The Tragedy of the Democratic Primaries

It really saddens me to see how opinions regarding this Tuesday’s primaries have divided along racial and gender lines. This to me is the tragedy of the Democratic primaries: what was supposed to be an election about change has once again reverted back to the same old ideological divisions and identity politics.

Along gender lines, you have Susan Faludi and Ellen Malcolm arguing that HRC should not quit. Their arguments, if I’m reading them correctly, seems to be that in American culture, female candidates have always been viewed as the candidates that refuse to get down and dirty in the game of party and slug it out with the boys. Faludi says in her NYT op-ed:

“It’s the unforeseen precedent of an unprecedented candidacy: our first major female presidential candidate isn’t doing what men always accuse women of doing. She’s not summoning the rules committee over every infraction. (Her attempt to rewrite the rules for Michigan and Florida are less a timeout than rough play.) Not once has she demanded that the umpire stop the fight. Indeed, she’s asking for more unregulated action, proposing a debate with no press-corps intermediaries.”

Similarly, Malcolm says in her WP op-ed:

“They see in Hillary Clinton a candidate who understands the pressures they face. As they watch her tough it out against all odds, refusing to quit and continuing to compete against whatever the media and her opponents throw her way, they see a woman as tough and resilient as they are. They clearly want her to win. Her victory, I believe, is their victory.”

In other words, their argument is that HRC has proven herself to be “one of the boys,” so to speak, willing, ready, and delighted to get her hands dirty, unafraid to play tough, and ready to go all the way to the 12th round

But I have two problems with Faludi’s and Ellen’s arguments. If Faludi is correct, which I think she is, that the American politician is usually conceived in very masculine terms, that in itself does not suggest that HRC has done something good by succumbing to the expectation. That she has chosen to run her campaign in this hyper-masculine way shows what is fundamentally problematic with our political culture: we think of campaigns as these do-or-die situations of battle and warfare, which really doesn’t cultivate spirits of cooperation and compromise. Instead, I can turn around and ask why is it that a woman of HRC’s intelligence and stature should have to conform to this very hyper-masculine political culture in order to succeed? The point that she has succeeded is to me not a sign of triumph for female politicians: it only reinforces the message to future female politicians that they must also conform to this masculine conception of politics in order to succeed.

But somehow Faludi ignores altogether and sees this as a promising sign for future female politicians:

“But the strategy has certainly remade the political world for future female politicians, who may now cast off the assumption that when the going gets tough, the tough girl will resort to unilateral rectitude. When a woman does ascend through the glass ceiling into the White House, it will be, in part, because of the race of 2008, when Hillary Clinton broke through the glass floor and got down with the boys.”

To me, the bigger and more meaningful victory for future female politicians would be a re-conceptualization of politics so that it is no longer this hyper-masculine, do-or-die understanding.

Second, my problem with Malcolm’s argument is that she assumes that a call for HRC to quit is automatically as a kind of bullying move to get the girl out of the competition:

“So here we are in the fourth quarter of the nominating process and the game is too close to call. Once again, the opponents and the media are calling for Hillary to quit. The first woman ever to win a presidential primary is supposed to stop competing, to curtsy and exit stage right.”

I am sympathetic to Malcolm’s argument, but I think she goes too far. It is no doubt the case that some of the calls for HRC to quit probably did originate from sexist viewpoints, but there is also a little thing called facts. And the fact is, HRC’s chances of winning the nomination is extremely slender, almost none. Thus, the call for her to quit is not a knock on successful female candidates, but rather a call for party unity, to staunch the internal hemorrhaging of the Democratic party. In reality, are those two motivations completely separate? Perhaps not, but surely it is a stretch to deny that they are not even conceptually separate.

In fact, Malcolm’s arguments reflect exactly what Faludi was talking about: Malcolm views the campaign as this intense game of competition in which she perceives the successful female candidate is being pressured to quit because of certain male assumptions about women and competition. It is exactly this tendency to view things in terms of “either-or,” “with us or against us” attitude that Faludi argues characterizes American politics.

Again, both Faludi and Malcolm ultimately succumb to a masculine view of politics: they are missing the forests for the trees. Instead of being proud that HRC can slug it out like any good old boy, why don’t they instead argue that we need a re-thinking of politics? It doesn’t really matter, in the long run, if female candidates can succeed by conforming to certain stereotypes about politicians, because they are still forced to conform to the understanding of politics which even Faludi acknowledges is a very male-centric view of things.

In fact, if HRC wins, it will only reinforce future female politicians that if they want to win, they have to act like one of the guys. And that, to me, is ultimately the greater tragedy.

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