Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Why not Hillary Clinton?

The Nation has published what I think is one of the most reasoned and thoughtful discussions of sexism and racism in the 2008 presidential election: "Race to the Bottom" by Betsey Reed.

In the course of Hillary Clinton's historic run for the White House--in which she became the first woman ever to prevail in a state-level presidential primary contest--she has been likened to Lorena Bobbitt (by Tucker Carlson); a "hellish housewife" (Leon Wieseltier); and described as "witchy," a "she-devil," "anti-male" and "a stripteaser" (Chris Matthews). Her loud and hearty laugh has been labeled "the cackle," her voice compared to "fingernails on a blackboard" and her posture said to look "like everyone's first wife standing outside a probate court." As one Fox News commentator put it, "When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, Take out the garbage." Rush Limbaugh, who has no qualms about subjecting audiences to the spectacle of his own bloated physique, asked his listeners, "Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?" Perhaps most damaging of all to her electoral prospects, very early on Clinton was deemed "unlikable." Although other factors also account for that dislike, much of the venom she elicits ("Iron my shirt," "How do we beat the bitch?") is clearly gender-specific.

This is where I stand united with my feminist sisters. The 2008 presidential election has dragged into the light the loathsome misogyny that women have always known still existed. I was always smart and cynical enough to know that sexism (and a whole bunch of other "isms") abound in the media boys club, but even I have been shocked at the nakedness of the smirking, doughy, frat-boy talking head gender bias. (Matthews, Carlson, Morning Joe, I am looking at you.)

I have always thought that most virulent Hillary hatred was driven by her gender. My very first vote in a presidential election was cast for Bill Clinton and I admired his wife as an outspoken, smart First Lady. Hillary Rodham Clinton was a different kind of first spouse--not all adoring gazes and sequins like Nancy Reagan. I liked her. And I knew exactly where those complaints about her not being a "cooking baking" woman and her using a hyphenated name came from. The same place charges that Michelle Obama is angry and mouthy come from. America likes its women submissive or sexed-up. Smart and confident females make us uncomfortable.

Thus, feminist opposition to the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton has morphed into support for the candidate herself. In February Robin Morgan published a reprise of her famous 1970 essay "Goodbye to All That," exhorting women to embrace Clinton as a protest against "sociopathic woman-hating." In the Los Angeles Times, Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake, wrote of older female voters fed up with the media's dismissive treatment of Clinton: "There are signs the slumbering beast may be waking up--and she's not in a happy mood." A recent New York magazine article titled "The Feminist Reawakening: Hillary Clinton and the Fourth Wave" described how "it isn't just the 'hot flash cohort'...that broke for Clinton. Women in their thirties and forties--at once discomfited and galvanized by the sexist tenor of the media coverage, by the nastiness of the watercooler talk in the office, by the realization that the once-foregone conclusion of Clinton-as-president might never come to be--did too."

And this is where I depart from many pro-Clinton feminists. That Clinton is the victim of sexism is not a reason to support her. (Just as the fact that Obama faces racism is no reason to support him.)

Democrats were blessed with a strong field of presidential candidates this time around. I could have been happy with any of them as nominee. At first, it was John Edwards' populism that spoke strongest to me. I supported him, though I was impressed by Barack Obama, who I voted for as my state and federal representative when I lived in Chicago. When Edwards suspended his campaign, I was ready to wholeheartedly back Barack Obama. I view him as more progressive than Hillary Clinton, who can be disturbingly centrist. I think he is less galvanizing to anti-Democratic forces. (Saying the name Clinton is like waving a red flag in front of a Republican.) He has far less political baggage. He is amazingly inspiring and has the ability to bring the country together--and, yes, that is important. He represents a new, more reasoned way of doing things; for instance, I like that he is willing to negotiate with countries before "obliterating" them. And, most of all, despite the irritating spin of the Clinton campaign, he has more legislative experience than Hillary Clinton, has been more accomplished in the U.S. Senate and has a record of getting things done. (Sorry, I just don't buy the 35 years of experience argument. Being First Lady is not a stepping stone to the White House.)

All that said, I began this campaign eager to vote for whoever was the Democratic nominee. But...

Yet what is most troubling--and what has the most serious implications for the feminist movement--is that the Clinton campaign has used her rival's race against him. In the name of demonstrating her superior "electability," she and her surrogates have invoked the racist and sexist playbook of the right--in which swaggering macho cowboys are entrusted to defend the country--seeking to define Obama as too black, too foreign, too different to be President at a moment of high anxiety about national security. This subtly but distinctly racialized political strategy did not create the media feeding frenzy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright that is now weighing Obama down, but it has positioned Clinton to take advantage of the opportunities the controversy has presented. And the Clinton campaign's use of this strategy has many nonwhite and nonmainstream feminists crying foul.

While 2008 was never going to be a "postracial" campaign, the early racially tinged skirmishes between the Clinton and Obama camps seemed containable. There were references by Clinton campaign officials to Obama's admission of past drug use; the tit-for-tat over Clinton's tone-deaf but historically accurate statement that Martin Luther King needed Lyndon Johnson for his civil rights dreams to be realized; and insinuations that Obama is a token, unqualified, overreaching--that he's all pretty words, "fairy tales" and no action.

This is the clearest explanation I have read of what troubles me about the Clinton campaign. It is that Hillary Clinton--a woman, herself marginalized, a member of the Democratic Party, the party of equality and progressive values--is willing to use Obama's racial identity against him to win. Oh, I have other problems with Clinton's policies and campaign performance, but I can overcome them. It is the race-baiting that I find truly unconscionable and immoral. It is this that is the clearest sign to me that Hillary Clinton represents the worst politics of old: the southern strategy has been around for a despairingly long time. It is this that has moved me to declare what I once thought unthinkable--that I will not vote for the Democratic presidential nominee if it is Hillary Clinton.

I understand that Hillary Clinton is a capable candidate--far better than John McCain. I understand that her platform is not greatly removed from Obama's. I am not being petulant, because Clinton is my candidate's opponent. I am following principles that will not allow me to support someone that I view as morally bankrupt. I feel strongly about this. And I have to admit, I have a hard time forgiving feminists who are so eager to see a woman in the White House that they would condone race bias. I guess some folks think it is okay to step on some heads on the way to the mountain top. But those are not the principles I believe in and if those are the principles of the Democratic party, then it has surely abandoned me.

Read the full Nation article here. (Folks, The Nation is a wonderful publication that is NOT corporate owned. If you are looking for good, progressive, fact-based journalism, get a subscription to this weekly magazine. It is on my must-read list every week.)

UPDATE: Racialicious also tackled The Nation article here.


MacDaddy said...

What I liked about Reed's article it that, in being critical of Sen. Clinton and her surrogates playing the race card (especially her husband), it did not ignore the fact that she has faced quite a bit of sexism too. She wasn't making an excuse for Sen. Clinton but rather acknowledging sexism as something she's had to deal with.

Good post.

Symphony said...

Good post Tami. Voting your conscience should not be seen as cutting off your nose....

My belief is this. If someone can't be trusted it doesn't matter how fabulous their policies may be b/c they will forget about you if they have to. And for someone less forgiving than Black voters.

Stop forgiving, stop allowing them to give the 'I got you next time' because that time never comes.

Thats why voting based on someone truth worthiness is not the same as putting 'moral issues' before one's political interests.

CVT said...

The problem is, if you were to forgo Clinton for McCain, you'd be putting a man in office who said, outright, "I hate all gooks, and I always will." I'm not sure, but that seems a bit racist. Perhaps, though, we'd rather have our racism blatant and obvious, as opposed to subtle and devious (and I'm serious here).

I don't know.

Tami said...


Be assured, I would NOT ever vote for John McCain. I WOULD vote for a progessive, third party candidate that reflects my values.


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