If the 2008 election was all about change, then the 2012 race promises to be a referendum on whether things have actually changed. I'm not only talking about Obama's ability to fulfill his campaign promises of a more prosperous, fairer America. I'm also referring to the fact that the last time we elected a president, the candidates who graced the national stage marked a very visible change from previous campaigns. For the first time in history, race and gender did not default to white and male. Identity took center stage. I'm not old enough to remember all that many election cycles, but I'm confident that 2008 was different.
Some observers, myself included, hoped that the groundbreaking 2008 campaign would alter the political landscape forever. That the political parties could no longer win by continuing to nominate only white men. That women and people of color would be better represented in Congress and in the White House. That the various ways race and gender intersect in our society would make for riveting cable-news programming and dinner-table conversation.
It's far too early to predict exactly how the narratives of race and gender will unfold over the course of what will be a two-year campaign. But if the past two years are any indication, 2008 was far from the watershed we'd hoped it would be.
At first, it seemed as if a productive dialogue about race and gender would continue. There were shades of the presidential race when, in 2009, Obama had to make his first nomination to the Supreme Court. Would he choose a woman? A person of color? The answer, of course, was both. Thanks to Senate Republicans, Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings were less about her legal background and her judicial philosophy than they were about her "mean" temperament and comments she'd made about being a Latina. We were still talking about identity, but it was a far cry from the rational dialogue Obama called for in his much-lauded speech about race.
By the 2010 midterm elections, the national conversation about race and gender had taken a turn for the weird. Republicans' favorite campaign narrative was that of the "mama grizzly" -- a vaguely feminist label that Sarah Palin first applied to herself and later to every conservative, pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-tax woman in the running. Just two years after she and other conservative commentators turned up their noses at the "identity politics" of the 2008 Democratic primary, blogger Michelle Malkin touted the "founding mothers" of the Tea Party movement. Liberals, especially feminists, were appalled. Was this all that the historic 2008 primary campaign had wrought: pseudo-feminist talking points from candidates whose policies were decidedly anti-woman? We were still talking about race and gender. But about racial and gender equality? Not so much.
Many of the mama grizzlies didn't make it past their primaries -- and at the end of the campaign, women's representation in Congress actually fell.
It's not surprising that this was the outcome of an election where Republicans were the runaway winners. While neither party can claim to really represent America's diversity, Democrats have a much better track record. This is the party that gave us the first woman on a presidential ticket, the first black president, the first female speaker of the House. These achievements are partly a consequence of the Democrats' explicit commitment to affirmative action and other policies that seek to redress historic injustices. The Dems' numbers are still nothing to brag about, but at least when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama talked about gender and race, they weren't also scoffing at policies designed to bring about more equality.
The real opportunity for Democrats as they head into 2012 -- when they will have a clear shot at fielding new candidates for swing seats that Republicans won in 2010 -- is to show that they did learn the lessons of 2008. And not just the superficial lessons that conservatives have managed to pick up on: that voters are excited by candidates who make their race and gender part of their campaign narrative. The question is whether the Democrats can take 2008 a step further, especially down the ticket, by nominating (and really getting behind) a diverse pool of candidates and elevating them to positions of power once they win.
If the last presidential election took discussions of race and gender out of the cloistered academe and made them regular op-ed fare and stump-speech fodder, then the best-case scenario for 2012 is that candidates don't just talk about these issues but pledge to advance policies that make racial and gender equality a reality. We'll get there. One election at a time.