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Identity politics in the US primaries

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28 February 2008 09:27

Guest blogger: Kate Mason (pictured) is an intern at the Lowy Institute.  She is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales writing on 9/11 in American literature. 

In the last week or so, pundits have begun to bestow the mantle of Democractic presidential nominee on Barack Obama. But given the continuing scare tactics of both campaigns, it's helpful to look at what has been made of Hillary Clinton's gender and Barack Obama's ethnicity in the current primaries. Indeed, given all the bluster on the historic nature of a first black or female president, it would seem to be the ultimate blow to see Republican John McCain — another old white man — actually win office.

The question is, how are the lines drawn in the identity politics game, and which pull is stronger: gender or race?  In her now famous NY Times op-ed, Gloria Steinem worries that Obama is seen as 'unifying by his race, while Hillary is seen as divisive by her sex.'  But is it really un-feminist to vote against Hillary?  That implies that being a feminist in the confusing Noughties is not a complex engagement – it's merely about voting in the nearest woman for office. That, of course, is not the case.

Identity politics is a nuanced entity, and often translates to voters subjectively picking which parts of a candidate they feel they can most identify with. This is always going to allow for individuals to privilege one part of themselves – their gender, their race, their view on Iraq – over another part. Yet this doesn't necessarily detract from their positions on other issues.

The endorsements are nothing to go by either. Both Obama and Hillary have received recommendations by hundreds eager for publicity by riding the primary gravy train, and they don't seem to follow a pattern. Black Rapper 50 Cent has endorsed Hillary, saying he isn't sure America is ready to have a black president,  while among Obama's many endorsers was Oprah Winfrey – one of the best-known and influential African Americans in the country, and a woman.   

One thing is for sure: the election of any candidate based solely on their race or gender is bound to disappoint.

First, it assumes that because of one's race, gender or ethnicity, one is more likely to support policies which favour that identity. While both Obama and Hillary have used their minority status for their own ends during the campaign, neither has decisively come out in favour of advocating policies which outright favour African Americans or women.

And in any case, once elected they would be unlikely to shill for their own interest groups for fear of the accompanying furore. Hillary introducing paid maternity leave? Obama advocating slave reparations? Naively one might hope that becoming a mascot for your own identity politics would be a politically savvy, even popular, move; but the pitfalls are evident, too. Regardless of whether the policies are legitimate, there is a significant chance they could do more harm than good.

The clear need for minority participation in politics and public office will not be answered because a woman is picked for a job due to her gender, or an African-American because of his race.  It will only happen when the right candidate is chosen who can demonstrate progress through being politically and practically progressive, not just looking like it.

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