Back when Barack Obama was still duelling banjos with Hillary Clinton over the Democratic Party nominations, there was a huge flurry of speculation as to who black women would vote for, and how conflicted they must be feeling, forced (as the media had it) to choose between the first African-American president and the first female president.
If the language of those discussions was anything to go by, many people were already sure the Democrats would win; or maybe, given that neither candidate was the first woman/African-American to run for president, it was simply more exciting to assume that one of them would succeed. Whatever the reason, however, more commentators than not focused on Clinton as the (potential) First Female President, just as Obama was then, and is now, the First African-American President, and these perceptions dominated discussion.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been cheering for Obama since last year, and the significance of his being the first African-American president is not lost on me. That being said, the Democratic primaries and all their attendant speculations on whether race would trump gender made me extremely angry: because the ultimate display of non-prejudice is to vote in someone regardless of ethnicity or sex, simply because that person is the best candidate for the job. When the media based all their commentary on the face of these two qualities, they only served to emphasise the problem: that these are things we should be above considering, but aren’t.
Look at this another way. Historically, when both candidates have shared the same gender and pigmentation, the media focus has been on policy. If (and, inevitably, when) the debate has veered into personal territories, it’s been understood as the triumph of our human fondness for gossip, but not lauded as a vital part of the political process. Often, in fact, it has been condemned – rightly, too. So when Obama and Clinton first locked horns, it angered me that here we had two powerful, intelligent competitors – equal underdogs, if you like – stuck in a process where most of what passed for commentary hinged on the twin novelties of their gender and parentage.
To cut a long story short: I am vastly more enthused by the idea of Barack Obama as an intelligent, forward-thinking leader than I am by his being the first black president. Because the real point of mentioning his race is, ironically, to prove that it doesn’t matter: that skill, regardless, of the body in which it resides, should always speak for itself.
Which brings us to Sarah Palin; or, rather, to the nebulous-yet-worrying notion that she plans to run for office in 2012. Maybe. It’s less a plan at this point than an unfertilised potential plan, and at best, it’s a tiny wee zygote. Nonetheless, moose-lovers and moose-haters everywhere have pounced on it with a kind of animal glee, whipping themselves into a frenzy over what is right now, and will be for at least the next three years, zip, nill and nada.
But. (You knew there’d be one.)
Even from her supporters, and especially not from her critics, the obvious phrase which hasn’t stuck to Palin – ever – is First Female President. The women who rallied to Clinton (and who, pointedly, threatened to turn Republican once Obama won) have not subsequently rallied to Palin. There’s a variety of good reasons for this, ranging upwards from She’s Not My Type, through She’s A Republican and into the land of She’s A Raving Imbecile, Are You Insane?, because to say that Palin polarises is an understatement akin to comparing the Grand Canyon with a cracked pavement. But the point, the lesson we should take from Sarah Palin, regardless of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in 2012, is this:
That supid people can run for president too, and that not all of them are middle-aged white men.
Because stupidity doesn’t have a gender. Poor leadership doesn’t have an ethnicity. The flaws of the human race are universal. Margaret Thatcher’s femalehood didn’t make her a fluffy bunny, nor did it make her intelligent, left-wing, determined, frivolous or anything other than biologically capable of falling pregnant. Obama’s race, undeniably, was responsible for the influx of black voters this past election, but it’s not what makes him suited to leadership, nor should it be the sole reason for which we laud him.
The moral of this story is: don’t be dazzled by what shouldn’t matter. If we truly are building a world of equal citizens, we should be free to vote for or against women and black candidates, not because of who they are, but because of the strength of their policies.
Now that’s democracy.