2008/01/07

On voting for people based on their anatomy or melanin

I think it's worth raising the question, as Naureen does, of how such a symbolically loaded thing as electing the first woman president or the first black president would affect American culture and even culture in other countries. (Naureen supports Clinton because she thinks electing her would strengthen the fight against misogyny, but she doesn't explain why electing Obama wouldn't have the same effect on racism.)

I've already written about my fear that an Obama presidency might actually make race inequality worse. What about a Clinton presidency? Clinton, like Obama, periodically panders to reactionary forces by casting herself in traditional gender terms. Last October she famously taunted her opponents, saying, "if you can't stand the heat get out of the kitchen. And I'm very much at home in the kitchen." Yet her aggressive style probably does more to undercut traditional gender expectations than her obviously calculated attempts to play into those norms reinforces them. We should, however, be careful here. Do we really want to promote unprincipled triangulation and ruthless power-grabbing as the alternative to feminine docility?

In the Obama post I didn't give any consideration to the possibility that having a black man in the White House might give blacks themselves greater confidence to confront racism and capitalism, or that it might reduce the incidence of racism in white people (if only among younger white people). The same positive cultural effects on gender issues might be a result of a Clinton presidency.

At the same time, either a Clinton or Obama presidency - both likely to govern as centrists at home and as liberal imperialists abroad - might reduce the capacity of progressive forces to mobilize against their conservative policies. It might also inflame patriarchal or racist forces and increase identity polarization (this seems more likely under a Clinton presidency given the powerful and widespread personalized hatred of her - nothing similar has emerged around Obama). Whether this would be good or bad is hard to say.

How these things play out culturally is probably too complex to predict. So I think it should be less of a factor in our decisionmaking than the imperative to undertake popular mobilization and push progressive issues on whoever is the next president.

I also think it's about time the left stops using identity politics as a central organizing principle. We should recognize that identity-based inequality is still a thriving part of our culture and resolutely oppose that. But unless our goal is a society composed of a finite number of rigidly-defined identity groups that individuals "should" belong to based on their genetic heritage, we should also be criticizing the facile prescribed identities that so animated the left in the '90s.

8 comments:

naureen said...

I'll post a response to the substance of your post soon. For the moment, I want to note that I do not consider myself a clinton supporter. I support Kucinich and Edwards. I'm sorry to fall into a obama/clinton debate that is fully funded by corporate media - it is no coincidence that Edwards, despite his second place showing in Iowa, gets no media coverage.
"John Edwards is being excluded because he is talking about something that makes the corporate media truly uncomfortable: the growing concentration of power and wealth in the corporate elite."

Despite many 'liberals' and 'progressives' agreeing with Edwards on the issues, they're supportive of obama. Why? I find the hype frustrating, and that is probably what prompted my admittedly pro-clinton post.

Jake said...

i agree, of course, that edwards is far preferable to obama. however, given that the media have crippled the edwards campaign, unless edwards manages a strong second in new hampshire, the real choice is probably between obama and clinton. so what do you think of the idea, which i laid out in the previous post, that we can imagine an (admittedly unlikely) scenario in which progressive forces are able to bend obama to their will, but that there's nothing comparable we can imagine under clinton?

naureen said...

alas, I think it is wishful thinking. As you point out, recent history doesn't show us a lot of examples of politicians going further left once they are elected.

All the hub-bub over Clinton's 'emotional moment,' plus the surge of voter support for her in New Hampshire, show the vitality and importance of what you might call "identity politics." If women went to the polls for clinton because of that 'emotional moment'(that's the current spin), then that's of course not about her anatomy. It's about solidarity based on the experience of being a woman in this country. Gender consciousness is just as important as class consciousness because - I speak admittedly broadly - one way society subordinates women is by pitting them against each other, and by convincing them to doubt themselves. Women supporting Clinton, in a sense, is women supporting themselves. I've never been a big identity politics person, and I would even say I find that identity-oriented organizing alienated me, but I am excited to see women rallying around Clinton based on their perception of a shared struggle to gain power in this country.

Jake said...

i find it pretty hard to agree that women voting against a corporate democrat who happens to be a woman is an example of patriarchy pitting women against women. uncritical loyalty to the identity group that you have been assigned to is not progressive, it's something we should be resisting.

and i'm also very interested to know why, if supporting clinton is supposed to reduce misogyny, then why wouldn't supporting obama reduce racism? racial inequality is still probably the most intense form of oppression in this country. so if we do believe in the power of the ascribed identity of some member of the political elite to combat identity-based inequality, why wouldn't we favor obama?

Chris said...

clarence page wrote an editorial for the tribune today mentioning that conservative commentators are excited about obama's performance so far because for them it spells the end of black leaders like jesse jackson sr. and al sharpton. page doesn't exactly agree with these conservatives, but he says that obama represents "an escape route" for "[m]ore than a few Americans, regardless of race" who have "grown weary of politics that define people by race, ethnicity and other similarly narrow attributes."

i think that this kind of thinking potentially points towards your concern about obama's success being used to undermine political action against racism. i say this not to endorse the kind of politics that sharpton and jackson sr. engage in, but because america is a long way from racial equality and any progress along these lines would entail a lot of painful talk about racism, which i suspect is really what a lot of (white) people are so tired of hearing about.

as you pointed out (i think) clinton has taken a slightly more aggressive stance towards gender discrimination (although given obama's fairly astounding rise, it might be hard for him to persuasively claim that he's faced substantial discrimination in politics, at least) which might suggest some difference in the dynamics of racism and sexism; it seems to me that there's more of a taboo on discussion in mainstream media of racial discrimination, while sexism (and it's effect on clinton's campaign, say) is freely discussed.

jenny said...

jake, i remember you saying the same thing about forcing democratic politicians to be more lefty during the last presidential election. it's not going to happen with any of these candidates if all we can do is register our opinion with phone calls and emails. our political/economic system has become enough of a joke that the interests of powerless people will never be on the agenda, at least in the context of a media charade like the november election. your optimism surprises me.

chris-- that's a good point about racism and sexism. you also have to take into account that obama is a black guy who acts sort of white, which makes his race more safe and comfortable for white people. but hillary is a woman who is seen as aggressive and masculine, which is threatening to men in power. so maybe it's discussed more because she is more at a disadvantage because of it.

Chris said...

there's a bunch of editorials today that suggest that the pre-primary polls for new hampshire might have been off because they failed to take into account the racism of low income white voters, who also tend to be the ones most likely to refuse calls from pollsters.

i don't know much about polling and such things, but this is intersting in that i think it's the first time i've seen a discussion of racism (in mainstream medai) as a potential component of this election.

Jake said...

jenny, i'm not exactly "optimistic" about forcing obama to govern as a progressive. you're definitely right that letters and emails won't make a difference - we would have to mobilized behind a clear agenda, and we would have to overcome this naivety among liberals that simply electing obama will lead to our redemption.

he's not a true progressive, but i still have a shred of hope that he could be pushed to govern like one, especially since the political climate is already incomparably better than three years ago. if the left is as weak as it has been these last five years, tho, we'll probably just get a rerun of the clinton '90s.