It's hard to think of with three living figures in American politics who generate more passion than the ones named in the title of Obama, Clinton, Palin: Making History in Election 2008, a collection of essays edited by Liette Gidlow and published by the University of Illinois Press . The word “passion” here subsumes both ardor and loathing. I doubt it is intentional, but the photographs on the book’s cover are arrayed such that they seem almost attached to one another, like Siamese triplets perhaps, or some beast with multiple heads in one of the more psychedelic passages of Biblical prophecy. If the 2012 campaign doesn’t give you nightmares, that image still might.
Gidlow, the editor, is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, and the 11 other contributors are all historians as well. Their essays frame the 2008 campaign as a late episode in the country’s uneven progress toward incorporating anybody other than white men into elected government. Every so often we hear that the United States entered the “post-feminist” or “post-racial” era at some unspecified point in the (presumably) recent past. But reality has a way of asserting itself, and the next thing you know there are people demonstrating against the president with signs that show him as a cannibal with a bone through his nose, or a politician responds to a female heckler  by hinting that she should perform a sexual service for him.
Debates about race and gender came up often during the 2008 primaries and the election season that followed, so the book’s emphasis is hardly misplaced. Much discussed at the time was each campaign’s groundbreaking status in the history of presidential contests -- with Palin being the first woman to run on the Republican ticket, while Obama was the first African-American, and Clinton the first woman, to have a serious shot at the Democratic nomination.
That is true, but it is blinkered. If the essays in Obama, Clinton, Palin could be reduced to a single theme, it might be that the history-making campaigns of 2008 were also products of history, or echoes of it, as well. The most interesting chapter in that regard is Tera W. Hunter’s “The Forgotten Legacy of Shirley Chisholm,” which recalls the African-American Congresswoman’s presidential bid in 1972.
Chisholm had no hope of winning, and knew it, but paved the way for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. She was, Hunter says, “antiracist, antisexist, pro-choice, pro-labor, antiwar, fiercely independent, and, above all, principled.” But the point of invoking her memory is hardly to treat the Clinton or Obama campaigns as rightful heirs. In Hunter’s reading, the Democratic primaries of 2008 were a travesty of Chisholm’s effort.
“Hillary Clinton never spoke openly, critically, or engagingly about the status of women in our society, the problems of gender discrimination, and what we should do about it,” writes Hunter. As the competition heated up, Clinton “became more forthright in claiming to be the victim of gender discrimination,” while Obama “continued to be reluctant to dwell on issues related to race and racism.” By contrast, Chisholm “challenged the racist attitudes and practices in the women’s movement,” Hunter writes, “as much as she challenged sexism among African-Americans and the broader society.”
A cynic might reply that she could afford to do that precisely because she was not trying to get elected. To win, you pander, and when somebody complains, you try to figure out how to pander to them, too. But running a winning campaign involves neutralizing reservations as much as enlisting allegiance. On that score Obama “faced the challenge of calming white fears,” Hunter writes, “of reassuring the populace that he was not an ‘angry black man’ seeking racial retribution.” (The point is also made in “Barack Obama and the Politics of Anger” by Tiffany Ruby Patterson, who recalls how the candidate navigated the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s fire-next-time sermons.)
Susan M. Hartmann’s “Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy in Historical and Global Context” offers one of the book’s analyses of how gender stereotypes and media sexism created obstacles for the candidate – even as she “benefited not only from her husband’s name and popularity, but also from the access he afforded” to sundry political resources. “By contrast,” Hartmann says, “Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin escaped much of the gender hostility that Clinton faced,” largely because of “her strong right-wing credentials, importantly including opposition to much of the feminist agenda.”
Indirectly challenging that claim is Catherine E. Rymph’s “Political Feminism and the Problem of Sarah Palin.” Rymph makes the case for regarding Palin as the legatee of a strain of G.O.P. feminism going back to the 1940s, when “Republicans made up a greater number of women serving in Congress” than did Democrats. Their party platform endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1940 – four years before the Democrats did. (See also the abundant scholarship on the role of women activists on the right, discussed by Kim Phillips-Fein shows in “Conservatism: A State of the Field,”  her thorough survey of recent historiography.)
Clinton and Palin were both “presented in sexualized ways” during their campaigns, Rymph points out: “Clinton was a castrating bitch, while Palin was a ‘MILF ’ (presumably more flattering, but equally degrading).” Opponents were relentless in mocking Palin’s hair, clothes, days as a beauty-pageant competitor and the like, which Rymph cites as evidence that “Americans of all stripes can tolerate and even embrace sexism when it is used as a weapon against women with whom they disagree or whom they see as representing the wrong picture of womanhood.”
Thanks to Google, several contributors are able to document the racist and misogynistic rage churning throughout the primaries and campaigns. This is the third or fourth academic press publication I’ve read in the past few months to quote extensively from blog posts, comments sections, Facebook dialogs, and so forth. The effect is sometimes informative or illuminating, but usually it isn’t. You get used to seeing chunks of semiliterate ranting online, but it’s still mildly disconcerting to find it in cold type, properly cited, with scholarly apparatus.
The poisonous material quoted in “Michelle Obama, the Media Circus, and America’s Racial Obsession” by Mitch Katchum makes it perhaps the most horrifying chapter in the book. It is undoubtedly necessary to the job of showing the double dose of stereotyping (“angry black woman,” “Jezebel,” “baby mama”) that emerged in 2008 campaign, and set the tone for much that’s followed. But in the future, historians might do well to focus on computerized content analysis of digital chatter, rather than exhibiting samples, because it does not take that long to reach the threshold marked ad nauseum.
I’ve discussed a few papers in Obama, Clinton, Palin, not attempted a comprehensive review. But one general impression bears mentioning, and a look through the index confirms it: there are no entries for Afghanistan, Iraq, Lehmann Brothers, terrorism, torture, or the Troubled Asset Relief Program, nor any other major issue at stake in 2008. All are mentioned at some point in the book. But the index-maker can't be faulted, because they are always quite peripheral to the project.
What we get, then, is political history at a considerable remove from questions of governance. It’s certainly possible to argue that combat over race or gender in a presidential campaign may serve as a proxy for debates over social or economic policy. But that argument has to be made. Otherwise it seems as if the only issue in an election is whether the most powerful elected offices in the country should or should not be more demographically representative.
In any case, the 2012 presidential race has been pretty uneventful in the politics-of-difference department -- so far, anyway. I contacted Liette Gidlow, the editor of the book, to ask what she made of the contrast with four years ago.
“I do think that the 2008 campaigns expanded leadership opportunities for African-Americans, women, and others in a lasting way,” she responded by e-mail. “The political contests so far this year would seem to suggest otherwise; though Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain had their moments, ultimately their campaigns failed to win broad support among Republicans. But for the past 40 years, it has been the Democratic party, not the Republican party, that has been the driving force behind diversity in political representation, and with the primary contests limited to the Republicans this year, we shouldn't be surprised to see that the field has been dominated by white men. Which doesn't mean that in future presidential contests the Democrats will offer a slate that ‘looks like America’ or that the Republicans won't. But every time a candidate who departs from our usual expectations succeeds, it expands our ability to imagine, and ultimately to accept, different kinds of people as leaders.”
That seems fair enough, all in all. But it leaves open the question of what difference it makes, if any, after that. It certainly felt like something was changing on election night in 2008, but four years later, I often wonder what it was.