The diversity in candidates this year is extraordinary, and we should be proud that constituencies underrepresented in politics have found a place on the national stage. It would be shortsighted, however, to reduce Senator Barack Obama’s or Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacies to their respective race and gender—something which our national media has unfortunately been doing.
From the beginning of the presidential race, print and broadcast media ruminated on one question: How would voters react to the new faces of the Democratic party? The press wondered whether Clinton was too tough to appeal to women, or Obama too white to appeal to blacks. When Hillary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire was credited to a surge in feminine sympathy after a teary-eye moment on the eve of the election, pundits quibbled over the statistical weight of the “identity effect.”
Americans weren’t the only ones to ask themselves these questions. After a woman sought the French presidency, and Germany, Chile, and Argentina elected female heads of state, the international press questioned Americans’ own ability to elect a black or a female candidate. Reporting here and abroad both centered on the politics of identity, rather than the politics of policy.
Granted, no discussion of the presidential candidates would be complete without attention to their personal characteristics. It’s important to recognize the candidates’ extraordinary identities, and it’s constructive for America to reflect on the place of women and blacks in political society. There is a fine line, however, between that discussion and one that empowers identity above all else.
The distinction was embraced by Clinton and Obama, who made an effort to keep their identity separate from their policy. Both could expect advantages among women or African-Americans, and both naturally sought the endorsements that would complement their identity. But they also expressed a wish that race and gender should have no part of the campaign, and stuck to that attitude in political debates. Clinton and Obama recognized this principle: that in the race for the nomination as in the general election, the stakes of identity and solidarity should not overshadow the debate on the fate of the nation. The presidential election should not become, nor be portrayed as, a referendum on American tolerance—regardless of how the press spins it.
Americans streamed into the streets for the rights of women and blacks for the better part of last century. Demonstrators have historically wanted subaltern groups to speak for themselves, but they have also wanted them to have a chance to simply speak. Now that our national politics have empowered those with a traditionally marginalized race and gender, we should foster a political climate in which they can transcend those particularities and debate instead about the urgent concerns of our nation’s governance.
Super Tuesday has identified two contenders for the Democratic nomination. Now more than ever, it is time for the national media to overcome identity politics and give their due to platforms and policy. In the critical months before the Democratic convention, Americans are entitled to no less.