A Pair of Firsts; But Both are Neither

Posted on November 3, 2007


Much has been made about the historic duality of the current race for the Democratic Nomination; the two front runners being, of course, an African American Male and a White woman. At first glance, it is indeed an exciting moment in history. But a closer look at the two reveals exactly what you would expect from the current political dynamic; the appearance of an attribute is more important than actually having it. In many senses, it has literally become a requirement to not have the attribute at all.

A brief detour into the sideshow that is the slate of Republican hopefuls. It is interesting to note that the three front runners for the nomination–Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson–all lack exactly those attributes and experiences that constitute the core of their political alter-egos. Thompson, a womanizing, Hollywood b-actor whose political career boasts virtually no accomplishments, avoided service in the Iraq of his day by hiding out in grad school. Romney, a high stakes corporate player, who had never uttered a word about foreign policy before 2006, is a member of a universally distrusted messianic sect that banned African-Americans as late as the 1980’s and believes in aliens. And Giuliani a life-long municipal player, who also managed to avoid military service and has a personal life that would make most Hollywood stars feel uncomfortable. All portray themselves as ultra-social conservatives, all portray themselves as savvy as a seasoned General. Interestingly, John McCain, who boasts all of the attributes which the top three claim to possess, is lagging in polls and campaign funds.

A similar dynamic occurs with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. There is no comparing these two to the Republican crowd, both run intellectual rings around Giuliani or Romney any day. And, of course, Barack Obama has brown skin and Clinton is obviously female. But interestingly, both lack the core of what one would expect or want from the individuals setting these generic milestones. Obama, the son of an African father largely absent from his life, and a white mother, was raised by his white family and attended upper middle class schools. I don’t like the idea of asking whether he is black enough, that’s just stupid. But if the question is: does Obama represent at least some mean within the population he seeks to identify with, the answer is a resounding no. Obama, in fact, has much more in common with Latinos, South Asians and Asians, and in, a larger context, all multi-racial Americans; liminal figures in society set to become the new polity, faced with a complex series of challenges in the US. Certainly, Obama could have hewed closer to this cleaner truth and presented himself not as an African-American man, but as a member of the emerging color consciousness–those who have yet escaped classification into a racial group.

Clinton’s issues are similar. Yes, she is a woman, and an incredibly intelligent and accomplished one at that, but her road to the white house should give most feminists some pause. Literally, there is nothing in Clinton’s career (or in Obama’s) to distinguish her from literally hundreds of thousands of highly educated professionals until the year 2000 when she finally independently sought political office. Even in this case, Clinton ran on her persona as first lady, and rode the well-worn fame of her husband’s presidency into office. True, she did the heavy lifting once in office, but she is a product of her husband’s career–an awful way to become the first female president of the United States, and not the norm for even developing countries. Mary Robinson–Ireland’s first female president–rose to power completely independent of a significant other. Likewise, from Liberia to Latvia to Germany, female heads of state of other countries are women who rose to power independently and without needing the push of an ex-president husband.

I don’t seek to single out the two. Indeed, any astute observer would note that you don’t get to the primary showdown by being more honest than your opponent. However, the Clinton and Obama dynamic reflects on our own country’s short-comings in creating a level playing field in terms of gender and race. There are obviously no shortage of distinguished black and female politicians in the US, or governors or even personalities who have a much longer and impressive list of accomplishments (Latino Bill Richardson, for example). And yet Democratic political power brokers have never coalesced around those true champions–with years of accomplishments–the way that they have around Obama and Clinton.

The answer is simple; to paraphrase Obama, we are the change we’ve been preventing. Our nation is deeply racist and sexist, and deeply ambivalent about it, to boot. Look closely at our national discourse and you’ll see virtually no high-profile female or black leaders. Those who do exist–Jesse Jackson, for example–are regularly lambasted in the press. There are virtually no non-white high-profile persona who could be drafted into a presidential run–no Rudies, no Al Gores, no Fred Thompsons. White America prefers to quote the deeds of posthumous black leaders not living ones. Obama seems to realize this and avoids any association with blackness in his mainstream appearances–his current tv spots, in which he addresses a group of supporters, spotlights a few working class white faces, but no black ones.

Similarly, the United States is not ready for a female version of Rudy Giuliani, working on her third marriage and promising to crush the testicles of her competitors. Clinton rarely mentions gender issues; she may in fact be the least gender conscious candidate running. In this she is aided by her traditional gender narrative, where women only should advance to positions of power through marriage. The mainstream viability of our two firsts says more about our country’s tortured race and gender psyche than it does about the merits of the candidates; while we do want to live in an egalitarian society, our core beliefs about race and gender remain deformed by hundreds of years of cultural dogma. In short, we want the appearance of progress. But real progress? That’s just too scary.

So what we’ve gotten instead: a black man who can (and does) claim to be half-African in a pinch; a white woman who is not so threatening, for she obviously rode in on her husband’s inaugural coat tails. In the rush and excitement to elect our first black or female president, we’ve perhaps lost sight of how much authentic representatives of those groups would threaten mainstream white male (and, if polls are any indication, female and black) voters and how small of a chance such candidates would have to be elected.