A Tale of Two Firsts: Identity and the Democratic Party

January 18, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

With the media frenzy surrounding the primary elections, it’s easy to forget that the presidency of George W. Bush has still over a year’s time with which to further embitter the world against the United States. Barring another terrorist attack (which would shift focus towards “security issues” and more than likely lead to 4 more years of a Republican in the Oval Office), the Democratic Party is sitting pretty, and they know it.

While it would be an exaggeration to claim it is a de-facto election for the presidency itself, even most Republicans are inclined to concede their day in the sun seems to have ended, temporarily at least, having been eclipsed by the follies of the last seven years. All the more reason this year’s pursuit of the Democratic primary is being so widely touted.

While political perspectives may differ, all commentators seem to agree the race for the nomination of the Democratic Party is one of the hottest in recent history. It features two “firsts”: what could be the first female president, and what could the first racial minority president, a reality that has generated significant interest from the public. Partly out of this eagerness, perhaps, the erstwhile contender John Edwards (the vice-presidential Democratic candidate in the dreadful 2004 election) seems as unique and interesting as a wet carrot, his populist rhetoric being drowned out by the excitement of the two “firsts”.

The most important factor determining the opinion of voters is still a candidate’s notoriety, it too an aspect of their personal identity, versus an aspect of their beliefs or policies. In this regard, the politically entrenched Clinton has a great advantage on Barack Obama. Indeed, for a very long while the United States public, and perhaps to a greater extent the rest of the world, have expected another Clinton presidency if for no other reason than that she has been in the public spotlight for so long.

I can recall bumper stickers adorning pickup trucks in my hometown with the slogan “Impeach President Clinton – and her Husband, Too!”, no doubt put there by the witty folk arguing that the election of Hillary Clinton would essentially mean the return to a Bill Clinton-led White House. While this irony may seem frivolous, it goes to illustrate just how long Ms. Clinton has been on the national political scene, First Lady in 1993 when Obama had just begun lecturing at the University of Chicago Law School.

Such a history has created a much greater reputation for Clinton, both in terms of loving and loathing. It is a result of this notoriety – more than any actual policy innovations or ideological merit – that has put Hillary Clinton in the news more than any other candidate. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, Ms. Clinton, at least by popular perception, receives twice the amount of media coverage garnered by Barack Obama, a distant second in said poll.

Perceptions are the only realities that matter in our grand democratic process, and this has served to create an aura of invincibility around Ms. Clinton and a mistaken presumption that her nomination is a forgone conclusion. As early as August 2007 a Washington Post op-ed described Hillary Clinton’s Democratic nomination as “inevitable”, and to a lesser or greater extent most commentators are inclined to agree.

While this may come as a surprise to some of our readers, despite the overwhelmingly disproportionate time devoted Clinton, it still pales in comparison with the amount of attention she receives here in Europe. This has resulted in a certain level of shock and awe in the international press at the recent gains of Barack Obama, who trounced Clinton in the Iowa Caucus and was heavily favoured going in to New Hampshire.

Though it pains me to suggest it, I wonder how much of this surprise is based upon the message of either candidate, as opposed to the unalterable nature of the messengers. Here of course I address the two most obvious features of identity among the two Democratic front runners; their respective gender and racial ancestry. Europe is no stranger to female heads-of-state. Before the rise of democracy female monarchs fitted well into the status quo, and notable elected officials like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel leaves less room for the gender-politics that have thus far existed in the United States around the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

To my knowledge no state in Europe can claim a political head of state that might be considered a visible racial minority, that is, looking noticeably different from the majority of their electorate. Partly for this reason, perhaps, Hillary Clinton seems so much more “electable” by European standards than her young black adversary. I have been asked countless times since my arrival in London over a month ago, by nationals of a half dozen countries, about the feasibility of Barack Obama winning the presidency even if he does with the Democratic nomination. “Yes, but can he win?” they ask skeptically, almost sadly, like wondering if their daughter is old enough to wear make-up. Their meaning is clear: Is the United States far enough removed from the structural racism of its past to elect a black president? Are we “ready”?

Yes, a thousand times yes. The question itself may reflect a European bias towards heads of state of non-European ancestry, it also goes to show the abysmal reputation of race relations the United States has in the eyes of the international community. The U.S. has a long ways to go in terms of race relations, but whether Europe (yes, you too Britain) realizes it or not, the “average American” is not the racist they once were, and the country is ready for a black president in the same way the Vatican is ready for a black Pope. While it does break precedent, most Americans would agree the time is in fact long overdue. Even in those states that offer very little in the way of ethnic diversity, polls -both journalistic and official political tallies- indicate race is not a determining factor when choosing a political candidate. As Obama pointed out after winning the Iowa Caucus: “There are not a lot of people in Iowa who look like me”, and the results showed that it didn’t matter. The racism of the average contemporary American, like school-shootings, cowboy hats, and the O.C., exist more in the imagination of Europeans than in the reality of the United States.

Barack Obama’s victory in that rural mid-western state may be seen as an answer to the skeptics that doubt his appeal across a nation not historically known for its racial harmony. The same ought to be said of the gender of Hillary Clinton. According to author and political analyst Naomi Wolf after Clinton’s third-place finish in Iowa, “None of the focus groups indicate that people are snubbing her because she is a woman but because of a deficit in how she is projecting leadership.”

I do not wish to imply I believe that there are not people who will not vote for a candidate based upon gender, or based upon race; I am an impractically idealistic person but to a point. It should be said without contention that every population has its bigots and fools, and the population of the United States, per its reputation, is no exception to this rule. But I will not believe that the percentage of people who meet this definition is enough to alter the outcome of a national election. Mainstream American society would not reason that gender or race have any impact on presidential performance. Therefore, whatever its “symbolic” value, the colour or gender of the President ought to be literally of zero significance when determining whether they are right for the job, as it has zero significance of their ability to do the job.

Unfortunately, such misguided criteria has the power to shape elections, though not in the way most fear. I speak of a sort of “positive bias”: voting for a candidate based upon criteria of personal identity. The results from the New Hampshire primary indicate that among women Clinton had a thirteen-point advantage in a state she won by only three points. It is a natural and understandable desire to look to something so simple, so plainly observable, as the race or gender of a candidate in hopes that a common bond will somehow herald in needed reforms for one group or another.

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez demonstrated quite clearly that the personal identity of a political figure may have very little to do with the decisions they make: cheats and liars may be women as well as men, racial minorities as well as racial majorities. Nor does it necessarily reflect the righting of wrongs suffered by any particular group so represented: the lot of Hispanic Americans was not improved despite the token gesture of appointing a (grossly corrupt) Hispanic American to high political office. The same must be considered for the gender of Clinton and the race of Obama. Though I may be just another young idealist, I affirm that a voting public ought to look towards what a candidate does, not what they are; to the message, not the messenger. To do otherwise is to blind oneself with false impressions.

The events of the last week have made this yet more difficult. Hillary Clinton has been accused of minimizing the accomplishments of Martin Luther King by commenting that it was not until President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that some of King’s ambitions were realized. This prompted attacks from the Obama camp (though not Barack Obama personally) and the all-so predictable pettiness ensued, with the two candidates attempting, no doubt for image’s sake, to stay above the fray.

Though I myself am not a particular fan of Hillary Clinton, to insinuate that she is a racist, or that she does not fully value the work of this momentous historical figure, is patently absurd. Like the famous “Dean Scream” of 2004, the media and political hype-artists are creating a circus where there should be a symphony, farce where there should be philosophy. It seems that to hope that race and gender would play a minimal role at least among the candidates themselves would be asking too much, and the inevitable nastiness on the issues of personal identity seem at last to have revealed themselves.

With the exhibition of such behaviour we are reminded that on those issues that really matter, neither Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton are “firsts”, and they certainly will not be the lasts. At the end of the day, the realities of our modern political process generate more buzz words, more fake smiles, more images of handsome men (and women) in fashionable clothing looking up and out with that perfect “I’m-ready-to-lead” expression and posture as if the image was crafted by Leni Riefenstahl herself. Candidates spray-painted and packaged ready-to-purchase, both men and women, white and black: the personal identity of the candidate, once more, does not matter.

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This post was written by Richard Maidu

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