From the center: Why are Republicans guilty of tokenism – while Democrats produce historic breakthroughs?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, many Americans cheered his historic breakthrough. For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man for president. Even many Obama opponents transcended partisanship to celebrate this extraordinary – and hopefully healing – achievement.

Republican vice presidential...

Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Photo: AP

Yet the next day, when John McCain designated Alaska’s young governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, Democrats cried: “tokenism.” Democrats said McCain’s was manipulating the many American women mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat as a setback in their quest to break the ultimate “glass ceiling” of the White House. Even many Republicans squirmed at McCain’s crassness.

Yet there seems to be a contradiction. Why are Republicans deemed guilty of tokenism when they promote women or blacks, while Democratic “diversity” promotions are hailed as historic breakthroughs? Obamaniacs have a simple answer. They claim that Barack Obama – and Hillary Clinton – are both qualified to be president and Sarah Palin is not. Moreover, Democrats say that Obama did not run on his race, and Clinton did not run on her gender, but that Palin was picked solely because she is female.

BOTH SIDES of the story are more complicated. The 44-year-old Palin, indeed, is a first-term governor of a marginal state, but the 47-year-old Obama is a first-term US senator, so he lacks any serious executive experience. And while Obama did not run on his race alone, he would not have won the primaries without African-Americans’ nearly-unanimous support.

Similarly, Palin’s gender factored into McCain’s equation in choosing her, but so far she has been more useful in solidifying his right-wing evangelical base. Moreover, the older Democratic women who disdain Palin rejoiced in 1984 when Walter Mondale nominated the inexperienced Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Partisanship and ideology feed this hypocrisy. Just as Democrats charged tokenism when President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, an anti-affirmative action African-American to the Supreme Court, Democrats are furious that Palin is pro-life. She is so pro-life she did not abort her fifth child, even though she knew he would be born with Down syndrome. Now Palin seems to be encouraging her pregnant 17-year-old daughter to get married and keep the love child. These anti-abortion bona fides thrilled the Christian right, and have already improved the Republican Convention dynamics for McCain.

Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. Whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement.

Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy. Republicans are usually quicker to disdain tokenism, yet they frequently make strategic choices based on race, religion, ethnicity or gender. Democrats worship “diversity” as a core ideal, but too frequently that means a rainbow of men and women representing different races, religions, ethnicities, all marching in ideological lockstep, never tolerating diversity of thought too. How supporting abortion became so central to the women’s movement is an interesting historical question for another time, but to many women, a female pro-life vice president is as unacceptable as an anti-Zionist Jewish president would be to Jews.

AMERICAN JEWS are as inconsistent on this score as any other group. Jews crave acceptance as “normal” Americans while taking particular naches in every Jewish political appointee, in every American Jewish success. American Jews want non-Jews to accept them as Americans, without noticing that American Jews vote for their own kind disproportionately and often help each other out generously.

A popular if possibly apocryphal story about America’s first Jewish cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when president Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the president, saying that when president Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.

In Israel, too, the politics of ethnicity and gender can get intense – and inconsistent. Moshe Katsav delighted in his role as a successful Sephardi role model, then immediately – and falsely – played the racism card when his despicable behavior created a scandal. And Tzipi Livni’s on-again-off-again flirtation with the legacy of Golda Meir reflects her complicated juggling act among being treated like “one of the boys,” tapping into some “girl power” and staying true to her Revisionist anti-Golda roots.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to win a congressional seat, ran for president in 1972. She insisted : “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not a candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America…” Alas, if anyone remembers Chisholm today, it is because of her race and gender.

Still, hers is an admirable formula. And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement, appreciate his impressive abilities independent of his race, yet also welcome this breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. Similarly, as long as Sarah Palin appears more like Al Gore than Dan Quayle, she should be hailed as an impressive individual and a leading pioneer.

We need a little constructive hypocrisy on this issue. People should rise and fall on their merits, but in this imperfect world, if they bring their subgroup a little more pride and standing, that is an added bonus.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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