Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think. ~Ursula Le Guin
My first experiences with electoral politics occurred in mock-elections that were held in class during my elementary school years. The first such occasion, I supported Michael Dukakis, though only because I “liked his name,” as I had told the classroom, provoking unexpected laughs from my first grade peers (my best jokes were always unintentional at the time). On the next classroom election, this time held in a different school, I cast my vote for Bill Clinton, in this case because I was told that he cared about the environment. Sorry, George H.W.
If this sounds like a cute anecdote about beginnings of a life as a consistent liberal democratic voter, it isn’t. Throughout most of adolescent life, I hated the Clinton administration. I’m not entirely sure I can articulate why, but as someone who toggled through a number of partially-informed ideological phases all throughout high school—revolutionary socialist, libertarian, Mormon, anarchist, nihilist, pseudo-pagan—hating the Clintons may have been the only consistent point of view I held throughout the 90’s. Whether I was reading everything I could about the Black Panthers and Mumia Abu-Jamal, or playing Black Flag’s My War repeatedly in between right-wing AM radio shows and deciding that racism and hate were another way to be punk rock (as long as you didn’t take it seriously—a viewpoint that inevitably led to an obsession with bands like Anal Cunt), I was always of the opinion that the President and everyone who supported him were evil, morally-corrupt phonies, representing, I suppose, everything that frustrated me about public education and living in the suburbs at the time.
Naturally, I was a Nader supporter during the 2000 elections, and cast my first vote ever for Ralph at the age of 18. I have no regrets about this—Gore won the electorates of Washington state, after all—though my feelings about politics have, (at least I think) matured a bit since then. I still don’t care much for the Clintons and the venture capitalist political dynasty that they have been establishing for themselves (I had reserved judgement in this respect on Chelsea until more recently), though I don’t have the emotional capacity to hate them the way I had before. Though my preference would be for Hillary to lose the democratic primary against Bernie, for a number of reasons, I’m not personally angry that she’s trying to win. Still, I understand why people are so polemically engaged in this election. I’m also not insensitive to the fact that some people perceive aggressive criticism of Clinton, particularly coming from liberals, as, at least on some level, coming from an aversion to women in power.
What I’m trying to lead in to is something that is broader than electoral politics, though it’s connection to our representative political system runs fairly deep. The notion of identity has always been important in secular society, of course, but it seems to have gotten more ubiquitous and less informal as of late. Since the election season of 2008—the first time it seemed possible that a non-white or non-male might become leader of the “free world”—our awareness of identity seems to have been extending into more and more avenues of our social existence. What had always been there under the surface, creeping behind the psychological manipulations of TV ads and the informal behavior patterns of daily life, had been forced above ground like earthworms in a rainstorm. A defining moment of the ’08 primary race was Senator Clinton’s statement that “hard-working Americans, white Americans,” made her more electable than Obama. These sorts of comments seemed to emerge spontaneously as a response to the first President of color, and have in some ways characterized much of the political landscape since then. Eight years later, the leading GOP candidate is re-tweeting Klansmen and promising mass-deportations of undesired ethnicities and religious groups.
This is one of the tragic, unexpected outcomes of Obama’s presidency. When he was first elected I had the sense that his would be very much like a Clinton administration: adopting conservative policies, maybe occasionally delivering an airstrike in Iraq, though not being quite as bad as the last guy in office. The only silver lining, in my mind, was the symbolic fact of his multicultural background. I wasn’t one of the people who thought, from up on my perch of affected colorblindness, that having a black American president was completely trivial. As we near the end of his second term, I’m not so sure: not only has there been no economic improvement of African Americans during Obama’s two terms, things have gotten worse. This may not be the President’s fault—in spite of the emphasis presidential candidates place on “the economy, stupid,” the executive branch, technically, doesn’t have any direct role in the economy—but it should give us a pretty clear sense of the actual impact “black faces in high places” has on the black community.
What’s interesting is that even those apologizing for Obama’s less-defensible policies and positions will make the argument that his skin color has prevented him from being the diplomacy-loving liberal Democrat we all voted for. Evidently, if this country were less racist, he would have been a much more effective, more progressive president. This reasoning would seem to place the US constituent in a double-bind: we are expected to support a POTUS of color because it represents, in-and-of-itself, progress, yet to expect any actual progress from him would be to ignore the structural disadvantages that a black POTUS inherently faces. It would seem, ultimately, that Obama’s promotion of the TPP is our fault, collectively, or at least is our comeuppance for the centuries of slavery and decades of Jim Crow.
This identical argument has been used to justify Secretary Clinton’s reactionary positions and troubling associations. A writer for NY Mag sighed: “A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie.” Courtney Enlow, another think-piece author stipulated, in all caps for emphasis, (not that there’s anything wrong with that?) that Hillary can’t help but be part of the establishment:
A WOMAN DOESN’T GET THE FUCKING OPTION *NOT* TO PLAY THE GAME…FOR HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, FOR A WOMAN, SHE HAS HAD NO OTHER CHOICE.
I don’t want to judge these arguments too harshly, because they seem to be coming from a personal place. Understandably, Clinton is a figure in which many women are able to project their own experiences and frustrations of living in a male-driven society. But these arguments seem to lead to a bundle of contradictions. It would seem that Clinton is the best candidate because of her pragmatism and connection to the establishment, and she would be a better candidate if only she weren’t born a woman. She is the only electable candidate, and she’d be more open or likable if it weren’t for the constant, unfair scrutiny placed upon her, as a woman. As Matt Bruenig pointed out, “to say Clinton is electable is also to say that sexism is not that big of an impediment to being a good politician that appeals to voters. Conversely, to say that sexism is a big impediment to being a good politician is to say Clinton is not that electable.” This line of thinking, based on the organizing of people into categories of association, leads to these kinds of contortions because they are perhaps too one-dimensional to adequately explain the broad experiences of people.
The assumption that people don’t like Hillary because she’s a woman is probably about as true as the assumption that people support her because she’s a woman. Ultimately, I don’t think either is completely true; more likely, the qualities that people like or dislike about her are augmented by her gender. The right-wingers who support the sexist, racist Donald Trump appreciated the same hubristic, shooting-from-the-hip qualities in Sarah Palin back in ’08. Liberals hated her for those same reasons. Not to say that the ways that nonwhite, non-male public figures are treated is immaterial; I’m just not sure that the experiences of elite figures is meaningfully connected with the experiences of us common folk. The Trump supporter who thinks Obama is a “mongrel” may, in fact, have a good relationship with a black neighbor or coworker; alternately, a male politician who sleeps with his aids may be an advocate for women’s rights in his public life. The personal may be the political, but the impersonal has a much farther reach.