Shanna Carlson, Lectrice d'anglais à l'ENS LSH
The year of the Bee (Basically Everyone's Electable): so wrote a journalist for Times Newspapers on December 6, 2007, regarding the United States presidential campaigns presently underway. Referring to the levels of diversity on both the Democratic and the Republican fronts, the Times journalist concludes, It used to be said that American politics was the preserve of the Wasps (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). The year 2008, by contrast, is set to prove the year of the Bee (Basically Everyone's Electable).
For most Americans, the refrain is already familiar: a mere 10 years ago, a woman and an African American man both as possible frontrunners for the President of the United States would have been unthinkable. And yet the polls are consistent: as far as Democrats are concerned, either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama has the makings of a candidate who could win the election. Each has unique star appeal, both have campaign money, and as for their stances on the hot button issues (health insurance, global warming, the war in Iraq)... well, their positions are not really that radically different (see the Issues section on their websites: http://www.hillaryclinton.com and http://www.barackobama.com). Both candidates have a plan out of Iraq, only differing on how. On this issue, the Clinton camp focuses on the former first lady's experience, while Obama's side is keen to remind he has been a consistent, principled and vocal opponent of the war in Iraq. Both candidates are interested in immigration reform, both citing the goal of family reunification, with Clinton's site going so far as to state, She offered an amendment to make family reunification the guiding principle of our immigration system. Both put the concerns of the middle class at the top of their lists of economic issues; both hope to revolutionize American health care.
In fact, Sheldon Alberts summarized the Democratic situation for The National Post on Nov. 30, 2007, as slightly anti-climactic, writing,
When the U.S. presidential race began in earnest last winter, it seemed inevitable the Democrat campaign would be the one Americans couldn't ignore, the one so filled with history-making possibility it would hold political junkies in rapt attention.
On paper, the match-up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has it all. A former first lady with a philandering husband versus a young black senator whose rhetorical grace, at its best, is reminiscent of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Kr. One would break the White house's gender barrier; the other its colour barrier.
Despite the gender and ethnic diversity (Bill Richardson is the first Hispanic presidential candidate) in the Democratic field, there is an overwhelming sameness of message. Candidates may differ on detail, but they are all running against the Bush legacy and the war in Iraq, and for a "change" in leadership.
Anti-climactic or not, the situation remains an unprecedented one in the United States, a fact which marks the U.S. as rather behind the times. The situation's lack of precedence means, in part, that issues such as the gender card and whether Obama is black enough have also surfaced as media refrains. But following the paper trail of U.S. media treatments of Clinton and Obama suggests that hornets' nests lurk beyond glib reportage, knotting around issues ranging from the organizational efficacy of the term race to the demands and double-standards of succeeding as a woman. What after all does it mean to be black enough; who gets to decide? On the other hand, what does it mean that something called the gender card is on the table? What can be deduced from the striking dissymmetry between the types of rhetoric - the way gender has been qualified as a card, a sort of political Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card, while blackness has been qualified as not only quantifiable but desirable?
The National Organization for Women's (NOW) Political Action Campaign announced its intention to endorse Clinton on March 28, 2007, reporting on Clinton's long history of support for women's empowerment... her public record is a testimony to her leadership on issues important to women in the U.S. and around the globe. She has eloquently articulated the need for full economic, political and social equality for women in every institution of society, taking action throughout her career as a lawyer, community leader, First Lady, Senator and candidate for the presidency to advance the civil and human rights of women and girls. Not many days before, NOW had already posted a story regarding media treatment of Clinton as, at times, appallingly sexist. NOW author Katie Heimer outlines her understanding of the bind politicians who are also women can find themselves in:
Female politicians have long struggled with a double standard: while being criticized or perceived as soft or weak if they come across as too traditionally feminine, they are also accused of being too hard or strident if they come off as assertive and powerful traditionally masculine attributes. While these impossible standards are being subverted by successful women politicians such as new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, many journalists don't seem to know what to do with strong women. These professionals, who should know better, often revert to old-fashioned sexism in describing women leaders (e.g. denigrating women for qualities, like aggressiveness or ambition, that are seen as positive attributes in men), scrutinizing their appearance, and concentrating on their roles as dutiful wives and mothers to the exclusion of their political accomplishments and records on the issues.
The question is, how does Clinton respond to the possible bind described by Heimer? Does she engage in debates about her gender and its relevance to the campaign, or has she tended to leave the subject alone? In a November 25, 2007 article in the Buffalo News by Jerry Zremski, she is quoted as saying, "I am inspired every day by the people I meet on the campaign trail -- you know, the mothers and fathers who lift their little girls on their shoulders or lean over and whisper in their ears, 'See, honey, in America, you can be anything you want to be,' " she said. "We're ready to shatter that highest glass ceiling." Elsewhere, the spin is less motivational and more critical: Judith Davidoff of The Capital Times summarizes the situation regarding Clinton's first alleged pulling of the gender card while on the presidential campaign trail:
During the Oct. 30 Democratic presidential candidate debate it appeared to some that Clinton's male opponents were singling her out for harsh criticism. After the debate, the Clinton campaign put together a video for the Web entitled The Politics of Pile On. The 34-second film consists solely of debate outtakes featuring Clinton's rivals addressing her by name, set against Mozart's soaring Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. Clinton herself closes out the video with an ambiguous, I seem to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that's for a reason. A couple of days later, in a speech at Wellesley College, Clinton's alma mater, Clinton followed up on the theme, saying, In so many ways, this all-women's college prepared me to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics. When asked about these comments in a subsequent debate in Las Vegas, though, Clinton said she was just trying to play the winning card, not the gender card. I understand very well that people are not attacking me because I'm a woman. They're attacking me because I'm ahead. (The Capital Times, Nov. 29, 2007)
Some African American women voters may be giving particularly measured thought to an intersection of questions concerning race, gender, affinities and which ones count, and the short-term and long-term future. Jacobs reports on the Atlanta meeting at Spelman College, quoting two attendees' exchange: At Spelman that evening, Shayna Atkins, 19, cut to the chase, pointedly asking her peers: Would you feel like a sellout if you didn't vote for Barack?' Maybe if it were 1963,' shot back Marquise Alston, another 19-year-old who is a Clinton supporter. Jacobs also reports on more large-scale public opinion, writing, National polls, however, indicate that black women are leaning toward Clinton. While black men are more evenly split between the two candidates, black women appear to support Clinton in far greater numbers. In an October CNN poll of registered Democrats, 68 percent of black women said they would vote for Clinton, who has enjoyed strong support from women overall (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 29, 2007; the article is now longer freely available on the newspapers website, but you can read a copy of it on Pearl's Window).
Some argue that Clinton may be in a position to address issues of concern to African Americans more directly than Obama. Nikole Hannah-Jones gathered opinions from political experts last summer in The Oregonian, reporting,
In some respects Obama is in a box, says Michael K. Fauntroy, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University. He can only be as black as white America will allow him to be. He cannot be too overtly black because that will make uncomfortable a number of progressive whites who have supported his campaign. So he has a very difficult balancing act.
As a result, Clinton is freer than Obama to speak about issues at the heart of black America without scaring off white voters, Fauntroy says. Clinton launched her session at the black journalists' meeting with a speech about the high incarceration rates of African American men and what she intended to do to ensure they get a fair shake.
Obama, on the other hand, danced around questions of how he'd address black concerns. Chateauvert, the Maryland professor, says many African Americans think if a black president cannot feel free to speak to and work on issues important to them, then what good is a black president?
In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article dated August 14, 2007, Tony Norman quotes Obama saying,
As president, obviously the day I'm inaugurated, the racial dynamics in this country will change to some degree, he said in response to one of CBS national correspondent Byron Pitts' questions during their 20-minute interview. You've got Michelle as First Lady and Malia and Sasha running around on the South Lawn. That changes how white children think about black children, and it changes how black children think about black children.
Obama speaks here to racial dynamics, without questioning whether or not he is black enough. He testifies to the powerful impact of the image on not only public perception but on the cultural imaginary, a society's horizon of limits and possibilities. And yet, as Hannah-Jones outlined above, his platforms are not concentrated on the situation of African American citizens. Some of his supporters perceive this as a positive sign. Patricia Wilson-Smith is the creator of the website blackwomenforobama.org and she writes: The reason we've never been close to running that truly feasible black candidate is because we've never had one who was interested in governing the entire nation, and not just championing the cause of blacks.
Gary Kamiya writes that in the U.S. today, race is being challenged as an organizing category. From the decade of the Rodney King riots, to a quick amnesia about the inequities exposed by Hurricane Katrina, Kamiya suggests that today Blacks reject racial solidarity (Is race dying? Chicago Sun-Times, December 2, 2007). Kamiya highlights the peculiar moment with respect to Obama's bid for presidential election, writing,
The white reaction to Barack Obama shows that the old I'm guilty, you're innocent, everyone-bow-and-return-to-their-corner two-step is no longer useful. Obama's race is still a factor, of course, but it is far less of one than anyone could have imagined even 10 years ago. Many whites are not just ready but eager to embrace a black man who has opted out of that worn-out racial dance. Yet the crisis of the black underclass rages on, and America seems less interested than ever in tackling it. And until that crisis is addressed, it will continue to cast a shadow over all black-white relations.
For some, the choice between a Caucasian woman and an African American man for the Democrat ticket will come down not to questions of affinity, identification or the spirit of a particularized transformation. Rather, it will be based on practicality, that most stereotypical of so-called American values:
In South Carolina, Obama's skin color has been an unexpected obstacle to winning over African-Americans. Black voters may love Obama, but they don't think white America will ever let a black man win, says the Rev. Charles Bane of New Hope Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C. Just last week, Clinton scored endorsements from dozens of black ministers in the state, where nearly half the likely Democratic primary voters are African-American. Bush's eight years have been tough on us, Bane says. We need relief right now''. (Samuels, Allison and Richard Wolffe, Newsweek, December 10, 2007)
As things heat up as the season of primaries and caucuses draws to a close, Obama's message has a new refrain, and one which voters in South Carolina, at least, really seemed to believe in: if some of the candidates' policies are similar, Obama might insist that the politicking is not, and that itself is one of the main differences that counts, that the United States needs. According to Obama, his is not status quo, business as usual, old-hat politics. In his South Carolina victory speech (January 26, 2008), he insists:
there are real differences between the candidates. We are looking for more than just a change of party in the White House. We're looking to fundamentally change the status quo in Washington - a status quo that extends beyond any particular party. And right now, that status quo is fighting back with everything it's got; with the same old tactics that divide and distract us from solving the problems people face, whether those problems are health care they can't afford or a mortgage they cannot pay.
Clinton, however, might balk at any suggestion of being grouped with the status quo:
I think it's imperative that this election be about the real concerns of the American people. As Nancy said, some people think politics is a game. It's exciting; you can have rallies like this. We have so many people outside and we are moving them into an overflow room and that's really a great way of demonstrating involvement and participation. But at the end, it's about are people better off when we stopped than when we started. Does some child who didn't have health care before have it now? Does some hard working man, who has given his all to his job and has seen it moved offshore, feel like he has any hope left? Some working woman who gets up at the crack of dawn and works as hard as she can, ever get equal pay for equal work? These are the kinds of concerns and issues that I care about. (http://www.hillaryclinton.com/news/speech/view/?id=5547)
For the moment, we'll have to wait for Super Tuesday to see just how Democrat supporters will respond.