On an otherwise unassuming Saturday night in April 2012, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee put on a tie, looked into a camera, and compared more than half of the world’s populous to caterpillars.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Priebus said that the GOP’s alleged “war on women” was comparable to a fictional “war on caterpillars,” and “if Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that the Republicans have a war on caterpillars then we would have problems with caterpillars.”
The incident wasn’t widely covered and was quickly forgotten in the raging machine of falsehood we know as our political landscape, but it serves to make an interesting point about why we need identity politics—especially in this presidential race.
One can dismiss identity politics because of its complexity, its often overwhelming subjectivity, or in one rather spectacular case, deny its existence at all. And on some level, you could be right; identity politics is messy and more emotionally charged than not. They do not fit in nicely with a political agenda that proposes Americans already understand the complexities of the gender gap without exception.
However, in the places where we fail to recognize the necessity of identity politics, inequality will prosper and the self interest of the few will overrule the needs of the many. The conservative approach to women’s interests is the tip of the iceberg in that conversation. The things that make identity politics difficult to grapple with are also the things that make them essential, and we can see examples of this repeatedly as we move increasingly closer to election day.
Here’s the reality: In 2012, the GOP lost 36 points with unmarried women. Unsurprisingly, telling anyone that their needs are equivocal to those of insects is not a good way to earn votes. At the same time, it would be naive to think that Democrats haven’t come up with their own ways to manipulate and then present their own version of their vision for America.
That being said, there have been fewer political phenomenons that have endured the way that the Republican “War on Women” has, potentially because one side refuses to acknowledge the grounds of the conflict itself. You can construe that any way that you want, but the fact remains that Donald Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican ticket and the most he has talked about women’s issues is the ten seconds he promised he would “be phenomenal” to women during the first party debate before, which launched into a nonsensical speech about North Korea.
GOP leaders aren’t particularly fond of Trump to begin with, but his consistently dismissive and occasionally outright cruel comments haven’t exactly earned him any more brownie points with a party desperate to repair its relationship with the average American woman, or at least their vision of her.
Carly Fiorina was supposed to be their savior, their anti-Hillary in a race that was said to be over before it even began, and yet she makes the case-in-point without needing Trump’s help.
Fiorina, despite claiming that her version of feminism is even more liberal and more accessible than Clinton’s, has been caught in lies about Planned Parenthood, along with a number of issues with inconsistency with what she even believes about her own gender.
She is more than happy to recount tales of sexism at Hewlett-Packard, how she crawled up the corporate ladder on her own. But when asked what woman she wants to put on the $10 bill, she dismisses the legitimacy of women as a special interest group altogether. And she has made her distaste for “identity politics” clear, despite the fact that it’s the vehicle that was supposed to put her into office.
The New York Times once described Fiorina as a “trojan horse,” a way to sneak the classic conservative opinion in an package that women could get behind as the other candidates continue—somewhat idiotically—to make their opinions about abortion (and little else) more than clear. And the Times is right. She has performed better in the polls, after recently beginning to present herself as the anti-Clinton feminist renegade, while still espousing the same opinions on social issues as her straight, white, male candidates.
Fiorina seems to have created her own version of feminism altogether, providing the following remarks during the first Republican presidential debate.
A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses. We will have arrived when every woman can decide for herself how to best find and use her God-given gifts. A woman may choose to have five children and home-school them. She may choose to become a CEO or to become a candidate. I am a conservative because I know we are all equal in the eyes of God—men and women. Our principles work better to lift men and women up. But that doesn’t make her electable, and it certainly doesn’t make her a champion in the ‘War on Women.’ In fact, it means that she feels comfortable condemning the very concept her campaign is built on, saying ‘Feminism has devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.’
Fiorina’s power as a candidate was supposed to come from her intelligence instead of her charisma, but she has become the clearest example of what it means to be a woman in conservative America—underserved and criticized, even by her own peers. A talking piece.
Again, inconsistency. Again, oversimplification, Again, caterpillars.
So why is it so hard to talk about people’s issues to people? Why are identity politics so messy?
Politicians do not do well with things that cannot be quantified, and when you add issues that can be hugely personal and emotional to everyone involved, things can get tangled quickly. When the president’s job is to know how to lead, it’s difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all plan, and arrogance and self interest can supersede clear judgement.
Americans don’t just have a trojan horse problem, we have a diversity problem. Furthermore, continuing to assume that what works for an educated white male in Washington is the same thing that’s going to work for an uneducated, underserved female minority in Chicago will be the death of any Republican candidate—male or female—in this race.
So not only is the GOP’s “War Against Women” painfully real, it will endure until we can come to a place where identity politics is not something that can be dismissed; or worse, compared to bugs. Pretending that problems don’t exist isn’t how you solve them, it’s how you guarantee their survival, and it will be citizens and then institutions that help break this cycle. And in this game, nobody will win until someone speaks up.
The life span of an underserved citizen is a lot longer than a caterpillar.