Clinton v Obama: the identity wars

With Hillary as ‘put-upon woman’ and Obama as ‘race victim’, the Democrat contest is all about Who You Are rather than what you believe.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Identity Politics USA

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Tonight’s primaries in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island may decide the Democratic Party nominee for president. Or maybe not. But it is safe to predict that the real loser will be the American electorate, who, in the run-up to the 4 March primaries, have had to put up with the unedifying spectacle of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama descending into claims and counter-claims of gender and race victimhood. From Clinton’s lament that ‘it’s hard to be a woman out there’ to charges that the Clinton campaign leaked a photo of Obama in traditional Somali dress, this past week has seen the Democrats badly divided by identity politics (1).

This ‘historic’ contest, to decide either the first woman or black man to be named as a presidential candidate, was supposed to be an uplifting story, an occasion for the nation to congratulate itself for overcoming old barriers. In particular, Obama’s candidacy, it was said, ‘transcended’ issues of race. And yet this has been far from the case. Instead we have a battle over competing identities that pits, in the words of one commentator, ‘one protected species… running against a member of another within the party’ (2).

Clinton has played the woman-as-victim role for some time in the campaign. Back in October 2007, following a poor debate performance, she claimed that her male rivals had ‘piled on’. Before the New Hampshire primary in January she famously shed a tear. She has also taken offence at various remarks by pundits, particularly when an MSNBC commentator referred to Chelsea being ‘pimped out’ by her mother.

In the past week or so, as the Clinton campaign was throwing the ‘kitchen sink’ at Obama in order to salvage her candidacy, Hillary turned up the volume about being the target of bias. In the debate in Cleveland last Tuesday she complained to the moderators about being asked the first question, implying that she was treated harsher than Obama. In an interview, she remarked with self-pity: ‘Every so often I just wish that it were a little more of an even playing field, but, you know, I play on whatever field is out there.’ (3) Her supporters picked up and ran with this theme – one at a Clinton rally in Ohio held a sign that read: ‘Don’t let the press boy-crush pick our president.’ (4)

It is questionable whether all of this has worked for Clinton. The swing towards her in New Hampshire was more than simply a knee-jerk reaction to the tear incident (5). Also, Clinton projects a confusing persona when one moment she is the ‘fighter’ who can go ‘toe to toe’ with McCain on military issues, and the next she is the fragile lady who is treated unfairly by the old boys’ club. We’ve seen these competing images over the past week: while Hillary’s latest TV ad said that she was a strong individual who would be the best person for the job of picking up the White House ‘red phone’ when it rings at 3am, she was also bemoaning that ‘it’s hard being a woman out there’.

But most of all, Clinton’s claims that she has been discriminated against haven’t gained traction because they appear to be deliberate ploys. As soon as a possible case is raised, the media pounce on her for playing the ‘gender victim card’. Identity politics is so ingrained and recognised in American politics that it has become a spectator sport to spot it.

In contrast to what seem to be Hillary’s conscious manoeuvres, Obama appears aloof and above such low-down tricks. Many have noted that Obama does not usually raise the issue of his race. He has tried to avoid being pigeon-holed as a black politician, like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. And when issues of racism against him have come up, he has studiously avoided comment.

But the beauty of it from his vantage point is that he does not have to take the bait. There is much spontaneous sensitivity about the slightest reference to race questions. It is ironic how Bill Clinton, the so-called ‘first black president’, was accused of playing the race card during the South Carolina primary (6). And instead of getting sympathy for the gender slights she raises, Hillary has had to spend time fending off accusations that her campaign is race-baiting. The New York Times referred to her ‘gradual education on issues of race’, as if she still had more to learn (7).

In recent days, after Matt Drudge reported that he had received a photo of Obama in Somali attire, Obama’s manager, David Plouffe, accused the Clinton campaign of ‘shameful offensive fear-mongering’ (8). The conventional wisdom was that the release of this picture would immediately benefit Clinton, as nativist Americans would be repelled by Obama dressed like a tribal African. But this issue was much more to Obama’s advantage, as he could appear to be the victim. And Obama supporters remain keenly on the lookout for the slightest whiff of racism emanating from the Clinton camp. A lengthy debate took off after Clinton said in a 60 Minutes interview that she believed Obama was not a Muslim ‘as far as I know’. It seems pretty clear to this viewer that Clinton was not intending anything devious by this qualifier – the real issue is why the interviewer asked her the same trivial question over and over again.

Obama has faired relatively better than Clinton in the identity wars so far, mainly because it appears he isn’t the one directly raising objections and playing the victim card (9). Whenever the race tactics are said to emerge, he has, on most occasions, been able to frame them as dirty tricks from the politics of the past. And anything that is associated with the past seems to be unpopular in this election.

But considering that Obama was the candidate who was supposed to ‘transcend’ race, this contest certainly appears to discuss the race issue an awful lot. And at the same time, Obama has not always been able to appear above engaging in identity-based tactics. For example, there are claims that black politicians who support Clinton are receiving intimidating calls. As Politico reported, Rep Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo) said ‘black super-delegates are receiving “nasty letters, phone calls, threats they’ll get an opponent, being named an Uncle Tom”’. Cleaver does not believe the Obama campaign is behind these calls, but others draw a different conclusion (10).

Further evidence that Obama does not always handle the identity issue smoothly emerged in the Cleveland debate when he was questioned about Reverend Louis Farrakhan’s support for him. Obama clearly was on the defensive, as he was successfully challenged by Clinton to not only ‘denounce’ but also ‘reject’ the anti-Semitic Farrakhan. Obama responded by calling for a renewal of the ties between blacks and Jews, and in doing so, he seemed to fall into the trap he hoped to avoid – being defined primarily as a black politician, rather than the president of all Americans (11).

Like its cousin political correctness, the politics of identity as expressed in the electoral contest is really about etiquette. The charges and counter-charges of insensitivity are attempts to find the boundaries of what can and cannot be said. Rather than overcome divisions between people, identity politics entrenches them; it effectively says: we are irreconcilably different from one another, we have no shared objectives, but it is impolite to push these differences in each other’s faces.

While the politicians engage in these phony manners wars, the real concerns of the voters are not being addressed – including the real discrimination still faced by women and black people. Worse still, the identity outlook is an insult to how people think, assuming that people will just blindly follow their tribe. Even the women over 50 who vote for Hillary are not necessarily doing so out of perceived sisterhood (indeed, I sense that some are angry precisely because they feel that their support for Clinton has been reduced to their demographic profile). By the same token, complaints about the media’s negative influence – whether moderator bias about first questions or releasing photos in tribal garb – exhibit a low opinion of the viewers, believing that they will mindlessly follow whatever is presented to them.

In many parts of America, there seems to be a desire to rise above the identity framework. You can almost hear a collective ‘ugh’ when these stories emerge, as more and more people have become experts in identifying identity card-playing. The presidential politics of identity is based on both the backward idea that people are defined by their sex, race or some other accident of birth, rather than by their self-defined political beliefs and desires, and on the patronising, specious notion that entire blocs of the nation will vote a certain way just because they saw a photo of Obama in African dress or saw Hillary shedding a tear. Actually, the US electorate is smarter than that. Yet while there might be a desire to transcend identities, the political elites seem to have no sense of how to get out of the identity trap. And so to end with another prediction: the longer the Democratic primary contest drags on, the more it will be torn apart by identity politics.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill denounced the negativity of Obamaphobes. Sean Collins analysed the absence of an authentic presidential candidate. Elsewhere, he explored the significance of Super Tuesday. Guy Rundle joined the search for a Feelgood President. Mick Hume declared that Super Tuesday revealed what US votersdon’t want. Or read more at spiked issues USA and 2008 Race for the White House.

(1) Clinton: playing field for her as candidate not even because of her gender, ABC News, 28 February 2008; Clinton staffers circulate ‘dressed’ Obama, The Huffingon Post, 25 February 2008

(2) Clinton, Iron Lady, needs another game plan,, 14 February 2008

(3) Clinton: playing field for her as candidate not even because of her gender, ABC News, 28 February 2008

(4) Clinton plays victim and victimizer, Politico, 3 March 2008

(5) From ‘Hillary hate’ to ‘Hillary hurrahism’, by Helen Searls, 16 January 2008

(6) Democrats and the politics of identity, Real Clear Politics, 17 February 2008

(7) Clinton’s gradual education on issues of race, New York Times, 2 February 2008

(8) Clinton staffers circulate ‘dressed’ Obama, The Huffingon Post, 25 February 2008

(9) Let me tell ya again, I’m a woman, Wall Street Journal, 29 February 2008

(10) Black backers steadfast for Clinton, Politico, 29 February 2008

(11) Obama walks a difficult path as he courts Jewish voters, New York Times, 1 March 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Identity Politics USA


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