Election 2008: Symbols vs. substance
By Lydia Howell
Issues of race and gender are inevitable -- if largely unmentioned -- elements of the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, given that they are the first “viable” presidential candidates who aren't white men.
John Edwards rhetorically challenges the big corporations, pointing out that their dominance is detrimental to the lives of ordinary people -- the same message that Ralph Nader carried in the previous three elections, voicing what some regard as a taboo: the issue of class.
Sound-bite television doesn't lend itself to deep, complicated national
conversations such as those we should be having on race, gender and class. Horserace reporting erases the crucial issues, and we never hear the candidates positions nor learn of their voting records on those issues.
I think many white men can't understand the visceral longing that people of color and women of all colors have to see themselves reflected in all aspects of American life -- including respected authority, honored leadership and political power.
It's obvious, but we need to overtly recognize, that the historical reality (and the picture we carry in our minds) of the commander in chief is an at least middle aged white man. After all these years, it's not hard to figure out why the Clinton and Obama candidacies thrill many people.
Both of those candidates face difficulties that their white male counterparts
don't: Obama has body guards because he's had death threats, and those threats are made credible by the miserable history of assassinations of African-American leaders. Clinton isn't just criticized on her political agenda; she's attacked
-- especially on-line -- in ways that are both pornographic and violent.
The “Hillary Nutcracker” (where the caricatured Clinton's legs form the
tool) is for sale at a Minneapolis “progressive” shop. I've heard allegedly “progressive” men make grotesque sexual comments about Clinton, rather than simply arguing against her public record.
Another political ugly game is what some progressive academics call “the oppression Olympics.” That's where one asks, “What's worse? Racism
or sexism?” and presumes to answer the question.
Feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, in a recent New York Times op-ed essay, suggested that sexism is a greater barrier to political power than racism.
To get to that conclusions, Steinem ignored the fact that Congress is still overwhelmingly white and a criminal justice system so riddled with racial bias that it incarcerates one in eight African-American men and a growing number of women of color. She ignored grotesque gaps in quality of life measures between people of color and whites.
On the other hand, commentators of color often trivialize the insidious results of gender bias that permeate our culture.
That nasty game is just one more example of how the old-line powers divide and conquer. It doesn't get us one inch closer to race and gender equity. It isn't even a starting place for useful discussion.
John Edwards' economic populism gets a different but equally effective treatment from the power elite. His positions have been largely ignored by a media that avoids talking about them by chanting “class warfare.” That's a catch phrase used in the same way that “conpiracy theory” often is used to dismiss a subject without dealing with the facts. (In fact, there is a class war, and the big money guys have all but entirely won; that's why we have the greatest wealth and income gaps between the richest 5 percent of the population and the rest of us since 1929.
As a lifelong feminist who's also been an anti-racism activist, I wish either Obama or Clinton inspired me.
Both of them must feel they have to walk very carefully. Obama apparently thinks he can't talk directly about how racism continues to shape the lives of people of color lest he be accused of “playing the race card.” It's taken very little for Clinton to be slammed with charges that she's “using her gender” to deflect
rough-and-tumble challenges from male rivals. Husband Bill Clinton's comments about male candidates “piling on” against her lend themselves to that charge.
African-Americans have been almost the only voters the Democratic Party could count on year after year, and they routinely have been taken for granted by the party.
Now black voters apparently are split nearly evenly between Clinton and Obama. This week's blowout over racial comments by both Clintons -- comments obviously aimed at Obama's fairly subtle drawing upon Martin Luther King's “dream” -- revealed the couple's willingness to play “take-no prisoners hardball.” It also exposed how shallow the Clinton's stand on civil rights actually is and always was.
Obama acted with grace under the Clintons' fire. But the fact remains that his soaring speeches have the substance of cotton candy. He is heavy on style and light on substance while Clinton pounds away as though volume alone can prove the case for her “thirty-five years of experience”.
One thing Steinem got right was her statement that no woman would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate if she had Obama's thin resume and lack of experience.
In her 2004 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Carol Moseley Braun -- with a far more substantial portfolio than Obama's – wasn't taken at all seriously. Although Moseley Braun was the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, she didn't get the kind of acclaim Obama is getting on the campaign trail. In fact, she was trivialized in much the same way Rep. Dennis Kucinich has been belittled by the media. Racial insensitivity is apparent in Steinem's failure to mention Moseley Braun.
Edwards has made much of his working-class roots, and one would think the media would find his Algeresque rise to wealth a good story-line. Instead, they've focused on his hair and sneered that his wealth means he can't talk about poverty.
They seem to have forgotten about Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose wealth didn't in any way impede his creation of the New Deal, a set of programs that (along with unions) built a social safety net and allowed the rise of substantial middle class in this country.
It's no small irony that Bill Clinton, who grew up in poverty, has played a major part in turning the Democratic Party over to the control of the corporate elite, colluding with conservatives who have made great progress toward their goal of dismantling the New Deal and tearing down the middle class.
While raising far less money than Obama and Clinton's $100 million each, Edwards has hedge fund backing, including money from Humana, a health care giant that aims to privatize Medicare for its own profit.
That sounds out of tune with the story he tells about his mother fighting cancer and being overwhelmed by insurance forms.
There appears to be little but cosmetic differences between the three front-runners when it comes to health care reform. All three would continue to shovel 25 percent of the money we spend on health care into the pockets of insurance companies, HMOs and Big Pharma, and leave them in control.
At least, Edwards is honest in admitting that after a bit of “reform”, everyone will be required to buy health insurance in the same way that car owners must be insured. I wonder if any constitutional lawyers have considered the implications of legalizing extortion by private corporations.
The same kind of tinkering for show is suggested when it comes to so-called “free trade” agreements.
Dennis Kucinich is the only candidate who vows to withdraw from NAFTA, the WTP and IMF and to negotiate new agreements that don't destroy the Americans' jobs and exploit foreign workers.
How much substance can Obama's message of “hope” or Edwards' promise to address
“the two Americas” have if they evade that issue?
Clinton simply supports her husband's “free trade” policies while promising more tinkering around the edges.
Then there's the U.S. occupation of Iraq and what, of all the candidates, only Dennis Kucinich talks about: the increased militarization of our society.
Edwards has moved farther in his stated opposition to continuing the occupation and has disavowed his vote for the invasion. Now he states he'd have all troops out by the end of 2009, but in September he echoed Obama and Clinton in saying that no firm date could be set. That makes his current stand suspect.
Although African-Americans' opposition to the invasion of Iraq was higher than among whites from the start, and their opposition to the war has continued to escalate – military recruitment among blacks is down by 50 percent -- Obama's plan is identical to Clinton's. While always saying he opposed the invasion, once he came to the Senate, Obama has voted for shoveling hundreds of more billions into war funding.
Gender is perhaps most evident when it comes to the military. A primary argument against electing a woman as commander in chief has been that women aren't tough enough, that they can't be trusted with the nuclear button and wouldn't be capable of waging war.
So, in spite of the exposure of outright lies, forged documents and faked photos, Hillary Clinton stubbornly refuses to say she was wrong to vote for invading Iraq. She's talked as tough as George Bush about Iran, and she voted for the absurd resolution declaring Iran's Republican Guard a terrorist organization, thus helping Bush get closer to attacking Iran.
Not only has Clinton voted for all the war-funding, she worked hard to shut down
progressive Democrats' demand for a time-line for withdrawal.
You seriously have to wonder what a President Clinton would feel she had to do to
prove herself sufficiently warrior-like as the first female president.
The women's movement began with the idea of social transformation; it meant to question every element of society.
Civil rights activists –- in both Martin Luther King and the Black Power manifestations –- aimed to confront white supremacy in every element of American life.
By the 1980s, both movements had been diminished into “piece of the pie” politics. The rise of the extreme political right needed a few “dark faces in high places” and a few women carrying their backlash agenda. George W. Bush (or whomever runs him) has masterfully manipulated aspirations to equality.
The grassroots movements got undercut. Activists of color were subjected to extreme state-sponsored violence and incarceration. Some people of color were allowed to rise and were pointed to as signs of racial progress while civil rights gains were assaulted in the courts.
The women's movement got bought off with non-profits and an idea I've long thought of as “corporate feminism.” This boils down to “I can rule people for profits as harshly as any man; just give me a chance!”
Instead of challenging and changing the corporate takeover of everything of value, too many women went along with it in the name of equality. Hillary Clinton exemplifies the corporate co-option of feminism. It's ridiculous that her feminist defenders, such as Steinem, fail to see that.
Listening to one of his crowd-stirring but ambiguous speeches, it's difficult, if not impossible, to know what Barack Obama actually is proposing to do.
John Edwards is better at appearing to be in touch with the economic crisis devastating more and more working people while rapidly adding to the profits and power of wealthy elites.
Hillary Clinton promises to go back to the future of her husband's presidency, which should require that the Clinton years finally be assessed with no illusions. When it comes to the candidates we're told we should consider “viable,” the corporate news media prefers shallow symbols of race, class and gender to real substance.
The 2008 campaign so far indicates provides a discouraging outlook for the future of our democracy: weakening and on media-saturated life-support.
Lydia Howell is an independent Minneapolis journalist, winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She's also producer/host of “CATALYST: Politics & Culture” on KFAI Radio in the Twin Cities, available at http://www.kfai.org