Monday, January 28, 2008

Let’s talk about sex. . . and race. . . and the race

Much has been and will continue to be made about the importance of race and sex in this year’s Democratic primary—about the importance of “identity politics.” Given the makeup of the Democratic field, I guess that such talk, on some level, was and still is inevitable. But at which level it is that this discussion takes place, well, to my mind, that doesn’t need to be as predetermined.

Here’s my overarching point: That a large majority of African Americans exhibit an affinity for candidate Barack Obama, or that a majority of White women exhibit an affinity for candidate Hillary Clinton, is not exactly the same thing as and does not justify the assumption that African Americans overwhelmingly voted for Obama because he is African American, or White women by-and-large voted for Clinton because she is a White woman.

Think about the never exactly asked but often alluded to question meant to gauge a prospective president’s “likeability”: Is this candidate the kind of person you would want to have a beer with? What I am trying to point out is that we all, to some extent, want candidates with which we share something—an experience, a proclivity, a history, a worldview. . . in short, an identity.

Do we usually advocate for someone exactly like us? I don’t think so. Do we assume that one common factor ensures that every other variable falls in line? Doubtful. Race and sex can be bound up with our aspirations and fears, but they are not the definitions of them. Rather, race and sex, in elections like in so many evaluative processes, are a kind of shorthand for a broad spectrum of factors—economics, education, outlook, etc. We search out candidates with whom we can identify on one or many of these levels, and we look for clues to help us make that evaluation—but that is not the same thing, to my mind, as practicing naked identity politics.

It is not an easy distinction (as I have just proven to myself over the previous three paragraphs), but that doesn’t mean it is a negligible one. It is, however, probably one far beyond the institutional interests of the establishment media.

For a broadcast journalism format, it has already taken me too long to explain this distinction. For the general interest press, it practically begs for an editor’s red pencil. The unfortunate demands of a profit-driven media catering to an audience that, to far too great an extent, is the product of an underfunded public education system does not work in the service of nuance. What was a kind of shorthand—a complex, multifaceted interaction—becomes simply an all-encompassing, zero-sum shorthand. The establishment media shorthands the shorthand—and as a result, we are all shortchanged.

The campaign and now the results from South Carolina will do little to improve this reductio ad absurdum that passes for campaign analysis. Alas, its afterglow—or collateral damage—will likely make things worse (at least in the short term—and who knows yet about the long term).

I have, to this point, been talking about race and sex (and if the establishment media were given to more sophisticated reporting, I would wish that they might, too), but it is race that seems to have seized the imaginations, such as they are, of most of the panting scribe class (Chris Matthews excepted, of course). The reasons for this owe in part, I figure, to America’s tragic history of openly violent racial oppression, and to the raw demographics of the population, but this part of the discussion is likely beyond my expertise, and beyond the scope of this post. For the moment, let me focus on what has increasingly been characterized as a nasty fight over race.

I don’t want to point fingers at any campaign—I think that fingers can be pointed, but not as clearly as many would think. I don’t want to say that there is plenty of blame to go around because that assumes, on the one hand, that there is plenty of blame, and, on the other, that it should somehow be distributed evenly—I’m not sure I feel secure in accepting either of those hands. I am not going to say it is all a wash, even if (and I am saying “if” because the polling data I’ve seen is not conclusive) the battle over race, such as it is, didn’t really push the voters in one direction or the other, because, at the end of the day, I do worry greatly about a fight that is characterized as revolving around what has been filed under to the charged rubric of “identity politics.”

But, for right now, at this point in the primary season, the worst thing about this tussle is that it gives the establishment media yet another story on which to focus at the expense of the issues.

Honestly, in the history of American identity politics, what has transpired this month is quite tepid (I'm not saying that I like or endorse these "strategies" to mobilize or divide voters—I don't—I'm just taking the long view). But, through the fisheye lens of the establishment media, suddenly it's human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! And it's practically all we hear about. Just watch the nightly news, the Sunday talkies, or supposedly erudite shows like Washington Week—for Republicans, they talk about how the economic downturn has affected the horserace, but for the Democrats, all I hear is "it's so nasty."

Where is Iraq? Where is national security? Where is healthcare, or education, or veterans' affairs? Where are the indignities done to our Constitution? The embrace of torture? The assault on privacy? Indeed, where is the failure of the entire GWOT ™?

And where is information on what the candidates will do to address these issues? Sure, the establishment doesn't like having to sell the meat, but it is the responsibility of the candidates to work overtime to keep the media from having access to easy sizzle.

The problems with the establishment media are manifold. There are national laws and individual reporters—all in dire need of reform. We should keep pressing for that reform, but it is a heavy lift, as they say. We won’t likely fix this one before we elect our next president.

So, this is a call to the candidates—all of them. If you truly do not want this race to be about race, don’t allow it to be. Don’t give the media anything that might play into their narrative. No allusions, no accusations, no counter-accusations. Actively contradict any reporter that poses a question framed by identity politics. Instruct all of your surrogates to do the same.

Steer all questions to talk about policy, to talk about proposals, to talk about the problem at hand and then suggest solutions. Be as specific as you dare. Be relentlessly on message. Give the press as little room as possible to reframe your campaign, or any part of your campaign, as an identity campaign.

Steer the conversation to President Bush. Talk about how united we all are in our disregard for him and our disgust with what his administration has done to our country. Mention Bush by name. Make the Republicans run with him or run from him. It’s a win-win.

Do not give in to the easy frame, no matter how advantageous it might seem at the moment. Come the summer, you will want to—have to—run a campaign that mobilizes voters of all stripes (and I’m not just talking about their external ones). Come next January, you will have to govern a country with numerous identities, many all mixed up in any given individual.

You will want to govern with a mandate. The more specific you can be about what you want to do and how you are going to do it, the more valid your claim to that mandate will be.

The Republicans will try to deny your mandate, chip away at it, characterize it as the agenda of special interests. The establishment media will no doubt play along because their operating principle is that people love a good fight, and every fight is as bloody and illicit as a cockfight, as bi-polar as a magnet, and as simple as. . . well, as simple as black and white.

That’s the way the media wants to see race—and that’s the way they want to see this race. If you want to win it—and I mean really win it—don’t give your opponents—and I mean your real opponents—a head start.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos)

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