Redefining Sexism

The GOP is playing identity politics with stunning incompetence.

Think about it. Had McCain chosen a male running-mate with Sarah Palin’s resume, the choice would have been laughed off the national stage, dismissed as absolutely unserious. Tim Pawlenty, the equally socially conservative Minnesota governor who was on the McCain short list, was widely dismissed for being too insubstantial, for having qualifications too likely to be dwarfed by Joe Biden’s greater experience and gravitas. And Pawlenty looks like a seasoned elder statesman compared to Palin.

What, then, did this brunette version of Ann Coulter bring to the table, other than her gender and an impressive mean streak?

Here’s the calculus as McCain’s folks apparently analyzed it: 1) a lot of women voted for Hillary; 2) social conservatives in the GOP base still don’t trust McCain. With Palin, we can energize the base, and as a  bonus, we can pick up disappointed Hillary voters because she’s a woman. Women just want to see someone who looks like them in office, bless their pretty little heads.  Plus, we can dismiss the inevitable criticism as sexist.

It seems genuinely never to have occurred to the McCain camp that for women voters to believe that a candidate “looks like them” might require more than shared secondary sexual characteristics. (It isn’t only women, of course. Remember when the right wing thought Alan Keyes would appeal to African-American voters?)

Is misogyny real? Of course it is. Sexists—and racists—operate under a double standard; they demand higher performance, better qualifications, and harder work from members of disfavored groups than they demand from members of their own. (And yes, women and blacks can be sexists and racists under that definition.) Genuine advocates of civic equality don’t want preferential treatment; we want—duh—equal treatment.

What most feminists want is a truly level playing field. We want to be evaluated on our merits. We want to compete on the basis of our competence to do the job at hand. We don’t want either success or failure to be based upon our gender.

Hillary Clinton did face substantial sexism, as her supporters have alleged, but her defeat in the primary was primarily the result of a poorly-run campaign. She lost for many of the same reasons that John Edwards, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd lost. The men and women who supported her never tried to argue that her bona fides or positions should not be scrutinized—they supported her because they genuinely believed she would be the best for the job, not because she had ovaries.

There may be voters who believe that Governor Palin is the most qualified person to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Others will welcome her selection as evidence of John McCain’s total capitulation to the far right fringes of the Republican party. The rest of us will wonder what the selection says about John McCain’s judgment—and what it tells us about his promise to “put America first.” And we aren’t all sexists.