BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
The US presidential race is being watched with interest, consternation and delight around the world. Not just because shifts in US policy, both benign and misguided, can powerfully affect the quality of people's lives on this inter-connected planet, but because of unprecedented political breakthroughs in race, religion and gender.
So enraptured has the media and US voting public become with the identity politics of the Democratic Party that the pro-war front-runner on the Republican side, John McCain, and the sole consistently anti-war candidate, Ron Paul, also a Republican, are increasingly relegated to a sideshow even though the unpopular war is credited with motivating people to vote like never before.
Liberal US voters, visibly energized by the collapse of fear-based politics in the waning days of the Bush-Cheney neo-con juggernaut suddenly face an enviable dilemma; they must choose between two equally popular liberal candidates. Given the similarly centrist, generally unremarkable policy planks of both Hillary and Barack, the question of identity comes to the fore. When both front-runners can make compelling claims to represent traditionally disadvantaged constituencies, who's more deserving of support? Major policy points being more or less equal, is it more pressingly unprecedented to elevate a non-male or a non-white to a pinnacle of power traditionally the province white men?
In terms of primary votes to date, US democrats seem evenly split between wanting a leader who is female and a leader who is black. The race is a volatile one, and as changeable as the weather judging from last-minute popularity surges, alternating leads and charismatic stump speeches.
Many primary voters report uncertainty right up until entering the voting booth. As might be expected, large numbers of women support Hillary and large numbers of blacks Obama. More intriguing are the votes against type, whites showing support for a black, men showing support for a woman. Then there are the under-courted, almost invisible Hispanics and Asians who do not fit into the dominant black-white
narrative of US identity politics. Confounding expectations, so-called "people of color" in the middle of the spectrum have shown an early preference for Clinton over Obama, though some of this can be attributed to a more seasoned political machine.
Seen from an Asian point of view in Asia, the black-white dichotomy of US politics is not particularly meaningful, and for victims of US imperialism, the color of the commander in chief pales before issues of war and peace.
On the Republican side, three white men compete for hearts and minds, dollars and dimes. John McCain speaks blithely of 100 years of war, sustaining elitist tax cuts to favor the rich and a continuation of all things Bush minus the torture and without the swagger. Republican maverick Huckabee, with his Bible-informed politics, is best understood as a likeable American eccentric, a quixotic exotic, but his inability to respect the separation of church and state is unconstitutional. Running a distant third, Ron Paul, to his credit, has been against war in word and deed, --unlike Clinton or Obama his voting record is almost uniquely consistent on that point-- but he is so against liberal government in the libertarian vein as to be unattractive in terms of domestic politics.
The Democrats, superficially at least, offer a more compassionate vision and something new. Seen from the point of view of China, Korea or Japan, the idea of a woman leading a nation is a breath-taking break with Confucian tradition, a leap forward into the unknown. One could scour thousands years of East Asian history and only come up with a handful of counter examples.
The Obama phenomena doesn’t have an easy cognate in East Asian societies given the general lack the racial diversity. In mono-racial societies, the idea of electing someone of slightly lighter or darker skin tone is unremarkable in itself, though there are fierce Asian equivalents of identity politics based on regionalism, ideology and religion.
Southeast Asia, in contrast to its northern neighbors, is one of the most racially diverse and racially tolerant regions of the world and there is more than a bit of that in Obama. His childhood years in Indonesia, in the care of his white American mother and Indonesian step-father may be construed as having provided a liberating break from the black-white straitjacket of US racial politics, and his experience as a very young American abroad may be the foundation of his apparent desire not to dwell on divisive racial issues.
The black politics came later. That Obama chose to sport an Afro when he attended high school in Hawaii may be seen as a typical teen thing, but it also suggests his return to the US forced him to confront other people’s expectations of his identity. In California and New York for his college years, he further explored the clichés and bewildering gradations of racial identity that color American life.
Most African-Americans are born black; Obama chose to be so.
Even though Obama is as white as he is black in terms of parentage, and a bit Asian in terms of influences, he is not perceived as white or Asian. Though his family tree is free of the scars and solidarity-building experience of American slavery, his identity choice as a black American was not entirely voluntary. American black society, to its great credit, has been more open-armed and willing to embrace the children of mixed marriages as one of their own than fussy white society has traditionally been willing to do.
Dominant white America has a long and peculiar history of racism and that's why race trumps gender for many American progressives. His supporters see him as a new kind of American, as an everyman capable of bridging a yawning gap that aches to be bridged. Obama critics on the militant left sometimes deride him as a "magic Negro" akin to Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, that is to say popular with whites because he doesn't act "black" enough.
It is surely no accident that Obama, a gifted orator by any reckoning, increasingly invokes the cadences and rhythms of Martin Luther King's rousing speech patterns.
If Hillary Clinton does succeed in her feminist quest, it will not be an unequivocal victory for women's rights, for she will have in common one salient characteristic with most Asian female leaders: namely proximity to an alpha male. Like her Asian sisters, Hillary's fame and political credibility are derivative; derived through close association with a proven, powerful male politician in the immediate family.
Socially conservative, "backward" south Asia broke the racial gap and gender gap long before the US, purported leader in "equal opportunity." India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines have all had female leaders, and Burma has elected one, though the long-suffering Aung San Suu Kyi has been prevented from taking power.
Black, white, young, old, male, female; the physical diversity of US candidates is easy enough to grasp even if the idiosyncratic particulars of American identity politics elude the average Asian observer. But to the millions around the world concerned about the unresolved perils of US hubris and imperialistic intervention, the differences most talked about and touted in the media are superficial differences indeed.
So strong is America's need to feel good about its diversified self, that calls for necessary corrections in a singularly disastrous foreign policy course are being drowned out by popular enthusiasm for superficial and symbolic change. Calls for US accountability for crimes of war and unwarranted intervention are increasingly getting lost in America's noisy, narcissistic campaigns celebrating America's unique values.
The author is a professor of media studies at Doshisha University and a visiting fellow at Cornell University.