Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Raining on My Party's Parade? An Election-Day Analysis of Hillary Clinton and Liberal Sexism by a Progressive Law Professor

I would like to thank Professor Heidi Li from Georgetown Law Center -- author of the blog Heidi Li's Potpourri -- for bringing my attention to a recent article in the New York Times that discusses Hillary Clinton's political future. During the Democratic primaries Hillary Clinton received unfair treatment from liberals, including unprecedented demands from men in the Democratic Party that she drop out of the race despite her record number of votes, the closeness of the race, and the historic nature of her candidacy. Many self-proclaimed "liberal" bloggers, media figures, Obama supporters, and Obama surrogates labeled her a witch, monster, racist, and pathological liar. Nevertheless, Clinton has taken the concept of party unity to a new level and, as the New York Times reports, has actively campaigned for Barack Obama. She even coined one of the most popular Democratic slogans this season: "No way, no how, no McCain!"

In my lifetime I have witnessed several presidential campaigns, but none has involved such inspiring candidates as Obama and Clinton. But none has given rise to such vitriolic sexism and to dangerously contradictory stances by liberals. For most of the year, I tried unsuccessfully to raise issues of sexism with liberal colleagues (many of whom are academics). I believed that racial discourse completely overshadowed gender concerns but that the two subjects are not mutually exclusive. For most of my career, in fact, I have argued that civil rights policy must take a multidimensional approach and consider all issues of discrimination collectively, rather than prioritizing some as more important or central than others. Ultimately, the issues overlap and converge.

Many liberal academics, however, discounted the need for any feminist treatment of Clinton. She was either too "conservative" or "bitchy" to warrant such engagement. Many people also made the bizarre claim that because Clinton's husband had served as president, her successful candidacy could not benefit women at all -- not even symbolically. In response, I asked them whether they would hold the same position about race and gender progress if Michelle Obama (whom I also admire) launched a successful political career after her husband, and I received blank stares (and had many unanswered emails).

Another typical line of response denied that Clinton experienced gender-based prejudice. Suddenly, the world became anti-sexist, but still clinged to racism. The notion that patriarchy could instantly evaporate but leave racism behind is absolutely absurd, but many civil rights scholars freely advocated this frightening viewpoint. When I pointed to polling data which showed that 2/3 of men voted for Obama instead of Clinton, some liberals responded that this could simply reflect a gender-neutral "preference." But under civil rights law, many of these same scholars have argued that statistical patterns of disparate treatment could establish a prima facie case of discrimination. In the context of this election, however, many liberals tossed aside their prior positions for the sake of defending a candidate choice. Yet when the same polling data showed that whites in some states preferred Clinton by similar margins, they easily attributed this pattern to race. Of course race explained a lot of the support for Clinton in those states, but gender also accounted for some of the male opposition to her candidacy. Admitting this does not detract from Obama's qualifications; instead, it makes us honest and less hypocritical.

One of the most unseemly moments of liberal hypocrisy in the primaries occurred when former Senator Gary Hart, who, like Bill Clinton, suffered from a zipper malfunction, wrote a blog entry on HuffingtonPost which argues that Clinton crossed the line by saying that she and McCain have experience but that Obama only delivered a speech against the war in Iraq. Low blow? Yes! But according to Hart (and many others), this was a sign that Clinton was morally defective, utterly selfish, and ultimately against her party. Hart argued that:

By saying that only she and John McCain are qualified to lead the country,
particularly in times of crisis, Hillary Clinton has . . . severely damaged the
Democratic candidate who may well be the party’s nominee . . . and, perhaps
most ominously, revealed the unlimited lengths to which she will go to achieve
power. She has essentially said that the Democratic party deserves to lose
unless it nominates her.
Hart's comments are very damning, but Google is also very wicked (or "knowledge is power"). After a few seconds of searching on the Web, I found Hart's own nasty portrayal of his opponent Walter Mondale during the 1984 primaries. A New York Times article from that year provides the sordid details:
Senator Gary Hart said today that Walter F. Mondale, as Vice President, was part of an Administration that was "weak," "inept," "uncertain" and marked by "days of shame" in Iran . . . .

"Walter Mondale now promises an America that can and will stand up for its vital interests . . . . But Carter-Mondale actually gave us an America held hostage to the ayatollahs of the world."

"In national security as in domestic policy . . . we must not leave the American people with a bleak choice in 1984 between two failed pasts - that of Ronald Reagan and that of the Carter-Mondale Administration."

"After reviewing the record of the Carter-Mondale Administration, I can understand why Walter Mondale is Ronald Reagan’s favorite opponent," Mr. Hart added.
Despite his own history of caustic campaigning, Hart, an Obama supporter, launched an attack on Clinton that became fodder for liberal bloggers and online Obama supporters who used his words to demonize Clinton. (When Hart made his comments, I discussed the subject on BlackProf).

Comments from more recent political campaigns also prove that Clinton's statement about Obama -- though harsh -- was not without precedent. In 2004, for example, Senator Kerry, another Obama supporter, said that Howard Dean did not have "the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president" because he disagreed with the notion that the Iraq War had made the United States safer. Yet, in spite of a long history of caustic attacks among male candidates, Obama supporters led a drumbeat to marginalize Clinton as a divisive party cannibal, and they applied a blatant double-standard for assessing the boundaries of acceptable campaign discourse. Gender explains these uneven rules, and liberals need to admit it.

Until liberals come clean on racism, sexism, and homophobia, I will continue to roll my eyes in response to their rampant cheerleading about a newly arrived leftwing national order. Prior to this election, I rejected the notion that people could passionately challenge racism and embrace sexism without undermining their antiracist advocacy. I remain committed to that position today. Psychological data demonstrate that people who accept social bigotry do so across the board (think: Archie Bunker). And the experiences of women of color prove that progressive race and gender policies must co-exist so that lawmakers can design effective remedies for all victims of discrimination. Furthermore, condoning or ignoring any type of bigotry betrays the values the party espouses.

Currently, Clinton's very strong advocacy for Obama has helped submerge the divisions that were highly visible during the primaries. As American University political science scholar James A. Thurber says, Clinton "has done more for Obama than Dean did in 2004 for Kerry, more than Bradley did for Gore in 2000, more than Kennedy did for Carter in 1980." She certainly has done more than Hart did for any of his competitors. But after the election is over and we began to construct a new liberal agenda, we need to have a comprehensive and honest discussion concerning discrimination, oppression, and the value of dissenting voices. I cannot endorse or participate in anything less.


Dakinikat said...

Very thought provoking and deserves a lot of attention from the liberal blogosphere. I can't understand how we can rank types of discrimination by least or most offensive. It's all part of a greater problem that needs to be taken care of for the betterment of us all.

MNHustler said...

The problem is that you have aligned yourself with a unique part of the problem. The PUMAS, as they call themselves are myopic in the sense that they fail to examine intersections of race/gender/orientation/class ets.

IF you read some of their suggestions, the 51% which Heidi is a proponent of, says that election of women are MORE IMPORTANT than election of good candidates. They are pushing for 30 percent representation on appointed positions. So, should I be pushing for 13 percent representation in the Congress,since that is the population count of AA's in America?

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi, MNHustler, thanks for visiting and commenting.

First of all, I do not believe that "PUMA" is a bad word. The ideologies of the group's members are about as diverse as the Democratic party membership -- perhaps even more expansive.

Second, I have not "aligned" myself with anyone, if you take that to mean that any one movement represents ALL of my views or that I agree with any one movement. In terms of blog listings, I list conservative, progressive and moderate bloggers. I have also posted commentary on TownHall, Daily Kos, and Dissident Voice. And people who come here identify themselves across the ideological spectrum. Ironically, conservatives were some of the most loyal at the beginning. At least they were willing to engage in dissent.

As an academic, I have to remain open to all points of view - even those with which I disagree. A lot of people have a piece of the puzzle solved, and I accept the PUMAs for that reason. The strongest thing that made them catch my eye was their passionate critique of sexism during the primaries -- which other Democrats denied was an issue, fearing it would detract from Obama's success (or not wanting to engage in self-criticism).

And speaking of intersectionality, one of the most startling things for me was the uniform depiction of Obama as a progressive by the intersectional feminists. When Crenshaw, et al. wrote the joint letter condemning what they viewed as single-issue politics among Clinton supporters, they failed to engage how Obama presented himself to voters, in terms of sexuality, class, AND RACE. This severely undermined their critique, from my perspective. Other progressives rejected Clinton supporters as the "lunch bucket" crowd and focused on the fact that they were poorer and less educated. But I thought advocacy for the poor and disadvantaged was the purpose of being a progressive -- not making the "latte" crowd proud of talking to Europeans during the trips to Paris next summer. Meanwhile, they send their kids to the most racially segregated and class-privileged schools in the nation. Blue territory big cities and suburbs top the resegregation charts.

If you think rejecting PUMAs (or Clinton) and embracing Obama makes the inherently "progressive" choice, then I would love to debate you on this issue. No movement is perfect. But I do not think that PUMAs ever behaved as if they or Clinton were perfect.

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