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Juan Cole: The Real Question is, Would a President McCain be good for Women?

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

A spate of newspaper articles has appeared profiling women activists who are furious that their candidate was defeated and who feel Senator Clinton was disrespected because she is a woman. It is often alleged that they are so angry and disappointed that they will refrain from voting for Barack Obama this fall.

I have been dismayed by the prominence of identity politics in the Democratic primaries. Working class men supported John Edwards, who sprang from their ranks (though I suspect he hasn't had a callus lately). African-Americans swung behind Barack Obama as soon as they were convinced that he had a chance of winning. According to opinion and exit polls, middle-aged and older white women disproportionately favored Clinton.

A successful, progressive Democratic Party has to be based on principles, not on voting for people who look like you. The principles can unify. Everyone needs health care. Everyone needs social justice. Everyone needs peace and prosperity. The general public, including independents and even some Republicans will vote for these principles. In a presidential contest based on principles, Senator John McCain has disadvantages.

But if we admit the principle that people should vote on the basis of their self-ascribed identity, well, people who consider themselves"white" are still a majority in this country. (Whiteness in American history is not a 'natural' given based on skin color; it is a social status constructed over time in people's minds. Irish Catholic working-class immigrants to the US were not considered white by WASPs in the mid-19th century. The Irish had to work hard to get in.)

Republican strategists have long taken advantage of the representational politics of race and gender. Lee Atwater turned Michael Dukakis into an African-American criminal by tying him to a Black parolee who later committed a heinous crime. Message? Liberal=Black, and not the Bill Cosby kind, either. The American Republican Party is almost completely a party of"whites." Yet Colin Powell and Condi Rice served as Bush's secretary of state. Why? So as to counter by image the sad reality that is so visible on television whenever the Republican convention is held every four years. Bush even explicitly used their presence in his cabinet to sidestep the question of why he had not done anything for African-Americans (in fact his policies deeply harmed them).

I similar but slightly different dynamics of identity politics involves substituting ethnic shibboleths for political reality. Thus, Bush's social policies enraged 85 percent of American Jews, who are mainstays of American progressive politics. Bush attempted to make up for this deficit by supporting the Israeli Right to the hilt in public, substituting photo ops with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then Ehud Olmert for any engagement with the ideals of real, breathing American Jews. The unfortunate excesses of all the candidates in their recent speeches to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee continued that tradition. If principle were an issue, then the status of Jerusalem would be a matter for international law and the United Nations Security Council. Those speeches were not about principle, but about courting what the candidates think is a single-issue constituency (of course in reality it is not [and it is insulting to think it is].)

But back to candidates. The rule in telepolitics is that a face trumps policy. Does Bush blithely allow the African-American districts of New Orleans to be wiped off the face of the map? It is o.k. because Condi Rice is in his cabinet.

It stinks.

If women who supported Hillary Clinton let themselves fall for this reactionary trap, they will undo most of the achievements of women in the past 40 years.

A President McCain will support Ward Connerly's deceptive campaign against affirmative action, which has been proven to hurt women's businesses and to help the businesses owned by cranky old rich white men.

McCain has an appalling track record on issues of global women's reproductive rights and health. McCain has also steadily moved toward an absolute anti-choice position, as he attempts to appeal to the Religious Right. A President McCain may well appoint the successor to Ruth Bader Ginzburg on the Supreme Court, and his nominee will be anti-choice. The court is nearing a majority of anti-choice judges, and the long dream of the American religious Right, of overturning Roe V. Wade, is in reach for them. A McCain court could overturn reproductive rights perhaps within a year of its formation.

The Right in another country once advocated that women be limited to Kirche, K├╝che, Kinder" (church, kitchen, children). There isn't anything wrong with any of those, of course. It is the limitation that is objectionable. That limitation is effectively what John McCain's policies lead to. Think about it.

Read entire article at Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole)