Election 2008: Symbols vs. Substance:Part 1
by Lydia Howell
Issues of race and gender are inevitable—if largely avoided—elements of the campaigns of Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, given they are the first “viable” presidential candidates that aren't white men. John Edwards rhetorically challenges the big corporations' dominance to the detriment of ordinary people --the same message that Ralph Nader carried in the last three elections—voicing a taboo: class. Sound-bite television doesn't lend itself to the in-depth, complicated national conversations that we could be having about race, gender and class. Horse-race reporting erases the crucial issues—and the candidates' positions and voting records on them-- that should be debated.
I think many white men can't understand the visceral longing that people of color and women have to see themselves reflected in all aspects of American life—including respected authority, honored leadership and political power. It's obvious—but, bears saying out loud—that the historical reality (and hence, the mental picture in our minds) of the Commander and Chief is a white man. For that reason, Clinton and Obama's campaigns understandably thrill many people. Both these candidates face difficulties that their white male counterparts don't: Obama has body-guards due to death threats—threats made credible by a history of assassinations of African-American leaders; Clinton isn't just criticized on her political agenda, but, is attacked (especially on-line) in a pornographic and sometimes violent way. The “Hillary Nut-cracker” (where the caricatured Clinton's legs form the tool) is for sale at a Minneapolis “progressive” shop. I've heard (allegedly) “progressive” men make grotesque sexual comments about Clinton, instead of simply arguing against her voting record.
Another political cul-de-sac lies in playing what some progressive academics call “the oppression Olympics”, asking, 'What's worse? Racism or sexism?” Feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem in her recent NY Times op-ed seemed to suggest that sexism is a greater barrier than racism. To name just a few contradiction sto Steinem's case, she ignored the still-largely white Congress., a criminal justice (sic) system riddled with racial bias that incarcerates one in eight African-American men (and a growing number of women of color in prison) and grotesque gaps in all life-measures between people of color and whites. Yet, commentators of color seemed to trivialize the insidious nature of gender that permeates our culture. Falling into these rhetorical traps is just one more example of 'divide and conquer' that doesn't get us one inch closer to race and gender equity—or even a useful discussion. Edwards' economic populism has been largely ignored by a media that only talks about “class war” as a way to dismiss discussion about the Corporate class-war that's made for the greatest gap between the top 5% and the rest of us, since 1929.
As a lifelong feminist who's also been an anti-racist activist, I wish either Obama or Clinton inspired me. Both of them must feel they have to walk very carefully. Obama can't talk directly about how racism continues to shape the life-chances of people of color or he'd be accused of “playing the race card”. It's taken very little for Clinton to be slammed with charges that she's “using her gender” to deflect rough-and-tumble challenges from male rivals. Certainly, her husband, Bill Clinton's comments about male candidates “pilling on” against her lend themselves to that charge.
African-Americans have been almost the only certain voters the Democratic Party could count on (and have usually been taken for granted). The black vote was split nearly evenly between Clinton and Obama. This week's blow-out about racial comments by both Clintons --=comments obviously aimed at Obama's very subtle drawing upon Martin Luther King's “dream”--- revealed the couple's willingness to play “take-no prisoners political hardball”. It also exposed how shallow the Clinton's stand on civil rights actually is (and always was).. Obama acted with real grace under the Clintons' fire. But, the fact remains that Obama's soaring speeches have all the substance of cotton candy. Obama is heavy on style and substance-lite while Clinton pounds away as if loud assertion alone canprove the case for her “thirty-five years of experience”.
Gloria Steinem was right when she said no woman would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate if she had Obama's thin resume and lack of experience. In her 2004 run for the Democratic nomination, Carol Moseley Braun (with a far more substantial portfolio than Obama) wasn't taken seriously at all. Even though Moseley Braun was the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, she didn't get the kind of laudatory acclaim that Obama is getting on the campaign trail. In fact, she was trivialized in much the same way Rep. Dennis Kucinich is. But, there's a racial insensitivity to Steinem's failure to mention Moseley Braun.