With the tone and substance of national policy in the United States in a seemingly bottomless downward spiral, threatening both the peace of the world and the freedom of Americans, it may be fair to ask, why talk about a woman running for president? The simple answer is that the best promise for improvement may well be in calling on the talents of humanity’s other half, so largely ignored in American politics (actually, humanity’s more-than-other half since males on average die much younger).
I sincerely believe America has scraped the bottom of the barrel for male leadership talent with George Bush. Indeed, in some ways this is true of both parties since Al Gore, while a far more intellectually-capable man, threw away the election with a fatuous, me-too campaign and insisted on blaming Mr. Clinton’s past activities for his loss. Hardly the stuff of great leadership.
When will a woman run for president? When this question is posed in op-ed opinion pieces, the answer frequently offered is something along the lines of “when one decides to run.” A very reassuring bromide that injects “choice,” that most pliable word of American corporate-speak, into the discussion.
Of course, the reality is that an apron-strings, cookies-and-milk mind-set still dominates much of American society’s attitudes about women. People abroad likely find it hard to appreciate the truth of this when they think of America as a place of rapid change and advanced technology.
But not everything is technologically advanced in America. You have only to recall the incompetent mess of Florida ballots in the last election for an example of how a technologically advanced nation can be backward even in areas of technology.
And rapid change certainly does not occur uniformly through American society. This is a nation where millions of people look for signs of Satan in children’s books and attend religious revivals where folks are slapped on the forehead to cure cancer. One of the largest fundamentalist Christian denominations in the United States proudly declares that the little woman’s place is to support her husband as patriarch of the family. The role for women amongst American fundamentalist Jews is pretty much what one would expect to find in the mid-17th century.
America’s South, with its cloying ideals of belles, cheerleaders, baton-twirlers and cotillions, represents patriarchal values in the raw. After all, it is the place that spontaneously generates people who speak in tongues and handle poisonous snakes as part of divine worship. Almost the nation’s entire supply of fundamentalist preacher-entrepreneurs, people who make a fine living out of refusing to recognize what century they live in, are incubated and developed in the South. And the South, due to changing trends in population, is the part of the country that has risen to great new influence in American politics.
The treatment of Hillary Clinton set a standard of viciousness no other society on earth, claiming to be civilized, could match. An intelligent and independent-minded woman was harassed and insulted for eight long years simply because she was intelligent and independent-minded. Undoubtedly, it all served as an effective warning that the Barbara Bush image, the smiling granny serving cookies and milk while overseeing ghost-written books about her dog Fluffy is the preferred one for the White House.
In a very real sense, Elizabeth Dole, who did make a weak attempt at the Republican nomination, despite the benefit of a syrupy Southern accent, was never a serious candidate. Comments on Ms. Dole’s abilities, reported in the mainstream press, included her skill at descending from a podium and the fact that her shoes coordinated with decor.
She was always a weak candidate, having held appointed offices, with no genuine experience in politics, and someone who long played public cheerleader to her morose and plodding husband’s political fortunes (some would say that alone disqualified her), a gracious man who returned the favor by publicly disparaging her campaign early on (What else does one expect from someone who actually bawled at Richard Nixon’s burial?).
The strong, lingering smell of anti-feminism in America, kept alive by people who believe we should be guided by principles that predate the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, certainly helps explain why the most capable women don’t run. Christine Whitman, former governor of New Jersey, is an outstanding example, now safely tucked into a lesser cabinet post (lesser as far as the Bush Boys are concerned – after all, what’s the environment but a name for a photo-op?) where she is free to say virtually nothing – a very dynamic governor, whether you agree with all her policies or not, reduced to a cipher.
Perhaps, “can’t run” is the more appropriate expression, since money, steam-shovels full of it, from private sources drives the entire American political engine. George Bush provided the definitive proof that a candidate most people never heard of and who had never taken any interest in national policy can win, provided only he started his journey through the primary campaigns with $70 million stuffed in his pockets and received frequent top-ups as he glutted the airwaves with numbing pictures of vacuous benignity. The sources of this money still do not see fit to trust women with command over resources in business, so it is not surprising they do not trust them with command over resources in politics.
Something is very wrong with national politics when a country of America’s stature can’t come up with a better choice than George Bush or Al Gore (incidentally, has anybody noticed the increased role of inheritance in the great republic?). America’s rotten system for financing elections is at the heart of the matter. What other nation holds to a mindless equivalency between money and free speech? Presumably, if you pushed this legalistic, anti-democratic notion to its limit, big-money contributors would be entitled to do all the speaking in elections. Everyone would still have a vote, but only those with money could talk to them. George Bush’s campaign hinted strongly at the future possibility.
The party system is also at fault here. Despite the countless chamber-of-commerce testimonials we hear about free enterprise in America, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to institute it into politics. We have a virtual monopoly situation (actually, what economists call a duopoly) with two parties using countless dodges, gimmicks, and unfair rules to keep out competitors. Just a little room is left around the edges of all the high barriers to entry so that some suggestion of a free market is maintained, much the way small independent bottlers of soda receive a few square feet out of an entire aisle dedicated to Coke and Pepsi products in a supermarket. The restrictions against a third-party candidate’s even getting on the ballots of all fifty states would fill a book.
New parties bring new ideas and new blood. Why does anyone believe that two parties are any more capable of this than if there were only two banks doing all financial transactions? Republicans in particular love to blather about “creative destruction” in the economy. Did it ever occur to them that the same Schumpeterian principle applies to institutions like political parties? The national parties have crotchety old establishments that do not contain many women or other fresh-thinking people in influential positions.
Methods of national debate also are part of the problem. So long as argumentative nonsense is regarded as debate, an immature and intellectually-dull national politics will continue. Negative advertising is only a small part of this phenomenon. Many talented people are repulsed at entering a contest where lung-power and attitudes play a far greater role than ideas or wisdom. This was certainly the case for General Powell, and I suspect former Governor Whitman. One could make a joke about this form of debate appealing more to hormone-driven males than thoughtful women, but in fact it does not appeal to the thoughtful of either sex. Yet it dominates American politics, just as dominates the airwaves with public affairs programs that don’t inform.
Change in the way America does the business of politics offers the best chance for escape from the intellectual and moral sinkhole represented by the Bush administration. Such change would bring more excellent people forward, and I have no doubt that at least half of them would be women. And America would take a big step forward in its promise to be a democratic society, rather than one run by money with a semblance of democratic institutions. But in saying these things, I fear I may be pointing towards solutions whose very impossibility now leaves a sense of a settled and depressing fate.