Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Never Anything False About Hope: A Post-Primary Ramble

Two things came together in my mind, and produced a long, rambling blog post: I think it has a point, but fair warning: I'm even less laconic, terse, concise, succinct and pithy than is my habitual, usual, typical and quotidian wont.


First, this wonderful post from Hilzoy (but I repeat myself) about what it means to African Americans to have an African American candidate. She writes in part:
...most of the people quoted in [a newspaper] article did not believe that a black candidate -- any black candidate -- could win the nomination, let alone the Presidency. Once I had noticed that, I seemed to hear it a lot.... a black voter called in and said that until Iowa, he had assumed that Obama was "some kind of stunt". I suppose I live a sheltered life, but for some reason it hadn't crossed my mind that many African-Americans would think not just that it was very hard for a black man to win the nomination, but that it was impossible.
I think she's right, based on what I've heard and read. There certainly seems to have been a big swing to Obama among African Americans after he won Iowa -- with a sense (if the reporting is to be trusted) that having Obama win so big, and in so white a state, made it seem real.

But he did it: he won the primary. It was a long and difficult road, one that uncovered a lot of ugly racism in this country. And there are two sides to this story, since Obama's victory showed that there were also a lot of white voters who were, in fact, very willing to vote for an African American -- and less that sound minimal, just think about how short a time it's been since Jim Crow was dismantled in this country -- less than the span of Obama's lifetime, and he is, as is often noted, young as presidential candidates go. The sad fact is that, in a significant fraction of the country, "de facto African American enfranchisement" could be added not only to the web site Things Younger Than McCain, but to its hypothetical Obama counterpart too.

So yes, it makes sense that a lot of African Americans were worried that Obama couldn't win -- and I, like much of the country, am still very worried about the general, and only in part because of racism (there's all sorts of other factors too, not the least of which is the GOP's effectiveness at slimeball politics). Still, he won the primary. And if the racism directed at him was very ugly, the evidence of progress in the last forty years was just as encouraging. (I have a vague memory of swiftly-up-and-coming new blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about the primary making him rethink his views about racism in this country in a positive way... but now I can't find it, so maybe I'm imagining it. (Update: In this new post, published after I wrote this one, he says something similar.))

Given an ongoing ugly reality, and an ugly history too often forgotten, it's not surprising that those who have been the victims of discrimination are wary of optimism. But sometimes -- in part -- it's justified. Sometimes, for all the work that there is to be done, real progress has been made.

And then there was this essay by Erica Jong (via) about Clinton's loss, where she writes, in part:
I didn't know it would feel this bad. I didn't know it would feel this personal. I'm all for a united Democratic party. But losing my last chance to see a woman in the White House feels like shit.... "It's not sexism -- it's her" seems to have replaced, "I'm not a feminist, but" in our national lexicon. This is not to imply that Hillary Clinton is faultless -- far from it. But it's clear that the faults we tolerate and even overlook in men, we see as glaring in women.... Will women ever be winners? And if so, when?
Which brought me back to something I'd thought about before, but which I think that I, like many Obama supporters, haven't focused sufficiently on: the degree to which some -- not all: a portion; a slice; I don't know how big -- of Clinton's most intense support came from the sense that this is our only chance. That only because of Clinton's unique combination of factors -- name recognition, etc -- was a woman's victory even possible. Look at the way Jong put it: that Clinton's loss meant her "losing my last chance to see a woman in the White House."

And I think a lot of the bitterness about Clinton's loosing is due to that; particularly when combined with the sexism that was just as evident in the campaign against Clinton as the racism was in the campaign against Obama.

Now, it's true that Clinton had a lot of unique (so far) things going for her, which could break the barrier. But of course so did Obama -- he had a lot of unique things too, including a natural political talent that of a magnitude that comes along perhaps once in a generation, and the virtue of having been right on the most important issue of the past decade, the disastrous and criminal war in Iraq. And I think that if -- FSM willing when -- Obama wins, it will be because other factors -- his incredible talent, his incredible team, and the incredible clarity with which the Republican party has performed utterly disastrously in every single area of governance -- overcome the racism in this country.

But I think he'll do it. Because all those factors are there, and important; and because we've come somewhat farther than some of us think, if not nearly as far as we need to go.

And I think it's true of sexism too. And I think that this, ultimately, is why those Clinton supporters who are so bitterly disappointed are wrong to be.

Because I think that Jong is wrong when she implies that "It's not sexism -- it's her" is a euphemism. Oh, sure it is: for some people. But there were a lot of us who were against Clinton for very specific reasons -- in my case, always and above all, because of the criminal war which she voted for, which she supported for so long: a war without which she would have won the nomination in a walk.

And I really believe that. I believe she would have won, quite clearly, were it not for her support of the Iraq war. And that it is a tribute to her incredible talent and popularity -- as well as other things, of course, such as really baleful power that name recognition has in our politics, and our terrible national penchant for dynastic politics -- that that she came as far as she did.

Which means that I think that a woman can win. That when another woman -- yes, a different woman -- runs, she will win.

And I think probably sooner than a lot of people think. Probably even soon enough for Erica Jong (who was born in 1942), assuming a reasonable lifespan.

So I have a lot of sympathy for those Clinton supporters who think that this was the chance for a woman president, that sexism is too deep for a woman to succeed. And I'll freely admit that as a man I have no direct experience of sexism's prevalence in our society. But then again, if Obama had lost -- and he came close, just as she did to winning -- people would take it as proving that an African American can't really win. (And, to keep the parallelism, as a white man I have no more direct experience of racism than I do sexism.)

So while I have an enormous amount of sympathy for those feelings, I think they're mistaken. I think this is a case where the lack of direct experience of discrimination can make people see things clearer, not less clearly. Which, again, is not to say that there isn't an enormous amount of sexism (or racism) left in this country; the primary has shown that there is. It's just also shown how far we've come on both accounts.

The point being, that we had a chance for two groundbreaking candidacies; one had to win, one had to loose. The fact that one did win therefore -- particularly given how close they both came -- is not evidence that it will be impossible for a person with the other characteristics to win in the future, any more than it would have been proof the other way if things had been the other way.

So I think it will happen. And happen soon -- partly because so many people clearly feel strongly that breaking the gender barrier for the presidency would be a very good thing, apart from the specific candidate. (I'm certainly among those people.) In fact it's one reason that I'd like to see Obama put a woman (although not Clinton) on the ticket as his VP candidate: not to heal the wounds of the party (I hope it'd help, although I've heard some people suggest that putting any woman besides Clinton on would be an insult to her & her supporters); and not to help win (although I hope it would help, obviously) -- but because the VP slot makes one the presumptive nominee for one's party the next time around, and I think it'd be good to have a woman nominee the next time. And if Obama wins -- as I think and hope and pray he will -- then this will help prepare the ground for that. There are a number of good choices; personally my main criteria would be someone who opposed the war, although of course there are lots of other things to consider too.

Now I, personally, think that the lesson from the current state of American society, and this primary, should be that it's harder for a black man than for a white woman to win the presidency -- a seemingly paradoxical statement given how the race turned out, but it makes sense if you think that (as I do) without racism Obama's natural political gifts, and having gotten the war right, would have led him to win even bigger & more quickly. But of course I understand that a lot of people think the contrary.*

So I guess the bottom line of this mish-mash of a blog post is that I understand the anger and frustration of people like Erica Jong, and, as a supporter of the winning candidate, I extend my deepest sympathies and my pledge to work to break that barrier next. But also the words that they are both big barriers, and given the choice, we had to break one or the other; that the fact that we broke one and not the other doesn't mean that the other won't be broken soon; that a lot of us really were bothered by other things primarily; and, finally, to offer you the hope -- no more than that, but the hope -- that it will be your turn to be pleasantly surprised next time out. (FSM willing, in 2016, after two full Obama terms!)

Because, as one barrier-breaking Presidential nominee has put it, in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

* Probably it's a mistake to spell it out, but in case anyone's curious, my basic case would have two components. First, I'd point to the history of women versus African Americans getting elected to public office: in governorships, senate races, etc, I think women have generally had an easier time than men. (There are currently 16 women in the Senate; there is currently one African American.)

Second, I think that both Obama and Clinton had both benefits and handicaps from their ground-breaking statuses (statusi?). Both mobilized additional voters who were excited about the notion of breaking the race/gender barrier and who would not have been as excited about a white male candidate (mostly but not entirely African Americans in Obama's case, and mostly but not entirely women in Clinton's). On the other hand, both had to struggle through the basically sexist/racist landscape to get to where they ended up; and both had to deal with the various ways in which the media, fools on the internet, etc, thought about them in gender/racial terms. So that's all parallel. But in addition to that it seems to me that there was a very big set of very specific, identifiable voters -- many of them, interestingly, in Appalachia -- who quite clearly and in many cases vocally wouldn't vote for Obama specifically because he's black. And I just haven't seen anything parallel on the other side of that one.

-- But, as my (white, feminist) mother used to say, comparisons are odious. So I'll let it drop there, and return to the key point: these were both important barriers to break; given the candidates, we had to break one and (thereby) not break the other. And given how close things were, I don't think this race shows that either white women or black men have insurmountable handicaps in presidential politics, although they clearly both have handicaps. (Black women may well still have insurmountable handicaps, I fear.)

And, of course and always, given that we could only break one barrier, and not both, I think that going with the candidate who was not complicit in the deaths of more than a million civilians was a really good choice. But that's just me.


sconstant said...

I will support Obama strongly, and my fervent hope is that he gets elected. But I'm with Erica Jong, and a lot younger than her, on the possibility of a woman president in my lifetime.

particularly when combined with the sexism that was just as evident in the campaign against Clinton as the racism was in the campaign against Obama.

While it's true that some voters, as you said, were pretty open about their racism, I was impressed (read: horrified and even surprised) by the sexism of the news media and the way the sexism of some campaign stunt-pullers (the "citizens united" thing, e.g.) was tsk-tsked at, rather than receiving a genuine horrified reaction that corresponding actions would have received.

I agree with your mom (z'l) about comparisons, yet I have to say even so that I disagree with the implicit statement in the passage I quoted that your readers would find it somehow harder to see the sexism in this campaign than the racism. Not this reader, anyway. And while some voters in Appalachia may have come out and said what, doubtless, more voters across the country are thinking, there are certainly voters who would not vote for a woman or for whom the hurdle would be set much higher. I heard the joke about the button and "once a month" before I was old enough to understand it and have heard it countless times since then, and there's lots of that out there, all of it unfunny to me and varyingly funny-because-it's-true to large numbers of other people.

That said, as you said in a different context: onward. And, hopefully please-please-please I'll-eat-all-my-vegetables, upwards.

Stephen said...


Thanks for reading, and your comment.

I'm with Erica Jong, and a lot younger than her, on the possibility of a woman president in my lifetime

Well, all I can say is I hope and pray you're wrong. I do think the possibilities are good -- and, in fact, are better than before Clinton ran: I think that her having come this close will make things easier the next time.

And I agree that the hurdle is probably higher: but I think it's far from insurmountable -- as Clinton just proved.

Personally, I think that the next Democratic candidate after Obama -- that is, 2012 if he (chas v'shalom) looses, and 2016 assuming (kenina hara) he wins this year -- will be a woman. And I hope he picks a female running mate to increase the chances.

Anyway, I guess we'll see.

But we certainly have healing to do: and I hope that we can manage to do it.

onward. And, hopefully please-please-please I'll-eat-all-my-vegetables, upwards.

From your lips to God's ears, as the old Yiddish saying goes.


Stephen said...

PS: If you don't mind my asking, did you know my mom, or do we know each other? (It's hard with just an internet handle to go by...). I just ask because of the "z'l". I don't remember talking about my mom on the blog -- not that I mind at all, and I might have. It's just that it makes me wonder if I know you (or you knew Mom, or know Dad, or my sister...).

Not that it wasn't in all the newspapers, but still, most people don't tend to remember. (And really, I don't mind. Just curious.)

If you prefer, feel free to answer that in email: sef23, plus that little symbol for "at",