Painful lessons

Primary reveals obstacles facing women in politics

May 18, 2008|By Lynette Long

This primary campaign has been quite a learning experience, but the lessons have mainly been bitter ones for women. Here are some things I learned on the way to the Democratic National Convention:

* People are more sensitive to racism than sexism. My twenty-something daughter returned home extremely agitated after casting her ballot in the Democratic primary. "This white guy was wearing a T-shirt that read, 'Hillary, cook my food, but don't run my country,' and no one said a thing. If I wore a T-shirt that said, 'Obama, shine my shoes but don't run my country,' I'd be called a racist." Doing or saying anything perceived as racist is not tolerated in today's America, but that's simply not true of sexist behavior.

* Most people aren't aware of the insidious sexism in this campaign. I've heard commentators say "Mrs. Clinton and Senator Obama," subtly implying she was a wife and he was a senator. I've heard Sen. Hillary Clinton called a bitch, a witch, and a she-devil on national television. I've watched group after group of predominantly male panelists on talk show after talk show discuss the election without a thought for female input.

* Women voters are not factored into the decision making of the Democratic National Committee. The DNC is concerned that black voters will protest and stay home if Senator Clinton gets the nomination, even though she is the stronger and more electable candidate. But the DNC doesn't worry that white women, three times larger than the combined black vote, will stay away from the polls if Mrs. Clinton does not get the nomination. They expect the white women of the party to fall in step and vote for Mr. Obama in the general election.

* The rules for women candidates are not the same as the rules for male candidates. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy adamantly supports Mr. Obama, even though Mrs. Clinton won his home state, Massachusetts, by 14 points. Mr. Kennedy has repeatedly called for Mrs. Clinton to pull out of the race, yet when he was running for president in 1980 he took his bid for the Democratic nomination to the convention floor, trying to change the rules to unseat Jimmy Carter, who already had enough delegates to clinch the nomination. And let's not forget that this year Mike Huckabee stayed in the contest for the Republican nomination when he had no chance of winning. He was committed to stay in the race until Sen. John McCain reached the number of delegates needed to win. At the end of the contest he had a total of 267 delegates, more than 900 behind Mr. McCain. No media barrage pushed Mr. Huckabee to withdraw. Barack Obama has not reached the needed number of delegates to win the nomination, yet Mrs. Clinton - who is fewer than 200 delegates behind Obama - is being pressured by commentators and the DNC to withdraw.

* In the world of presidential politics, race trumps gender. It appears that young, white voters are more willing to vote for a black candidate than young, black voters are willing to vote for a white candidate. My analysis of the statistics found that young white voters seemed to perceive race as less of a factor in their voting preferences, since more than half of them selected Mr. Obama. More than 90 percent of blacks have voted for Mr. Obama, creating a large racial bloc. Female black voters prefer Mr. Obama by essentially the same margin as male black voters.

* Politics is a mathematical business. Popular votes, electoral votes, delegates, superdelegates, precincts, districts and states are all numbers to be crunched. Voters are categorized by factors including age, gender, race, religion and income. Statistical tools such as trends, clusters, margin of error, polls, projections and polling preferences are all used to track candidates and predict winners. Pundits use their knowledge of statistics to select and organize data points so they can spin data to present their candidate in the most favorable light.

* Political commentary and election coverage is biased. MSNBC is called the "Obama News Network" by various blogs. CNN claims neutrality, but bias seeps through: In my view, its commentators Amy Holmes and Roland Martin are blatant Obama supporters; David Gergen and Donna Brazile are also Obama supporters; and Carl Bernstein and Campbell Brown don't like Mrs. Clinton.

What else have I learned? That most Americans vote with their hearts rather than their heads. That voters make decisions out of fear and personal interest rather than out of principle. That all politics is local politics. That when voters like a candidate they will excuse almost anything, and when they don't like a candidate they will parse every word and excuse no sins. I've also learned that the most powerful constituency is the media. And I've learned that true courage is especially hard to find - especially in a politician.

Lynette Long is a psychologist in Bethesda and the author of 20 books. Her e-mail is drlynettelong@aol.com.

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