaign for equal citizenship and the right to vote. More than a means of winning a vote, the movement itself was a movement of self-government, an instance of empowerment. It offered an example of the civic engagement that can flow from local attachments and community ties." The work of the civil-rights movement is an example of identity politics which forever has changed our nation, and yet it is far from finished. Today, veterans of those early days who grew to political maturity within the movement serve as elected officials throughout our nation.

This is an example of an additional benefit of identity politics. While some individuals may choose to remain within the confines of their discrete political neighborhood with a specific racial, ethnic or gender group for their entire political lives, others will use the skills they have gained in a larger political context. …