The Hillary Clinton campaign casts voters as fans and reveals white feminism’s anti-black bias
The image memes “I wasn’t ready” or “My body is ready” are used to symbolize a relationship of reciprocity between ourselves and the objects of our devotion. In the images, intended to demonstrate a moment of intense admiration or surprise, people are laid out on floors, or dogs play dead, because the sheer force of amazing that we weren’t ready for removes all physical control. Celebrities throw us into a paroxysm of ecstasy that we do not judge or respond to but are leveled by receiving. We are uncritically blessed to have been blown away. It is an image that takes traditional religious fervor and displaces it onto a celebrity that who can be worshipped as a god, but without the fear of responsibility or retribution. The deity and the celebrity are similar figures. There are texts like scripture that one must know to be a proper fan, moments of worship, acts of blessing, and devotional exercises. Fandom is a place of belief, where the act of fanning or stanning hinges on the pleasures of reception rather than the work of piety.
Readiness has also become the slogan of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rather than a galvanizing declaration of devotion, the slogan is a queasy-making line in the sand. When the legitimacy of the system the president presides over is in question, as racial oppression, capitalism, and police brutality are discussed on a global scale, choosing a president isn’t a royal crowning. The conflation of being “Ready for Hillary” with feminist allegiance brings the worst problems of political fandom, racism, and poor civic awareness to the forefront. Secretary Clinton is portrayed as a fulfillment of a progressive checklist or schedule rather than an individual candidate. When the political strategist Stephanie Schriock declares, “It is clear that this is our time” in a 2013 article by Jessica Valenti, the prospect of a woman presidential candidate is depoliticized into an overdue payment. Many avowals of support for Clinton have been about self-identification with her story and enjoyment of the theatricality of her announcement, bringing to mind the first moments of falling in love with a band via a Behind the Music special or radio single. The language of readiness reveals the lack of interaction between political leader and citizen. When a new album drops or a particularly mind-blowing episode of Scandal airs, we are audience. However we feel about what happens, our primary role is to consume. If we’re not interested, we can avoid the interaction entirely. The presidential election, regardless of our belief in its utility, impacts us all. The positional differences may be minutiae, but those at the mercy of them live and die in those inches. The Affordable Care Act, for example, is flawed and has huge gaping holes, but 20 million more Americans are insured as of 2014. The violence of bad governance is rarely funny or meme-worthy. The Clinton campaign’s focus on readiness shows a disturbing solipsism. If we are not “ready” and outside of the chosen few we still have to be governed. A show that doesn’t reach you will not disturb your life, whereas a candidate who gains office from a campaign that made you invisible will. In this context, “Ready for Hillary?” sounds more like a threat.
The feminism espoused by Secretary Clinton’s supporters has been disconnected from the reality of race in America at least since the 2008 presidential campaign. Gloria Steinem’s “thought exercise” in the New York Times about a cis-woman Barack Obama, seemed intended to support women, but read instead as dismissive: a white woman telling the world what “really matters.” Steinem’s assertion that black men were granted the vote earlier than white women seems downright comical, considering the Voting Rights Act is 30 years younger than she is, and its recent gutting has nationwide implications, not only for Black voters, but the Democratic vote as a whole. Polls indicate that Black men vote Democratic more consistently than white women, regardless of the candidate’s gender. In the RH Reality Check post “White Women: Let’s Get Our Shit Together,” Andrea Grimes writes that Wendy Davis, the Texas filibuster star, had 90 percent of the Black male vote, and 32 percent of white women’s votes. For Black Democratic voters, gender does not seem to be an issue, but for Democratic campaigns, race does.
Rhetoric from younger white feminists in recent years hasn’t been any better, only more self-justifying. When Bustle’s Gabrielle Moss recounts patronizing conversations she’s had with men as part of her 2008 election experience in “Hillary Clinton Is Running For President, And I’m Voting For Her Because She’s A Woman,” she forgets that another group of women had those endless conversations with white women like her who assumed they were voting for President Obama because of his race. While there is misogyny in the Democratic party, there is also a “color blind” racism permeating much of the Clinton campaign support. Her success will be a triumph for all women, we are told, ignoring that progress for white women have not translated into material improvements for all women. The emotional responses the campaign tries to solicit are only about gender, only against misogyny, without consideration of who the agents of this misogyny really are. Election results show that Black men vote for women willingly and they consistently vote Democrat: white men are less likely to do either. What is framed as a gender issue is actually heavily racialized.
The rhetoric of universal readiness frames the election as if there has been a wholesale resistance to powerful women, when the two demographics that have displayed consistently misogynist voting patterns are white men and white women. The picture is further complicated by the fact that Republican women are also on the rise. Congresswoman Mia Love now represents the Utah 4th district because her positions were right-wing enough to be elected. Overall, gender is not affecting elections in the way mainstream feminist rhetoric has framed it. Women candidates are winning majorities on the left and right. Voters are not unprepared to vote for a woman. Something richer and more complex is happening.
That complexity can not be properly discussed without mentioning Black women, a constituency that has taken on the regular and thankless task of saving the Democratic Party. In the 2013 Virginia Governor’s race, Ken Cuccinelli, a Tea Party candidate whose positions read like something out of a feminist nightmare, came within 2.5 percentage points of winning. White feminists lauded this narrow victory as women taking a stand for their rights. But the numbers tell a completely different story. White women in Virginia were staunchly Republican between 2009 and 2013, switching to Democrat at an even lower rate than white men at 9% vs 13%, with a 54% majority for Cuccinelli. Black women maintained a 91% Democratic showing in both elections which single handedly dragged the women’s vote for Democratic candidate McAuliffe to 51%. During Cuccinelli’s candidacy, even the small percentage of Republican-voting Black women depleted by a third. If a pro-choice superstar, Wendy David, and an anti-woman cartoon character like Cuccinelli won’t move white women in Texas and Virginia to vote Democrat, what about Hillary is so assuredly galvanizing? What is the feminist belief in her ascendency but identity politics and symbolism?
Clinton is the right kind of woman for white liberal feminists, the kind of woman for whom conversations about governance and voting are sexist annoyances and not razor-thin margins of survival. For these women, being “ready for Hillary” grants social cachet rather than maintaining a fragile hold on survival. Anti choice, anti-gay, abstinence-only Cuccinelli was a dragon whose defeat white feminists were ready to take the credit for but not actually fight for. Cuccinelli envisioned the kind of future that white feminists swear electing Hillary will prevent. But, as a voting bloc, white women don’t seem to actually have that much of a problem with this horrifying future. If Black voters are saving the white feminist future with no recognition, how can we be assured a white feminist approved candidate will actually improve Black life?
This question becomes even more important considering the willful misreading of Black women and Black people in general as “voting for the Black candidate” that has persisted from the 2008 election into the Obama presidency. Even in the 2008 primaries, accusations that Obama was using race to sway voters came from the Clinton campaign, as if Black voters were not capable of examining the issues. Interestingly, something seen in 2008 as a sign of moral weakness in Black voters is considered a feminist rallying cry in white women voters for 2016: don’t look at her policies, look at her identity! It’s wrong for Black voters to vote for a Black presidential candidate, white feminists suggest, but if it is successful we’ll vote in a white woman because it’s our turn.
White women can proclaim voting for Hillary is a necessity because of time and turns, à la Erica Jong, but Black people moved to vote for a Black president in the afterlife of slavery are somehow considered intellectually bankrupt. Rather than the nuanced and historically significant choices of a diverse group, the Black vote is reduced to identity politics and emotions, then consequently vilified and mocked. Yet eight years later, voting for a candidate so we won’t be the last superpower to elect a woman is considered noble. Far from blindly supporting the Obama presidency because of his race, Black voters have consistently critiqued the president, often with great rigor. Black women especially have done a lot of work critiquing gender-focused initiatives, including AAPF’s “Why We Can’t Wait” response to the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, a deeply feminist act that has gone unheralded. The Black political response to President Obama has been consistently grounded in a range of standpoints, including feminist ones: Black people have considered the office of president as governing all, including women. That active and diverse inclusion is missing from the Ready for Hillary rhetoric that tries to portray voting for Hillary as the pinnacle of women-centered mainstream political work, treating the office as a prize for a specific demographic that excludes Black people.
Feminists celebrating the prospect of Clinton’s election must address what it will mean for Black people and specifically Black women. The campaign is playing up its support among millennials, especially women, but as usual even as young white women are lauded for their achievements and exhorted to lean in ever further, Black women are often left out of that narrative of progress with little thought. In a Pew Research report on generational job satisfaction that claims millennial women are experiencing less of a gender pay gap than the generation before them, the fact that the pay of Black people as a whole still lags behind is swept aside. More equal pay between white men and white women is still celebrated as a feminist victory, even as the situation of women of color has only minimally improved. If marked unhappiness among black women is no barrier to celebrating feminist gain, will that same indifference to Black women be part of the political machine of the first woman president?
The incoming president will have to address an open and passionate national movement around anti-black state violence. The most loyal and consistent Democratic support base is marching in the streets and organizing in hopes of dying less and no longer being sent to prison for minor crimes. The state violence in question is directly related to policies that President Bill Clinton enacted during his tenure, especially under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which ended inmate education while building more prisons. This is the same tenure that Secretary Clinton is highly credited for shepherding. The color-blind future we were promised then, as a cover for anti-black policies, is not even close to coming true. Can the constituency that has routinely saved and supported the Democratic Party—Black voters—survive another Clinton turn? Especially considering that Hillary Clinton’s reflections on the havoc the previous Clinton presidency rained on that constituency barely go further than “oops, my bad, vote for me anyway”?
A presumed candidate since her defeat in the primaries, and ordained the frontrunner as early as November, Clinton has had time to work on issues of race and has chosen not to. White feminism as a whole has made the same mistake. That an experienced stateswoman is campaigning on the basis of her entitlement to the position and symbolic value is deeply strange. It also shows the gap between the candidates we have, the ones we think will win, and the ones we want. This is exemplified by the constant refusal to believe Elizabeth Warren or Michelle Obama when they say they do not want to run. That their imaginary campaigns are constantly positioned against the very real Clinton campaign seems to be a roundabout way of admitting that the symbolic woman we have is not giving us the politics we hoped for.
We are fan-casting our political futures because we find nothing to hope for in mainstream political reality. But the desire to see Idris Elba play Bond is more likely to be actualized: Dissatisfaction with representation in entertainment opens up new possibilities for fictional worlds. Political elections are not fictional worlds, and women who don’t want to run don’t have platforms or legislative agendas, however much we dream them up and project them onto Warren or Michelle Obama. When we receive an artistic work, it’s complete in itself, and we can take it or not as we choose. Fantasy candidates reveal a desire for a completed story, rather than the mucky realities of governance. Clinton’s origin story is considered her platform, potentially interchangeable with stories we like better or are more ready for. Picking a president becomes more like picking a favorite superhero: We are invited to choose the story we love most, because it shows that we are ready for greatness.
We’re not ready. I’m not ready, you’re not ready—and not because we are overwhelmed by devotion. A country in transformation in a world in constant realignment is never ready for anything. We are shaped by and shape our circumstances, through will, through vision, and more often than not through blood and empire. Even mainstream electoral politics are not a matter of passive reception but constant negotiation. The election of a president is above all a conflicted consideration about who will run the American empire. It is not an entitlement or right, and it is especially not a moment to prepare to receive. It is an important position that has direct impact on billions of lives that only millions get to vote for.
Of the current field of actually interested declared parties, Clinton is one of the least terrifying choices on paper, and the paucity of the choices is demonstrated not least by how she has long been disenfranchising those most likely to get her elected. While the symbolism of her election purports to show that the American political mainstream has is progressing, all her campaign demonstrates is a completed narrative: For the white women who will help elect her, change is already here; they are ready. Meanwhile, the Black and intersectional feminism that is currently moving grassroots politics in America is addressing legitimate and deep concerns that the feminism that is “Ready For Hillary” has yet to answer. Can I be ready for someone who is as yet unready for me?