For months we have been bombarded with increasingly
amusing analysis regarding the identity politics at
play this presidential election. I say amusing because
the headlines and articles have featured questions
ranging from the inane -- "Is Barack Obama black
enough?" -- to the overly simplistic -- "How will black
women voters be able to decide who to vote for when
faced with both a black and a female candidate?." In
fact I have been holding my breath and waiting for the
article titled, "Left Handed voters from the South who
know black females, find themselves torn between
loyalty to left handed candidate or staying true to
their Southern Roots."
Yes I am being sarcastic but you get my point.
I was reminded of the complexities of analyzing
identity politics when I came across the results of
Lifetime Television's recent poll of female voters.
One of the poll's most significant findings is that
"Hillary Clinton was the only candidate who registered
a significant net change in public opinion since
January: 26% of women surveyed said they like her less
now compared to just 15% who said they like her more."
While a lot has been made of the historic nature (and
novelty) of the diversity of the two leading
Democratic candidates in this election, a lot has also
been made of the expectation that their candidacy
would translate into automatic support among the
communities they represent. The thinking has gone
something like this: Wouldn't every black American
welcome the opportunity to vote for a highly educated,
(and let's not forget as Sen. Biden reminded us
"articulate") candidate like Barack Obama? And
wouldn't every woman jump at the opportunity to help
our country finally make history (long after countries
like England and even Pakistan already have) by
electing Hillary Clinton its first female president?
Regardless of whether you support them or not, one
thing that can be said for both candidates Clinton and
Obama is that they are two incredibly smart, capable
people. (Heck, let's admit it. They are likely smarter
than most of us -- which is exactly how a president
But traditional identity politics are becoming,
increasingly, a thing of the past. In the 1960s it
made a whole lot of sense for someone like me to vote
for someone else who looks like me, for absolutely no
other reason than the fact that he or she did. Because
at the very least I could be assured that they would
believe that I should have the right to vote for them
regardless of my skin color or gender. Today the
stakes are not nearly as clear-cut. While debates
about the morning after pill or affirmative action
remain important, they are still less likely to evoke
the emotions that debates over segregation and Roe v.
Wade did. Furthermore, today it is much less likely
that just because someone looks like you they are
going to agree with your fundamental politics. An
example? Two words: Clarence Thomas.
Which brings me back to another common mistake people
make when attempting to make broad generalizations
about identity politics, and the role that race and
gender play in them.
While much has been written about the role that race
and racial innuendo have played in Sen. Obama's
candidacy, much more has been written about the role
that sexism has allegedly played in Sen. Clinton's. From claims of
overzealousness by male Obama supporters, to claims of
bias in the media (as confirmed by the media authority
known as Saturday Night Live) a number of Clinton
supporters have argued, and she herself has inferred,
that the barbs she has faced are rooted in the fact
that she is a woman. What they all seem to have
forgotten is that she is not just any woman.
While no one will ever claim that chants of "Iron my
shirt" are anything but the sexist rants of a raving
misogynist who should be deplored, denounced, (if not
tarred and feathered) accordingly, this does not mean
that the majority of anti-Hillary sentiment is steeped
in sexism. The reality is that Hillary Clinton was
viewed as polarizing by a number of men and women long before
she ever ran for president. The reasons why vary. Yes
some view her as cold and calculating. While others
consider her untrustworthy -- a perception sniper-gate
didn't exactly help eradicate. Maybe it all dates back
to the infamous cookie comment.
Frankly, as someone who grew up admiring her (and yes
in the interest of full disclosure I interned for her
first campaign) I never really got why so many people
didn't like her. Part of me wonders if it's just
because she's not as naturally charming and
charismatic as her husband. But how many of us are?
Ultimately the reason why some people perceive Hillary
Clinton as polarizing is much less important than the
fact that they do. This means that having a serious
and accurate discussion of the role that sexism has
played in the perception voters have of her, and of
her treatment in the media is virtually impossible. It
would be like trying to have a serious discussion
about race in America through the prism of how many
White Americans voted for Al Sharpton when he ran for
president, and how the media covered his candidacy.
That would be ridiculous because everyone knows that
there are plenty of people -- including black people -- who
don't like Al Sharpton, will never like Al Sharpton,
will never vote for Al Sharpton and it's not because
he's black. It's because he comes with a certain
amount of history and a certain amount of baggage. And
while we all have baggage, there's a difference
between those who have carry-on luggage and those
carrying an entire suitcase or two.
Sharpton is packing a couple of steamer trunks. So is
Like it or not she's not just any woman.