The Identity Politics Election

We began this election with a female candidate who didn't want to seem too feminine, and a black candidate who avoided talking about race. Almost two years later, it is almost as if we are living in a different America. Obama's speech on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, race, and class was widely hailed as the most meaningful of the campaign season. Hillary Clinton has emerged as a feminist icon beloved by the same women who crinkled their nose at her awkward missteps as first lady. Rachel Maddow and Campbell Brown are the hottest pundits on TV, not because they're blonde or big-breasted, but because they've spoken honestly about the politics of identity. Black voters, initially thought to be skeptical of Obama's presidential ambitions, turned out to vote in record numbers, embracing the biracial candidate as a successor to the heroes of the civil-rights movement. Not everything has changed -- but a lot has.

The Sunday evening before Election Day, Hillary Clinton spoke to an overflow crowd of almost 1,000 at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Obama wasn't there, but the crowd, predominantly female, was still rabidly excited. Leslie Zenna did a brisk business in unofficial campaign buttons. His biggest seller? "Another middle-aged white woman for Obama." Also for sale was "Another working stiff for Obama" and "Elitists for Obama." A second vendor sold buttons depicting Obama and Martin Luther King Jr., ringed by the words, "A legacy of hope." Also popular was the sparse "Barack Obama: First Black President."

It is almost impossible to imagine the Democratic voters of 2000 or 2004 embracing their race, class, and gender identities as comfortably as they have this year. The left hasn't always gotten identity politics right -- far from it. But at least 20th-century progressivism has a history of taking identity seriously, from the savagery of Jim Crow to the inhumanity of denying women access to birth control and abortion. American conservatism, meanwhile, has always accepted these indignities as long as it can get away with it. But in 2008, the conservative movement upturned its habit of ignoring race and gender inequalities and, instead, embraced identity-politics farce.

Sarah Palin's entry onto the scene was the tipping point. Palin, after all, is practically a liberal parody of Christian conservatism. She spiels family values but has a high school drop-out son and pregnant teenage daughter. She decries "socialism," but her popularity in Alaska is due, in large part, to her success at increasing the annual payment each Alaskan receives for the sale of the state's natural resources. (Palin has even called the system "collective" and "socialist.") She hails "Joe the Plumber" and refers to her own family as "middle class," though the Palins' assets top $1 million. The entire clan was clothed by the RNC in designer fashions worth several times most people's annual salary. Palin even implied regions that support Barack Obama are un-American. Yet her own husband once belonged to a separatist political party hostile to the very idea of a federal government.

With such naked hypocrisy on display, perhaps liberals feel, at long last, ready to come out of the cultural closet. After all, no latte-sipping, bike-riding, urban-dwelling atheist could ever be as ridiculous, it seems, as the stereotypes the Republican Party clung to in the face of defeat. In a way, we have Palin and Plumber Joe to thank for the reinsertion of satire into our politics -- despite the tragic legacy of George W. Bush, despite the two foreign wars we're fighting, despite the financial crisis.

That's not to say that Obama's victory represents a complete recession of identity politics from our national scene -- nor should it. Presidential politics are meaningful, but they don't necessarily represent deep-seated change. The continued dearth of women and people of color in electoral politics is just one identity problem we have yet to solve. With Obama's ascension to the White House, there will be not a single African American serving in the Senate. (Blacks are 13 percent of the American population.) Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, expected to account for one-third of all Americans by 2050. But they have just three representatives in the Senate, all of them male (Mel Martinez, Robert Menendez, and Ken Salazar).

The picture isn't any rosier when it comes to gender. Congress is currently just 16.3 percent female. There are eight female governors out of 50. Vermont's state legislature is the most gender-balanced in the nation, but is only 38.3 percent female. When you stop to remember that half of all people are women, these figures are astonishing.

Nations with parliamentary government, in which parties create candidate lists, have tried to solve such problems by mandating gender balance in legislative bodies. In France, the system is called parité and was enacted in 1999. Parité succeeded in transforming local politics. Almost half of city and town council members are now female, bringing 39,000 new women into politics. Some of them will undoubtedly rise through the ranks, eventually becoming members of the National Assembly or maybe even France's first female president. Parité is popular; almost three-quarters of the French support gender quotas. What's more, the system has boosted progressive public policy. Some far-right local parties folded when they were unable to field female candidates.

Of course, parity laws wouldn't work in more libertarian America, where we expect individuals to succeed largely without systemic help. John McCain, after all, didn't tap Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential slot because he was committed to getting more women involved in politics. Palin was a cynical choice, a symbol of anti-intellectual femininity who appealed most to those voters with little commitment to gender equity. Sixty percent of women, the group McCain hoped Plain would reach, came to view her unfavorably.

Increasing women and people of color's participation in electoral politics more broadly must come through raising awareness about the extent of the problem (that 16.3 percent figure) and, as my colleague Ann Friedman has written, encouraging activists to run for office and mentoring young politicians. The good news is that in most ways, the 2008 presidential election has done wonders for this cause, regardless of how you feel about Obama or the two female firsts.

"I think both Hillary and Palin have been positive," said Marikay Crangle at the GMU rally. "Little girls, they don't know the difference. They just see two women."

What was less positive this year was the way in which the Clinton campaign -- and then the McCain team, following Clinton's lead -- pitted progress on gender against progress on race, contributing to the counterproductive "Oppression Olympics." It started with the Clinton campaign's shameless fan-flaming over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. After journalists received a photo of Obama wearing traditional Somali clothing, the Clinton campaign didn't deny its staff was behind the ploy. And then came the South Carolina primary, during which Bill Clinton implied that a win for Obama would be essentially meaningless because of his high level of support from the state's African Americans. "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in '84 and '88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here," Clinton said.

That's when so many progressives threw their hands up, furious over the implication that black voters were somehow less than. For Marikay Crangle, it was the moment she switched her allegiance from Hillary to Obama.

But Hillary never seemed to get that her feminist bona fides would only be tarnished by her campaign's ham-handed approach to race. In a reflective May 20 interview with The Washington Post, when Clinton knew the nomination would likely slip away, she spoke movingly about global gender oppression. But her takeaway seemed to be that sexism was a more potent social force than racism. "[E]very poll I've seen shows more people would be reluctant to vote for a woman than to vote for an African American, which rarely gets reported on either," she said. "The manifestation of some of the sexism that has gone on in this campaign is somehow more respectable or at least more accepted."

Coming from a woman whose opponent had been variously accused of being a Muslim fundamentalist, terrorist, and Black Power radical, Clinton's ranking of American sexism as worse than American racism was, if nothing else, tin-eared. Why rank at all? But if the experience of running for president as a woman has made Clinton into a more forthright, public feminist, that is a good thing. The evidence suggests it has. When Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky interviewed Clinton in October 2007, she declined to brag about her impeccable record on domestic women's issues, such as putting a hold on President Bush's FDA appointments until over-the-counter access to emergency contraception was ensured. Instead, when asked to list her achievements in the Senate, Clinton focused on foreign policy.

Hillary's feminist supporters always defended choices like that, saying the candidate's first task was to convince Americans she could be as strong of a commander in chief as any man. But as Clinton continued her historic run, she found that being the spokeswoman for working moms, waitresses, and night-shift nurses was more powerful than playing into male conceptions of power. The new Hillary seemed tailor-made for a time of financial crisis. But she emerged only when the primary was all but lost.

What are we left with, then, as the identity-politics election of 2008 comes to a close? We have a Republican Party more committed than ever to a fetishized picture of working-class white maleness and unthreatening womanhood. We have a Democratic Party freshly aware of how difficult it is to look honestly at the history and reality of race and gender -- but also aware of how powerful those forces are. We've elected our first African American president, but we've done more than that. We've opened up a rawer, more meaningful national conversation about identity than we've had since the heyday of the civil-rights and women's lib movements. Race, gender, and their discontents haven't gone away. The fact that we're talking about them again? That's progress.

You may also like