Mark Halperin, Ted Cruz, and the media's double standard on identity politics
Thanks, Mark Halperin — for giving America a moment when the hypocrisy and double standards of identity politics coalesced into an undeniably embarrassing spectacle.
"I wanted to give you the opportunity to welcome your colleague Senator Sanders to the [presidential] race," Halperin told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) after a bizarre line of questioning on the presidential candidate's Cuban heritage. "I'd like you to do it, if you would, en español." And there was just a flash of the Bloomberg journalist grinning like a kid who thinks he's gotten away with something — much like Halperin did when he called the president of the United States a "dick" on national television. Both times, Halperin's actions were as terrible and painful as they sound. And the latest case was particularly ironic for an online show titled With All Due Respect:
Thankfully, the repulsive nature of Halperin's questions provoked a bipartisan consensus of scorn. Ruben Navarette pronounced himself "nauseated" watching Cruz "be asked by a smug and clueless white journalist if [he's] authentically Cuban." Think Progress called it "a minstrel show" and "the most racist interview of a 2016 candidate." By midday Monday, Halperin apologized, and Cruz — who was a class act throughout — issued a statement accepting it and supporting Halperin.
But let's step back for a moment and acknowledge a plain truth: American politics has a love-hate relationship with identity politics. Voters love to tell themselves that the U.S. is a melting pot, an e pluribus unum community where ancestral lineage matters little in real life. They then demand that their political leaders make precisely calibrated pitches to ethnic communities, and that political parties demonstrate diversity in candidates and officeholders.
The media loves it when Democrats engage in identity politics, but get a little more critical when Republicans attempt to even the field. Ethnic and gender identity are accepted without question among Democrats, but the media routinely challenges Republicans who run, or even appear to be running, on the basis of identity.
The scrutiny of Republicans on identity always carries with it an implicit suggestion, if not outright accusation, that the claim of identity is somehow illegitimate. Joni Ernst got dismissed as an attractive nutcase. Carly Fiorina is similarly discounted for relying only on her gender identity, even though Fiorina has engaged voters and the media much more on her record than Hillary Clinton has. Clinton's use of gender politics is a core part of her candidacy — but one on which she is rarely challenged by the media.
It's hard to imagine the media demanding of a Democrat such obvious challenges to identity as Halperin attempted in the Cruz interview, insisting that Cruz reveal his favorite Cuban singer and meal, as well as testing Cruz on his knowledge of Spanish. At one point, Halperin asked if Cruz could identify "an affinity for or a connection to anything part of your Cuban past," as though Halperin couldn't quite believe that Cruz had any credible connection to his own undisputed ethnicity.
Can you imagine an interviewer taking this approach with a Democrat? Would Rep. Luis Guitierrez (D-Ill.) get grilled on what his favorite Puerto Rican dishes are and questioned on the depth of his connection to his heritage? Of course not.
This should serve as a lesson to the rest of the media. Halperin's example was only the most obvious of the double standard in the media's handling of identity politics, and an object lesson into how embarrassing the whole concept truly is. Politics should not be about group identities, but about policies, experience, competence, and integrity. Let's stick to authenticity tests on those qualities, and dispense with checkbox identity politics altogether.