March 8, 2007

Identity Politics Gone Wild

First we had the strikingly pale Bill Clinton proclaimed as America's First Black President by Toni Morrison as an odd reward for pandering to identity politics. Now, the New York Sun reports that the First Woman President may well have a Y chromosome, if John Edwards wins the White House:

Toni Morrison famously dubbed President Clinton America's "first black president." With that barrier broken, the comments of a prominent feminist are provoking debate about who may lay a similar claim to the title of America's first woman president.

The candidate being touted as a torchbearer for women is not Senator Clinton, but one of her former colleagues, John Edwards. At a rally near the University of California, Berkeley campus this week, a veteran of the abortion-rights movement, Kate Michelman, asked and answered the question she gets most frequently about her decision to back the male former senator from North Carolina.

"Why John Edwards, given the historic nature of our extraordinary campaign for the presidency this year with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and all the others?" Ms. Michelman asked as she warmed up the crowd for Mr. Edwards. "I've gotten to know a lot of political leaders over the years that I've been an advocate for women's rights. I know the difference between those who advocate as a political position and those who understand the reality of women's lives."

Compared to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards is short an ‘X' chromosome, but listening to Ms. Michelman, that is easy to forget. "As a lawyer, as a senator, as a husband, as a father of two daughters, he understands the reality of women's lives. He understands the centrality of women's lives and experience to the health and well-being of society as a whole. … He understands that on an extremely personal level," she said.

Quite frankly, it shouldn't matter which chromosomes or skin pigmentation a candidate has on an individual basis. In a general sense, we want to ensure that the political process remains open to everyone, and diversity among elected officials gives us an indication of whether we're successful at it. If diversity is a goal in and of itself, as the Toni Morrisons and Kate Michelmans have argued in the past, then granting honorary minority status on rich, white men seems to be counter-productive.

It points out the silliness of identity politics in a comic way, as the final stage of the process. Identity becomes so much more important than actual policy that candidates have to assume ridiculous poses as the most female of all candidates in a race, even while the race includes actual females and the claimant is a male. In Bill Clinton's case, the appelation belies the fact that actual black men and women ran for the office before he did, and did not win the nomination -- and that he's not really black.

The first black president will be the candidate of African descent who wins the most Electoral College votes. The first female president will be the candidate with two X chromosomes who takes the oath of office on January 20 of the given year. Perhaps the Democrats might dispense with the gender and ethnic politics and just focus on policy instead.


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