Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: The Affirmative Action Arguments

(Part three of a series. Links to earlier parts: Part One, Introduction; Part Two, Who Can Win?.)

And so I jump from an issue I'd rather not focus on -- who can win? -- to an issue I'd really, really rather not focus on: the affirmative action arguments.*

But -- as with the "who can win?" argument -- I am going to talk about this because the two conversations that kick-started this series both highlighted it. (See also the first comment to part one here; it's one of the four reasons given.) My two Clinton-supporting friends both cited Hillary's being a woman as one of the chief reasons they had for supporting her as well. To paraphrase a comment from the first of the two conversations: "if they're all going to be equally ineffectual, I'd rather have a woman".

Now, this argument is of course premised on the idea that they're all going to be "equally ineffective" -- or, since given the broader case I don't really think that this is my friend's view, that they'll all be the about the same, politically (she likes the Democrats; I'm sure that she thinks, on balance, that they'd all be good). The balance of this series will be devoted to my arguments against this proposition, so that will bear the chief weight here.

But I suppose I should at least touch on the core point here -- if only because it's been such a big motivation for her support, insofar as I've read about it online, and heard about it. People -- mostly women -- are thrilled with the idea of a woman president. People talk about how thrilled their daughters are that they could be president some day. And so on.

Now, if there's a basis for choosing a candidate that I think is less worthy than picking the one you think will win, it's picking one based on identity politics. I really don't think it's the issue here. It's nice that having a woman president would inspire girls around the country, but we don't (or shouldn't) pick a president on that basis: we pick a president to govern the fracking country, and it's on the quality of their governance -- as best as we can judge it -- that we should pick candidates. (Frankly, the affirmative action argument reminds me, structurally, of the "he'd be good to have a beer with" argument for Bush: both are irrelevant in precisely the same way (the latter is even, arguably, de facto an affirmative action argument for good ol' boys -- who, granted, hardly need one.))

But -- particularly since I'm a middle-aged white man -- saying that makes me sound like a cranky, anti-affirmative action person: perhaps an effective stance to take in parts of the country, but not for my intended audience here. And anyway, it wouldn't bother me so much if it ended up helping a candidate I favored -- I still don't think it's the basis on which one should choose a presidential candidate, but in voting no one looks at your work and gives you partial credit: it's the result that counts. So if it helped the cause of good governance, then I wouldn't sweat it. -- But since it won't, let me address a few arguments against it that might better sway my intended audience here (left-leaning Democratic primary voters).

The central argument here is if you want an affirmative action candidate, your candidate should be not Hillary Clinton, but Barack Obama.

What's hard here is that a lot of the people making the affirmative action argument -- certainly the two friends I mentioned -- are themselves white women. They probably feel, personally, the injustices of American society in terms of gender; they probably feel, personally, the tug of emotion that it's about time for America to have a woman president. And as a white man I can't address those things on an emotional level -- any more than I could answer an African American who, for parallel reasons, supported Obama.

I could argue that, as someone who has a personal stake in neither minority group, I'm more disinterested in the outcome, and thus am better positioned to judge the relative merits of a pro-Black male affirmative action argument versus a pro-white woman affirmative action argument. (Under this theory, only white men (or, arguably, men of other non-African American ethnicities, say Asian American or Native American) and black women could be disinterested.) That's true in a sense, although personally I find it a rather repulsive argument. It is, however, the sort of repulsive argument that an excess of identity politics leads to -- which is one of the reasons that I don't like it (but some might claim that of course a white man would say that, wouldn't he?).

But I do think that it would do more for this country to have a black president than a woman president -- if that's the choice.

Now, granted, there are more white women than African Americans in the country, so if we're choosing on the grounds of who it will inspire the most, that's an argument for Hillary. (And it might be a good argument for electability, if you think that women on average will get more fired-up about being pro-Hillary because of her gender than African Americans will about Obama because of his race.) So you could argue for voting for the woman over the African American on majoritarian grounds. But frankly that's a really fracked-up argument to make in an argument which presupposes the importance of justice to minority and disempowered groups. So let's move on.

Certainly both groups have, historically, been radically disempowered in our society -- and I won't even get into the rather squalid argument of who's been more disempowered.**

So why do I think it would do more to have an African American than a woman president?

Because I think that, right now, today, African Americans are more shut out of power than women.

Since Obama and Hillary Clinton are both in the Senate, let's take a look at the Senate. There are currently 16 women in the Senate (counting Clinton herself). There is one -- one -- African American in the Senate: Obama himself. You sort of have to count the candidates, or there wouldn't even be one.

In more localized races -- including the Congress -- African Americans can do well, if they represent a majority-African American district. But in the country as a whole -- or large chunks of it, like states -- women are definitely more empowered. Not anything like as much as white men, of course (and alas): but, I'd argue, more than African American men.

I'm hardly a specialist in these matters, and there are a lot of different statistics one could pick out, and I'm sure some would go both ways. But I'd submit that there's at least a very significant case to be made for the idea that white women are more empowered than black men. (Again: an odious question. But one I feel I need to address.)

It would also, I claim, do more, practically, for the country. We are now hated around the world as never before. I can see no sign that electing a woman leader has done anything for the reputation of countries that have done it (Maggie Thatcher? Indira Gandhi? Golda Meir?). But I think that electing an African American president would do something for the country. We are seen now as a colonialist power: in much of the world, that goes hand-in-hand with being a racist power. Electing an African American president would be as clear a repudiation of Bushist imperialism as the country could make.

None of this is dispositive, or at any rate I don't think any of it should be. But I think that, if we're going by affirmative action standards, then Obama and not Clinton is the right choice.

Incidentally, on the "affirmative action" front, there is one serious argument to be made against Clinton: that she got where she is because of her husband. This has been, frankly, all-too-true for women in power in general: that one of the only ways in which they can gain power is through men. Perhaps one shouldn't hold it against her. And in some ways it would be fitting if the first woman president got power, essentially, through marriage (since it's been such a common means by which women have gotten into government roles in the past). But it sure doesn't sound very inspiring to me, so far as a tale of women's empowerment goes.

It does, however, get an argument which I think has roughly the same normative status as the affirmative action argument, i.e. it isn't really at issue, is purely symbolic, and shouldn't be the basis -- but which is, symbolically, a powerful argument, and in this case works against Clinton: namely, the argument against pseudo-aristocratic governance.

We're just now suffering through a president who was elected on the basis of who his father was -- restoring the old order of his father's reign (only much, much worse) after an interruption by Clinton. It seems to me to be a very bad symbol if the answer to this is to elect a president who will have gotten where she did because of who her husband was -- again, restoring the old order of her husband's reign.

Frankly, it is unfitting for a democracy to select its leaders on the basis of family connections like this; it is dangerous for a democracy which is in multiple and important ways developing aristocratic tendencies and suffers ever-more entrenched hierarchies to do so twice in a row. Having a presidential succession which goes Bush/Clinton/Bush is unseemly; having one which goes Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton is so much the worse. It reinforces lots of terrible trends in our society -- symbolically only, perhaps, but it's symbolism we're discussing here. Dynasties are not becoming for a democracy: two in a row approach the downright dangerous.

Let's elect someone who is not related to any U.S. Presidents -- most especially to any still-living ex-presidents.

You might say that that's irrelevant to whether Clinton would be a good president. I agree; but so is her gender. In the realm of symbolic politics, there are arguments which cut both ways.

But, again: I don't think that any of these grounds are good ones to decide on. So let's move on.

This series, past and projected.
1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against excessive executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

* Point of clarity: what I'm calling the affirmative action argument here is the idea that we should vote for Hillary Clinton because she's a woman (or Barack Obama because he's black, or Bill Richardson because he's hispanic), and it would be a good thing to have a woman (black, hispanic) president on the basis of redistributive justice ("it's about time") or the like. The idea that Clinton is better on women's issues -- which some have argued -- is a different point, and one I probably won't address -- for me the central issues of the election are different (I'd say they are war, empire, restoring constitutional balance, health care and gay rights, roughly in that order, and articulating a broad liberal philosophy as a important step in achieving all of those things), so I'm going to try to make the case on what I believe are the central grounds. Anyway, just bear in mind as you read what I am talking about when I talk about the "affirmative action arguments".

** Small sample, offered as a immunization measure: (A) African American men got the vote before white women, since the 15th amendment was passed in 1870 and the 19th was only passed in 1920! (B) Ah, but the 19th amendment was put into practical effect immediately -- African Americans were de facto barred from voting in large majorities until the voting rights act of 1964! etc., etc., ad nauseum.

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