Who are we voting for…and why?

Well, the smoke has cleared here in Pennsylvania after last week’s primary elections, and the “Mod Squad” (remember…? “one white, one black, one blonde”…?  Pete, Linc, and Julie…?) has moved on to make their respective cases elsewhere.  What have we learned after six seemingly interminable weeks?  That PA went for Senator Clinton, which we knew it would six weeks ago.  The only question was the margin, and after outspending Senator Clinton several times over, Senator Obama was able to reduce it from higher double-digits to just under double-digits.  We also know that both Democrat candidates garnered the support from those demographic groups from whom they have always garnered their support.  In short, nothing really moved.

The Mod Squad

The Mod Squad

The question is becoming more and more focused for the Dems–“who is electable?”  The question is asked in spite of whatever the actual voting might be in the end.  As I write this, Howard Dean, Chairman of the Democratic National Convention, is on Meet the Press with Tim Russert discussing the conundrum.  Part of the problem is the rules that will potentially disenfranchise voters in Florida and Michigan.  Part of the problem is how to count the popular vote (see Jonathan Last‘s explanation of this problem in the Philadelphia Inquirer).  Part of the problem is the practice of using “super-delegates” to act as party elders to sort out the matter. 

But let’s suppose that all three candidates were running in a general election.  Who would you vote for…and why?  And how would you know the reason you give is the real reason?  Obama is getting 90% of the African American vote.  White women are overwhelming supporters of Clinton.  Governor Ed Rendell of PA said that there are plenty of voters here in the Commonwealth that will not vote for a person of color.  There are men (and not just men, perhaps surprisingly) who will not vote for a woman (and I don’t just mean that woman, as Clinton is often referred to). 

Do gender and race and–in the case of McCain–age matter to you?  Voters were asked these questions in exit polls, and the answers suggest they do not.  But I wonder.  First of all, we are educated to say that race, gender, and age don’t matter, so if asked we are likely to say they don’t matter.  But do they, in fact, matter?  If you vote for McCain, is it because of his experience or political philosophy or position on national security, or is it because he is not a woman or African American?  If you vote for Clinton over Obama, is it really because she is the most “experienced,” or is it because she is a woman?  Or white?  Or, suppose you don’t vote for Obama: is it because of his relative lack of experience, or is it because he is black?  And how do you know?

Obama has had a particular problem.  First, he was said to be “not black enough.” One tv pundit this morning suggested that this claim in a sense is another way of saying Obama is “elitist.”  But who was thinking this?  Black voters?  Or white media elite?  And if the latter, what does it mean to say that there is a sense in which Obama is “not black enough”?  What is “black” supposed to be, such that Obama is not enough of it (for the tastes of the media, anyway)?  Is Obama not allowed to be “elite”?  Is it somehow still surprising that an African America is elite?  I am suspicious about this kind of talk.  But then Obama became “the black candidate”–at least Bill Clinton wanted to position him this way after the South Carolina primary.  Well, is the “black candidate” somehow not capable of being the candidate for all the people?  And then, of course, Obama’s remarks about guns and religion shoved him back into the “elitist” category, so who can say?

Polls have asked us whether “America is ready for a black president.”  A year or so ago about 50% of us said we were.  Today, that number is closer to 70%.  I hope that’s right (but again, how honestly do people answer polls?).  But even if we are ready, is Obama the right person to be president.  And how do you know whether your answer is honest?  And you can certainly ask the same questions about gender and even age.

Now maybe you, since the moment you first came into consciousness, have consistently practiced the Socratic imperative to know thyself.  You know for whom you are voting and why, and you know that you have no subconcious or ulterior or perhaps even unsavory motives.  We should all be like you, I suppose.  But let’s assume we are all like you for a moment:  can race or gender still matter?  In other words, suppose I decide to vote for Obama for the overriding reason that he is African American and I want an African American in the White House.  That’s my reason, and I’m sticking to it.  Is that somehow wrong or less than politically or morally virtuous? 

I drove through West Philly the other night, and I saw house after house with posters in the window showing an impressionistic image of Barack Obama and the simple word, “Hope.”  What would it mean to neighborhoods like this all across the country for parents to be able to say what all parents say to their children–You can grow up to be anything you want in this country, even President of the United States–but mean it, have an example to prove it?

Or what would it mean for mothers and fathers to tell their daughters that they, too, could be President, that a woman can be the leader of “the most powerful country on Earth”–not just “in principle” but for real?

During one of the Democratic debates earlier on, when John Edwards was still in the race, Obama pointed out that this is an exciting year, that people have a real choice this time around, that they could vote for the first woman president of the United States, or they could vote for the first African American president of the United States, or “they could vote for John.”  Edwards dropped out of the race shortly after that observation.  Could Edwards have been the “best” person for the job, only to be knocked out for his race and/or gender?  Maybe.  But how would we know?  Or how will we know if McCain gets elected that it was because he made the best case?

Anyway, I wish us all a lot of luck.

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