Three weeks ago, two Clinton campaign volunteer county coordinators in Iowa forwarded an e-mail that accused Illinois Sen. Barack Obama of being a stealth Muslim intent on bringing jihad to the United States. Last week, former Nebraska senator and Clinton supporter Bob Kerrey borrowed a page from Rush Limbaugh when he made a point of highlighting Obama's middle name -- Hussein (quick, what's Mike Huckabee's middle name?) -- and Muslim heritage on his dad's side.
There are few things we Americans do that can truly be described as "national." There's Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl and, every four years, we elect a president. Sure, voters use a variety of criteria to select their favorite candidate, but it's arguable that at heart the presidential election is a contest over whom we want to represent not just our nation but our idea of nationhood and who we are as a people. As a result, campaigns are in part a conversation about identity and who the majority of voters will identify with. Of course, our conception of the ideal American to represent us is influenced by our own particular sense of identity.
One way voters decide who we are as a nation is to decide who we are not. Remember what your high school civics teacher taught you? Your rights end right where someone else's begin. The same holds true for identity, particularly in a high-stakes electoral campaign. The very act of asserting an identity involves distinguishing yourself. In politics, it sometimes involves delegitimizing the opponent.
For example, it wasn't enough for ordained Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee to assert his fervent evangelicalism; he also felt a need to joke about Mitt Romney's Mormonism. "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?" he asked a writer for the New York Times Magazine. In so doing, he was drawing boundaries not only around his particular brand of evangelical Christianity but around his idea of what should be considered "mainstream" American culture and religiosity -- and who should identify with him. The implication was that Romney and his religion were beyond the pale.
For his part, Romney has trod a careful line seeking to broaden that mainstream and fit himself into the widest category of those who identify themselves as faithful. His much-anticipated religion speech was both a promise to "serve no one religion" and an appeal to everyone to accept his faith as one among many, one that's just like all the others at its base.
Like Romney, Obama is trying to broaden our collective notion of the mainstream. On the one hand, his campaign is running television commercials in Iowa featuring his late mother, who was white. On the other, he touts his biracial, multicultural background (he lived in Indonesia for four years as a child) as an advantage when it comes to representing the U.S. abroad.
"The day I'm inaugurated, not only will the country look at itself differently, but the world will look at America differently," he told an audience in Audubon, Iowa, last month.
In another, not so distant, era, a white candidate like Hillary Clinton could simply have used race as a way to portray her black opponent as being beyond the mainstream. But, at least for a candidate whose party is dependent on black votes in the general election and whose self-proclaimed politics aren't racist, that strategy wouldn't fly. Instead, some elements of the Clinton campaign have seized on Obama's ancestral ties to Islam -- the Illinois senator is a Christian -- and Americans' wariness of the Muslim world as a way to associate him with something outside of "who we are as a nation," a way to delegitimize his campaign to represent all Americans.
Should all of this come as some sort of shock? No. Politicians have always exploited aspects of their own or their opponents' identities to win elections. But during this primary season, just remember you're not only selecting your party's presidential nominee. You're also, in no small sense, being asked to decide, in national terms, who's in and who's out.