This is the second of the mylaw.net articles on the American midterms. As usual, please head thither for links to the articles on which my analysis is based- I do believe in credit, but setting up two sets of hyperlinks is my idea of too much work. Unless I have directly quoted from the article, or otherwise think you cannot live without reading it, I have omitted the reference in this version of the essay.
I’m still glad I supported Obama over Hillary Clinton. If Hillary had won the election, every single day would be a festival of misogyny. We would hear constantly about her voice, her laugh, her wrinkles, her marriage and what a heartless, evil bitch she is for doing something – whatever! – men have done since the Stone Age. Each week would bring its quotient of pieces by fancy women writers explaining why they were right not to have liked her in the first place. Liberal pundits would blame her for discouraging the armies of hope and change, for bringing back the same-old same-old cronies and advisers, for letting healthcare reform get bogged down in inside deals, for failing to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan – which would be attributed to her being a woman and needing to show toughness – for cozying up to Wall Street, deferring to the Republicans and ignoring the cries of the people. In other words, for doing pretty much what Obama is doing. This way I get to think, Whew, at least you can’t blame this on a woman.
– Whatever Happened to Candidate Obama? Katha Pollitt.
One day in 2008, we all woke up to the news that the long-suffering Hilary Clinton was capable of such gymnastics as public weeping. I am not now, and I certainly was not then, a news junkie. All the flap about Obama had passed me by entirely: wasn’t he the guy who declared his desire for the presidency on a talk show? I had assumed that Clinton was a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, that she would probably win, and the world would trundle on heedless. Washington is united when it comes to ‘security’ wonks: Blackwater, for instance, was defended by a firm run by Clinton strategist Mark Penn. In the corner of the globe that most of us inhabit, that simple truth is often all that matters.
Yet here she was, whimpering, and the election was close to a year away. India’s Indira and Germany’s Angela, it appeared, didn’t translate into America’s Hillary.
That was the day I swallowed my pride and sought education from sundry politics nerds: the mystifying distinction between primaries and caucuses, conventions and their delegations; and how, exactly, did colleges get to elect the president of a country? Most began with an admirably concise answer to the first question: they’re both dogfights for the nomination. Unfortunately, I was then at the height of my elections-are-gimmicks-and-circuses phase (which I am yet to fully recover from); and there was the predictable flame-out before the conversation could turn to other foundations of American Civics 101. The profusion of talking heads obsessed with Ms. Clinton did, however, get me interested in the interplay between feminism and electoral politics: what, really, is the price worth paying for a woman in power?
Two years later, the liberal web is aflame with gossip about the renewed onslaught of Mama Grizzlies, invading from the newly discovered continent of Republican Women. The tone ranges from panic (Is Feminism Dead?!) to prophetic (Feminism Is Dead!) to poetic (Whither tarry them wanton women?). The Nation recently devoted a whole issue to the phenomenon; unique in this election’s news-cycle, a measure of rational curiosity prevailed. They snigger some (how could one not), they swagger more (look to us, true feminists) yet there is enough genuine appraisal of events to make it worth reading. The analysis follows four broad rubrics:
1. Dems ain’t lovin’ their women enough. The Democratic Party must learn, Salonista Traister argued in the follow-up to her New York Times op-ed, ‘to treat its women as a fundamental asset rather than a vaguely irritating embarrassment.’ Get thee to counselling and save this union!
2. It’s Clinton’s fault, or Obama’s, or the media’s; depending on your perspective on 2008. The underlying argument remains the same: the primary campaign broke feminism’s back by polarising the movement, and then Palin clinched the squabble.
3. It’s feminism’s fault for being a bad mother: first releasing Sarah’s tribe into the wilderness, and then wandering off to establish a lesbian commune. “Get your own damned torch”, Robin Morgan once snarled at a younger rival. “I’m still using mine.” And so they did. This is the meta-version of Point 2.
4. The notion that conservative women were ever not a force is a fallacy. It is true that such women are active and hogging the headlines this year, but that is true of conservatism in general, for reasons that go far deeper than the headlines. It is creditable, I suppose, that the GOP might finally graduate from being an old boy’s club, but women have always been the invisible half of most movements as well as most populations.
These are interlocked arguments: Democrats are alienated from some factions in their base because of policies the Clinton administration orchestrated, not least the widespread dismemberment of the welfare state. Obama’s term is yet to endear itself, all the frantic messaging in recent weeks about the ‘legislative president’ notwithstanding. This has made its core constituents – feminists, but equally trade unions or civil rights activists – apathetic to potential Republican gains this season: how much worse can it get, so why not let them burn themselves out? Feminism, similarly, is in a dire quandary today because too many people it helped elect, women and men alike, betrayed the ideals that got them into office. If Bill Clinton is feminist by today’s standards, why can’t Sarah Palin lay claim to the dubious prize?
The question of how feminism came to sail such dire straits is best resolved by a spot of chronology. The story begins with the last time one of these ‘Years of Women’ was announced in the land, back in 1992. That cycle, it was Democratic women on-stage, but the underlying dynamics of governance accelerated away from feminist causes alongside the purported landslide. (Random trivia: Barbara Boxer, the California Senator who is now relying on marijuana to keep her seat in this year of absurd womanhood was first elected in 1992. Her opponent this election is Carly Fiorina.)
Katha Pollitt’s Reasonable Creatures (1995) and Subject to Debate (2001) are a fascinating feminist foray into Clinton-era politics, and she highlights, across both, the growing disaffection of the organised female vote:
So what really matters is horse trading with your colleagues and helping Bill Clinton keep his election promise to ‘end welfare as we know it’, even if hundreds of thousands of children go hungry and their mothers end up on the streets (in apologist circles, this was also known as ‘overhauling the system’) … Well, as I find myself saying more and more these days, it’s good to lose your illusions. The fact is, congressional women have been pretty disappointing in the Age of Newt … like other social justice movements, organised feminism is caught in a co-dependent relationship with electoral politics: no matter how often and how blatantly our hopes are betrayed, we keep coming back, begging to have our illusions rewoven for another bout at the polls.
– ‘Where are the women we voted for?’ in Subject to Debate.
When you consider the contortions demanded of women, who must contrive to combine, or appear to combine, attractiveness and asexuality, brains and deference, zeal for work and absence of ambition, it doesn’t seem to much to ask that men in politics live by the family values they are to enforce on the rest of us … single mothers, discarded housewives, and other family-values victims: forget the elections. Vote with your feet!
Family values and the cult of the nuclear family is, at bottom, just another way to bash women, especially poor women. If only they would get married and stay married, society’s ills would vanish. Inner city crime would disappear because fathers would communicate manly values to their sons, which would cause jobs to spring up like mushrooms after rain. Welfare would fade away.
– ‘Why I hate Family Values’ in Subject to Debate.
Pollitt was a trenchant critic, from the left, of the Clintons’ administration; she would’ve agreed with Michael Kelley as he argued the Clintons’ practiced the ‘politics of virtue’, if not quite in the spirit he intended. Clintonian Democrats espoused what they called ‘business liberalism’: extensive welfare cuts coupled with a feel-good family-values hypocrisy designed to demonise people (such as young unwed mothers) whom such programs had once helped. It proved to be a strategy with notable, if paradoxical, dividends; endearing dissolute Bill to Middle America while laying the foundations for the Republican sweep of the 1994 midterms, the Newt Gingrich Congress which shut down government for Good (and cos they could).
As a consequence, the ‘90s were terrible years for organised feminism and allied movements: social safety nets collapsed, reproductive rights came under fire from the resurgent Gingrich-right, and intoxicated young women began to care more about making out on camera than about hard-won liberties. Already battered by Reagan, serious left-radical dissent curled up to die. If you ever wondered how it came to pass that the Left in American politics would be the furthermost Right elsewhere, now you know – failing all else, blame the New Democrats.
This, you will recall, was the heyday for toes and sex-scandal politics (ironic, as Pollitt points out, in a land with family values); the baby boomers drove an already dysfunctional ‘First Wife’ syndrome to fresh and ridiculous heights. In an era of ‘campaign theatre‘ and news-cycle presidencies, popular politics in the US appears unlikely to recover from the assumption that politicians’ wives are little more than political capital, detachable subsets born within a single personality. A decade down, it is now Washington wisdom that no one can win if their wife will not campaign, will not behave, and will not pretend she prefers pregnancy and her hookin’ husband to multiple orgasms. There is a game to be played while deciding whose sexual peccadilloes are to be paid out to the press as fodder for the madding crowds, and the women involved rarely play it, at any stage.
It was this languid state of decay that made (mostly male) pundits conclude Obama Hope-Changer was the obvious choice for the Democratic nomination in 2008: the vaunted ‘Clinton fatigue’ that so much hay was made of at the time. Obama, they argued, was more feminist than the HillBillys would ever be: look, he’s even willing to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Act for pay equity as the first thing he does in office! (He did.) Women pundits embraced the more-strident-than-thou approach in response to this ridiculing of ‘their’ candidate (though Hillary, recovered Goldwater gal, was a lukewarm feminist at best) and thus was battle engaged: would you rather be racist or feminist?
The tangled web of decisions progressive women faced in their choice between Clinton and Obama in 2008 was, thus, extremely fraught. They were caught between deploring the Clinton administration’s feeble record on causes close to the caucus, like abortion, welfare, and health-care (even starker in comparison with Obama’s strong, if untested, liberal credentials) and recognising the very real need for effectual women in politics. Either way, liberal women found themselves apologising to someone: Gloria Steinem pontificated incessantly about how feminists were betraying their gender if they didn’t support the first woman to seriously run for President, while Oprah told her audience they were racist if they didn’t vote for the nominally black dude. On the one hand, women are better represented than African Americans in elected office; on the other, well, there are about four times as many women as blacks around in the first place, and half those blacks are women. Intersectionality, that dreaded word introduced by late-wave feminism into academic parlance, was now a frightening political reality. Are black women more black than women? It’s a raging (if rather pointless) debate, one that this ‘Year of Conservative Women’ conveniently exploits, for there is no denying Tea Party conquistadoras assume white women are more white than women.
It was a primary season that balkanised the democratic female base, helped along by a media notorious for painting Ms Clinton into every corner they could contrive. She was a sensation about which the media was, for once, bipartisan: MSNBC and Fox News alike spent months competing for the Clinton-bashing ratings. Is she too masculine? Is she too feminine? Should she have worn skirts or pants? Why did she cry? How could she not cry, the pathetic Ms. Lonely-Hearts whose husband loves him some beehive? It was enough to make the most ardent Hillary hater into a frustrated acolyte.
Despite the din surrounding the dilemmas women face about electoral politics, everyone on the left appears to have coalesced on the party-line on two matters:
– That conservative women running for office are dupes; useful idiots, by Frank Rich’s reckoning, intended to mollify and entertain, while the (discernible) Republican agenda descends ever deeper into economic lunacy. Palin’s feminism, the cruder version of this argument runs, was invented for the benefit of white men.
– That women are, fundamentally, Democratic voters
There is convincing evidence for the first hypothesis. For one thing, female representation is set to hit a thirty-year low if Republicans do really well this season, grizzlies and all. Most women currently in power are vulnerable Democrats: 25 of the 38 female senators in history have been Democrats, and 69 of the 90 Congressional seats currently held by women belong to Democrats. Statistically, liberal or moderate women are likelier to fall and be replaced by conservative men than by conservative women (many of whom are fighting toss-up elections; and their chances aren’t helped by the constant, arguably justified, feast of ridicule). Further, where they have won thus far, Tea Party grizzlies have done so on their own steam, often fighting derision from within the Republican camp. The big scandals dogging controversial Republican women – Nikki Haley in North Carolina, Sharron Angle in Nevada, the inestimable Christine – were originally leaked to the press by their (male) opponents in the Republican primaries. Most damnably, even demonstrably intelligent GOP candidates this election – say, ex-CEO Carly Fiorina – have come out in favour of palpably absurd policy proposals, such as cutting federal aid to bankrupt states (California is so broke it hasn’t bothered to come up with a budget for three months). The loony outliers, like Delaware’s Christine, spend their time clarifying that they aren’t witches. It is worth noting just how ironic this is, as Betsy Reed does in The Nation:
The fiscal crisis in the states cuts to the core of women’s economic security: as Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress points out, women are suffering the brunt of it because they make up 60 percent of state and local government employees, and they depend disproportionately on the social services, such as childcare, that states provide. Although the first wave of this recession hit men hardest, Boushey says we are undergoing a shift toward job losses for women as cuts in the public sector mount. The reductions in childcare subsidies that states are contemplating, for example, will affect a workforce that is 95 percent female; and at the same time, the loss of services will surely make holding jobs impossible for many former welfare recipients who now, thanks to Democrat-inspired welfare reform, have nowhere else to turn.
It’s insidious how Republicans are deploying women candidates to pitch government belt-tightening to women as the “keepers of the family budget,” as if the stresses of working families are increased by childcare, healthcare, eldercare, after-school and other social programs… It’s one thing – and not a small thing – to celebrate the strength of women in politics. But it’s supremely cynical to do so, as the GOP Year-of-the-Woman revelers have, while working to undercut the strength of women in society.
On the second point- that women are born Democrats – I must confess I find myself terribly amused. After all, the first generation of suffragettes voted Republican, almost to the woman. There is, admittedly, sustained evidence for a ‘gender-gap’ in recent elections: women, relative to men, are more likely Democratic voters; battleground races can turn on the female vote. Nonetheless, in terms of electoral data, this is about as helpful as saying that alternate sheep in Iowa would vote Vegan. To be fair, the gender-gap is not blatant nonsense – folk like Bart Stupak could do with some reminding of who elects them – but for strategic purposes it is, effectively, deadweight (similar to the ‘Bradley Effect’ when it comes to race in electoral politics). The gender-gap doesn’t even imply that the majority of women vote Democratic; more women voted for Reagan than against him, for instance. It simply means that a high percentage of the losing vote in that election (or the winning vote in 2008) was cast by women voters. Women can, and do, swing elections – but rarely entirely on their own. We are not a marginal constituency, strictly speaking, but we are, as they say, creatures of momentum.
American Elections, that lucid conservative Michael Kelley once wrote, are about three kinds of voters, upon whom one must perform assorted functions. The first is the base, which one must enthuse and palliate; the next is the counter-base, which one can never woo, though one may defuse; and the most important is the vast (and growing) swing vote to whom one must render oneself ‘minimally acceptable’ by taking ideological positions somewhere between base and counter-base. This last is an amorphous array of populations that have to be first seduced into politics and voting and only then into party lines. The permutations are close to infinite: One can rely on a strategy of whipping up core constituencies while confusing everyone else, and hope they turn out in record numbers while enemy partisans flag, which is the Republican strategy this time (and a pretty sound one at that during midterms). One could, alternately, craft a coalition that ‘spans the swing‘, which is how Democrats are positioning themselves. Or one can set out, as Obama did in 2008, to invest under-tapped and under-represented populations and supplement one’s base; relying on them, in turn, as you battle more important categories within the vested electorate.
In a country that doesn’t like to vote, yet is forced to do so in bushels, political acumen is measured by how you frame the game as much as how you play it; the wizardry lies in accurately mapping these three categories against demography, money, and geography. Lisa Murkowski (an Alaskan senator ousted by Sarah Palin) is discovering precisely this in her exciting three-way race this season: after being slammed from the right during primary season, she’s now fuelling her write-in candidacy based on a newfound ‘moderate‘ status. It this political tightrope that GOP folk fresh off the Tea Party Express will have to learn to walk, now that they have purged themselves of all moderates, and it will spell their future electoral success. Will they follow the Democratic women of 1992 and abandon their base, or the Gingrich Congress of 1994 in riding the wave till it drops? What will be the verdict of this election season: that Republicans cannot win without moderates, or that moderates cannot win without Republicans?