Thursday, July 10, 2008

Standing at the Nexus of Change

TLG noted a couple of days ago that OpenLeft invited several feminist and womanist bloggers to participate in a round-robin of guest posts on the meaning of Hillary's success -- and failure -- as a primary candidate, and what implications its has for progressives. The first piece by Melissa McEwen is here. This is the cross-post of the second piece, which is from me.

What did Hillary's campaign -- and, ultimately, her failure -- mean for progressives? My offering is a meditation in four parts.

Hillary was quite possibly the last great feminist heroine we'll see from a passing generation -- that early 1945-1955 cohort of Boomer women -- that produced a historically singular crop of them. And that, in the end, was both her glory and her curse.

The women my age and older who found so much inspiration in her campaign have been down forty years of hard road together, breaking the first rough trails of modern feminism every dogged step of the way. They took quantities of crap that younger women cannot imagine; and won battles that utterly transformed the world for those of us who followed.

But pioneer life is hard, and the grim truth is that you don't always find the paradise you set out for when you were young and full of energy. And the journey changes you, sometimes in ways you could not have forseen and would not have chosen.

I've walked enough of this trail myself to be hauling plenty of baggage of my own. I viscerally understand the feeling that we have earned our place at the table, and we're owed this last piece of validation -- a president who speaks for us -- before we exit stage left. And while I was never a Hillary partisan, I shared the excitement so many of us of a certain age felt at the possibility that this time, the last glass ceiling was finally within rock-throwing range.

But what we learned from Hillary's campaign is not how far we've come, but -- after all we've survived -- just how far we still have left to go. That's a sad thing to realize this far down the road. And, ironically, black America is probably feeling pretty much the same way about the uglier moments of Obama's campaign. We stopped having national conversations on race and gender somewhere in the early Reagan years; but the rampant sexism and racism of this campaign -- too much of it coming from clueless white men and women in the media, who are clearly still trading in horrific sterotypes of both women and African-Americans in power -- reminded us that we didn't stop having them because anything got resolved. We stopped because people were tired, worn out, and had yelled themselves hoarse and deaf, and wanted to go home and raise their kids and think about something else for a while.

Well, that while's over. And we're left confronting the fact that -- goddamit! -- most of that work is still undone, and we're going to get to spend our final decades having those conversations all over again.

Let's be clear on this: the whole blacks-versus-women frame was a false one from the get go. You could hardly design something more exquisitely calculated to split the party along its most crucial faultline than that breathless "Blacks or Women? Who Gets To Make History?" narrative that dominated the political season for six straight months. It was set up to absolutely guarantee that one of the party's two most important constituencies would inevitably end up with hurt feelings, and might even withhold support as a result.

And damned if it didn't work. Ugly things got said all around that left everybody with bad blood --- let's please be grownups and admit that it wasn't just one side, and nobody gets to be the Bigger Victim here -- and played hell with party unity. I'm sure Karl Rove is happier than Chris Matthews sucking down ribs at a John McCain barbecue about all this; but we need to take note of what happened here and make sure we don't let ourselves be played this way again.

We would have done well to understand that frame earlier, question it harder, and search out its proponents more carefully. Patching things up is going to take a long time. Worse: it's going to slow us down at a time when we need to moving faster and more cohesively than we ever have.

One of the most common things I heard from Hillary's female supporters was: "It's our turn." As someone who takes a very long view of history -- and who likes to believe that its recurring past patterns sometimes tell us interesting things about the likely future -- I'm not inclined to agree.

For 150 years, women's rights advances have pretty reliably followed African-American rights gains by about 10-15 years -- and were almost always precipitated by them. The original suffragist movement was a direct outgrowth of the abolitionist movement; and most of its early founders were members of both. The feminist revolution of the 1970s likewise grew directly out of the civil rights struggles of the late 1950s and early 60s.

And there's a logic to this. White men, as holders of privilege, seem to be more easily persuaded to share it with other Penis-Americans than they do with women. (And even then, they extend it to men of color on very limited terms, inviting them into the game only after they've thoroughly rigged it to look fair, while guaranteeing that they'll continue to win.) In the years that follow, these guys invariably find their own wives and daughters coming to them, arguing that if black men can vote/go to college/own property/whatever, then how can they continue to withhold those same privileges from the women they love so dearly?

It's a reasonable enough argument (despite the strongly racist and classist overtones that are too often part of these negotiatons), so white women soon get their own version of the goodies, too, typically within half a generation of African-American men. And then the conversation stops. Black men and white women are all at the party now, so then...uh...that's everybody, right?

This repeating dynamic is why so many women of color see feminism as a white women's movement; and why brown, yellow, and red men don't always feel solidarity with the struggles of their black brothers. The sisters are all in it together, arm-in-arm -- right up until the white girls get theirs. And then then their attention always somehow gets diverted to other things, and the black and brown women are left to figure out the rest on their own. Likewise, Latino, Native American, and Asian men often get their rights as a sort of accidental afterthought, usually long after white women have come to take them for granted. And so it goes.

Not a particularly inspiring or attractive picture -- but it's the way this stuff has always gone down in America, and I'm not seeing any compelling reasons this time around should be any different. Given this history, it makes sense to me that we'd elect a black president first, and then a woman sometime in the decade or two that followed. Once America extends a privilege or right to black men, it becomes much easier for white women to step forward and claim it as well. And while it's not the news a lot of Hillary supporters want to hear -- and cold comfort indeed if you're not a white woman or a black man -- Obama's nomination is likely a positive sign that if you're white and female, your turn really is coming, and soon.

The real conflict that defined the choice between Hillary and Obama wasn't about melanin content or X chromosome status. It was about a generational hand-off of power -- a demographic shift that Obama saw coming, and Hillary did not.

This long primary exposed the crucial fact that the torch is, at long last, really being passed to a new generation of Americans. As of this year, for the first time, Generation X and the upcoming Millennial voters form a rising political tide that's big enough to swamp the Boomers in the voting pool. (For more about this trend, see Millennial Makeover
by Murray Winograd and Michael Hais.) This is likely to be a new and unwelcome experience for the Boomers, who by sheer dint of numbers have dominated every election since the bulk of them started voting in 1968.

Bring on the flamethrowers, but I'm going to say it out loud: Most of America under 50 is sick to tears of the way Boomers -- both left and right -- do politics. They're fed up with that confrontational eat-shit Nixonland political style that's defined everything for 40 years. It's rigid and polarizing and hostile to compromise, and the country is suffering mightily because it's paralyzed us so thoroughly. Hell, even the GOPpers are over it: they're reaching back to a Silent generation candidate rather than put up another Boomer. (If anyone uses the word "Vietnam" between now and November, violence may ensue. In fact: I'll quite cheerfully hurl the first brick myself.)

Obama, standing on the cusp of Gen X himself, looked at the numbers; and he carefully crafted his campaign to appeal to this emerging group, who see far more clearly what's not getting done, and don't have a lot of patience with anyone who seems likely to let their personal pursuit of power get in the way of getting the country back on track. They're done with Nixon, Reagan, Bushes, and yes, both Clintons, too.

What Hillary was offering by way of contrast was "experience" -- that is, more of the Boomer same -- in a change election where many voters considered experience with the old politics a significant negative. Going forward, the progressive movement needs to mark this lesson well, and a start to seriously address the demographic shift that's now in progress. Hillary showed us the hard way that the time of talking about the past is over. From now on, we need to stay relentlessly focused on looking ahead.

These younger generations are going to do politics in a very different way. Where we Boomers tended to be rugged indvidualists who stood outside the system, questioned authority relentlessly, and demanded that things change to suit us, these younger voters like to form up teams, get inside a system, take it over, and remake it from the inside out to suit them. They're not afraid of rules and structure; and they don't have a lot of patience with people they see as tantrum-throwers, or those who'd rather stand outside and offer critiques than get involved and do something constructive. These are important cultural differences that could lead to some serious miscommunication if we're not careful.

They're also very comfortable with authority -- a trait that tends to make Boomers extremely uncomfortable, until we realize that they learned it at our very own knees. As parents, teachers, and coaches, we worked very hard to be honest, credible, trustworthy authorities for the generations that followed us. Their alarmingly eager willingness to put their trust in leaders is, ironically, an impressive measure of how well we succeeded.

The hard part is going to be trusting them in return. If the old guard tries to hold on too tightly, or puts up too much resistance to their changing agenda, we risk alienating them, squandering our own hard-won authority, and perhaps turning these young voters off of progressive politics for life. It's not an overstatement to say that how we treat them in this election, and the next one, will very likely determine the fate of American progressivism for the next 40 years. This generation is the most naturally progressive one we've seen in our lifetimes -- but that won't last if we handle the hand-off badly.

What we need to take away from Hillary's candidacy is the strong understanding that something is shifting in the progressive universe; and that what lies ahead is going to be a sharp left turn from the four decades past. The legacy of this year's primary will include freshly renewed conversations on the meaning of race and gender; a radical shift in the way Americans approach change; and the arrival of the vast new wave of reinforcements who are going to take the movement some very different directions. Hillary's success -- and failure -- came about at the nexus point of all those shifts, at once foreshadowing a tantalizingly different future and at the same time putting a final exclamation point on the politics of an era now passed.