Monday, January 14, 2008
Going Way Back
Something to remember about the escalating tensions over race and gender in the Democratic primary campaign is that all of these disputes go way back. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, there was already disagreement between proponents of legislative reform and legal challenges on the one hand, and proponents of civil disobedience on the other, prompting Dr. Martin Luther King to write his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". Later, there was no small amount of tension between largely white, middle class anti-war militants and the increasingly radicalized civil rights and black nationalist movement. The modern women's liberation movement was in part born out of the deep-rooted misogyny of the anti-war and Civil Rights movement, best illustrated by Stokely Carmichael's response to a presentation on the position of women in SNCC to the effect that "The only position for women in SNCC is prone". And finally, identity politics sprang in part from the experience of black, hispanic, working class and lesbian women who didn't identify with the goals set by the white, middle class leadership of second wave feminism.
As you can see, we've had all of these on display the past few days: Paglia vs. Steinem, MLK vs. LBJ, the historical primacy of a woman presidential candidacy vs. a black presidential candidacy. But contrary to how it's been portrayed, Hillary Clinton's statement that direct activists drive the discourse but need allies in government to actually effect change strikes me as an attempt to synthesize that tension into a practical formula, even if it amounts to an admittedly self-serving one.
Paradoxically, Obama was supposed to be the candidate to get us past the bitterness of the culture wars. Instead, the dynamics of the race (the electoral race, that is) seem to be pulling him inexorably back into the fray. But instead of the expected right-left dichotomy, this battle is an internecine feud. And it's one, as I said, that goes even further back than the faultlines emerging this year in the GOP coalition.
But it's also one that's less of an existential threat to the Party. There will be bitterness and disappointment like there is every four years. But I think the brief moment of Obama-inspired intoxication has worn off and everyone is realizing that what we've got is not a revival that will culminate in transcendence but a campaign that will culminate in a nominating convention. And come this summer, I'm confident that the rough spots of the campaign will be put aside, and the Party will rally behind its nominee.