Joan Cocks on the Race for the Democratic Nomination

Friday, February 1, 2008 - 12:00

Questioning Authority has been checking in with Joan Cocks, professor of politics and critical social thought, about recent developments in the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Cocks, who specializes in nineteenth- and twentieth-century political thought and contemporary political theory, has a long-standing interest in the role of ideas in the political struggles of women, ethnic minorities, colonized cultures, and other politically marginalized groups, often looking at those struggles through the eyes of insightful political thinkers.

QA: Clinton and Obama have ramped up the mudslinging in the past few weeks. Does this negative campaigning hurt the candidates?

JC: With respect to the mudslinging that the Clintons especially have been accused of--well, political campaigns aren’t bedtime stories. There is always a fray, and no one should be surprised or upset at a little rough and tumble on the way to the nominating convention. Edwards is out of the running altogether now, but I do want to point out that if Barak Obama represents the struggle against racial injustice and Hillary Clinton the struggle against gender injustice, whether or not they actually talk about race or gender, Edwards, while he was running, represented the struggle against class injustice, and he did talk about it. We all should hope that whoever wins the nomination will take up the class issue, especially as economic inequality in America has skyrocketed during the decades of Republican control of the government.

QA: Is Clinton being judged more harshly for her aggressive tactics because she is a woman?

JC: I do think that many people blame Hillary Clinton for being too tough for a woman at the same time that they claim women shouldn’t lead the country because they aren’t tough enough. That’s a conundrum that only Clinton has to bear, and how she handles it will have reverberations for every woman running for the highest national office who comes after her.

QA: CNN recently pulled an article from its Web site titled "Gender or Race: Black Women Voters Face Tough Choices in South Carolina" after readers protested that it demeans black women by suggesting that they are incapable of seeing the election in terms of complex issues rather than simple categories of race and gender. Do you think voters should consider a candidate's race or gender?

JC: Given the long history of racial injustice and gender inequality in the United States, it would be very difficult not to be struck by the tremendous significance of a Democratic primary in which the two front-runners are an African American and a woman.

I don’t think anyone at a women’s college needs to be reminded of what a pleasure it is to be presented with a choice, for the first time in any of our lives, between an African American and a woman as the Democratic candidate for the highest office in the country. But Barack Obama is additionally interesting because of his biracial and binational background. His biracial background stands as both a retort to and a transcendence of the legal and social segregation of blacks and whites in America and the essentialist ideologies that justified it. His binational background stands as a promise of a leader who will engage with the world out of a desire for reciprocal recognition instead of hegemonic arrogance. This is what, I think, Obama in his very being symbolizes for many Americans. But what helps to make him, beyond symbolism, the magnetic candidate that he is, is the cultural heritage he draws on when he uses the powers of speech to move and inspire his audiences. This is a heritage of great black preachers that found its most politically riveting expression in Martin Luther King.

The United States now faces a series of very difficult political, economic, and environmental challenges, many of which are the result of its own foreign policies and domestic habits of life. Only a leader who can help Americans transform the way they understand themselves, the world, and the meaning of the good life will have a prayer of meeting those challenges successfully. Rhetoric and vision are imperative here, and Obama’s talent for both, which is connected to his individual personality, yes, but also to a cultural lineage on which he chooses to draw, makes him an especially tantalizing candidate. Of course rhetoric and vision aren’t enough--at some point soon Obama will have to be far more specific than he has been about the policies he hopes to put in place if his mantra of “change” is to have any real meaning for those who wish to support him.

And let’s hope that whoever wins the nomination also will take the environmental crisis as seriously as Al Gore has, for this is surely the greatest crisis of our time, whether our current leaders understand that or not.

QA: The columnist Ellen Goodman recently wrote that she would love to see a Clinton-Obama ticket (although she didn't say who would top the bill). How would you feel about that, and which one would you pick for president?

JC: Until the debate Thursday night (January 31, 2008), I thought that Clinton would never agree to be Obama's vice-presidential running mate, because she sees herself as far more seasoned than Obama, and Obama on his part would never agree to take Hillary Clinton as his vice-presidential running mate, because he would be taking on Bill Clinton, too. And while I might have hoped that Obama would agree to be Hillary Clinton's running mate if she won the presidential nomination, that might not be the best thing for his own political future. After the debate, though, I found myself rooting strongly for the two of them in tandem, in any combination.

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