You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Obama-Era Race Wars Are Ending. Get Ready For the Clinton-Era Gender Wars.

Getty Images

Jonathan Chait's superb cover story in New York magazine on race in the Obama era has been attacked for a number of silly reasons, my favorite being that Chait should have written a different piece entirely. This attack comes courtesy of Jamelle Bouie in Slate, who fails to mention that Chait's piece also ignored The Crimean War, astrophysics, Hungarian nationalism, and a wide variety of other topics. But Chait's central thesis—that both right and left view politics and Barack Obama through a racial prism, with one side constantly seeing racism and the other side always feeling besieged by accusations of racism—is powerfully argued. (It seems clear to me that Chait does not mean to imply that racism and false accusations of racism are equally large problems in American life.)

The question then arises of how things will or won't change when Obama leaves office in a couple of years. Chait writes:

The passing from the scene of the nation’s first black president in three years, and the near-certain election of its 44th nonblack one, will likely ease the mutual suspicion.

But there is a corollary: namely, that the racial wars will morph into gender wars. And coincidentally enough, in the same issue of New York, Frank Rich has an essay on Hillary Clinton and the fanatical hatred she engenders on the right. The piece argues that when Republicans (in 2016) engage in numerous attacks on her past and character—which will include bringing up old scandals and going after her in gender-specific ways—the result will be politically advantageous for Clinton. (The story is called 'Scandal Loves a Clinton,' which confused me: It should be 'Clinton Loves a Scandal' unless I am missing an obvious pun or refence.)

I think Rich's argument is entirely correct, and I have made a version of it before. But Rich's quotations call to mind the same dynamic Chait lays out regarding Obama and race: namely, that the attacks on Clinton will be seen as sexist by liberals, which in turn will lead to conservatives feeling falsely accused of sexism. You can count on MSNBC, for example, to turn nearly every attack on Clinton into an attack on Republicans for hating women. (I expect Chris Matthews, who Chait mentions and who once disdained Clinton, to clean up his act and fall into partisan line.) Rich, for example, after noting some quite obvious examples of sexism, quotes Peggy Noonan calling Hillary a "highly credentialed rube." I don't think that rises to the level of anything, other than idiocy. And while many of the comments about Hillary Clinton's clothing were either outwardly sexist or motivated by sexist double-standards (and were thus also sexist), to paraphrase Chait: a comment about how a woman dresses is not by definition sexist. I seem to recall endless chatter about what Al Gore wore, too.

Noonan also compared Clinton to Glenn Close's bunny-hating character in Fatal Attraction, which is pretty obviously sexist. (She followed up by saying that Clinton “doesn’t have to prove she’s a man. She has to prove she’s a woman.” Sexually voracious and asexual both!) But it's hard to imagine Hillary being compared unfavorably to any unlikable female figure in pop culture or American history without people screaming about sexism. (Obama has been compared to Hitler and Stalin.)

There is reason to think, however, that the gender issue (in the context of Clinton) will eventually fade away much more quickly than the racial one (in the context of Obama). For starters, the Clinton campaign was able to gain political traction from sexist attacks last time, and if it does so again, Republicans might rightly start being extra careful. Obama was never able to use racist attacks from Rush Limbaugh and others to his political advantage; he generally shies away from racial politics of any sort. Moreover, half the country is female, and Republicans learned in 2012 (as Rich points out) what happens when you say incredibly stupid things about women. (Women actually make up more than half of the voting public; racist dog whistles are still easier in a country that remains mostly white.)

Still, the differing perceptions are unlikely to vanish entirely (nor, needless to say, is sexism). Chait's paradigm will be relevant, in another context, for longer than we might think. 

P.S. In an aside, Rich writes:

"Benghazi will be a nonfactor in 2016, as it was in 2012, because most voters don’t give a damn—any more than they care about Vladimir Putin’s Crimea grab, which will also be pinned on Clinton’s reign at State—in no small part because the Bush administration’s Iraq fiasco depressed public engagement in foreign affairs for a generation."

The Schadenfreude here is a little tiresome. The American public overwhelmingly supported a disastrous war, and now that same public is "depressed" and exhausted. Rather than pinning the blame for the public's apathy on Bush, Rich might consider calling out his fellow citizens. The world is big and important, and the Iraq war (which the public erroneously got behind) is not an excuse for ignoring it.