Monday, February 03, 2014
Equality Mostly Arrives in Hindsight
For the sake of a greater understanding, this weekend I watched history unfold before me. The television networks are notoriously covetous of their broadcasts, rarely digging into their archives for any reason. I’ve always found that decision extremely unfortunate, because records of the past are not merely a time capsule, nor a potential loss of revenue. They are primary sources that reveal much about how we got to where we are today.
An especially generous person has posted a series of YouTube videos that have been copied from the original source. Each one features full election night coverage of several Presidential elections, as the results unfolded. In an effort to observe progress from the vantage point of hindsight, I made a mental note of the trends I observed. In particular, I wanted to see how gender representation has evolved. Memory alone fails many who were alive at the time. We believe our own hazy embellishments, sometimes without meaning to do it, at times to further our purpose.
I began nearly a half-century ago with the 1968 election, the nail-biter, three-way race between Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Republican Richard Nixon, and Independent George Wallace. In eight hours of live broadcast, I noticed that every commentator was a white male. Women were seen absolutely nowhere. They were not found anywhere throughout the buzzing, busy newsroom, nor were they mentioned in more than one or two token election returns.
Black voters, as a bloc, were described as “the Negro ghetto vote.” If anyone used that phrase today, they’d find themselves in the middle of a controversy. Blacks were only mentioned when it benefited Humphrey, the Democrat, and were otherwise mostly invisible. No African-Americans were interviewed on camera. Instead, every analyst was a white male of middle age or older. In a different era, there were fewer cutaways from the newsroom. Interviews with multiple politicians and persons of interest are routine now, but this was not so back then.
Eight years later, the 1976 race between Democrat Jimmy Carter and the incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford showed substantial progress. Half of the talking heads were female, and they shared more or less equal screen time with men. Specific segments that took into account how women voted and how women were represented in Congress were introduced. Considerable work was still required, of course. Two female politicians interviewed on camera noted sadly that while a handful of women were included in the House, the Senate would remain exclusively male.
Today, thirty-eight years later, there are 82 women in the House and 20 in the Senate. Progress has been made, but real parity remains elusive. In some ways, how we define parity is the most important aspect of this comparison. We’ve had two female Vice-Presidential candidates, neither of which was elected. As for the office of President, Hillary Clinton came close to capturing the Democratic nomination in 2008, but fell short. This begs the question. If we do elect a woman to be President next time around, what kind of lasting result towards equality will we achieve?
Barack Obama is the first black President, but I don’t see another black politician, male or female, waiting in the wings to succeed him. Hillary Clinton is the only female politician with enough name recognition and experience to be seriously considered to serve as Chief Executive. Merely electing or appointing minorities or those historically marginalized is not enough. It might well be years before we see substantial gains. Either we accept the status quo, trusting that progress is slow but inevitable, or we fight for greater representation.
Real leaders are in short supply regardless of where one looks. The wheels seem to have come off the bus with Chris Christie, negating what might have been a formidable GOP challenger in 2016. Successful candidates have been known to appear out of nowhere, but none have yet. Hillary Clinton was fond of noting the numerous cracks in the glass ceiling her candidacy created, but I don’t think the glass has been shattered. I’m not even sure if she wins two terms that it will be.
This country once tried a radical step towards increasing greater representation among minorities and those regularly marginalized. It was called Reconstruction. Black men were for the first time given representation in Congress, but the white backlash in the South was immediate and intense. As long as Union troops enforced order, these men remained in power, but once Reconstruction ended, whites resumed their once-dominant place. Though its intentions were good, this grand plan could not sustain its lofty goals.
One might say that too much change is a bad thing. When it is rejected wholesale, people wish to return to the way things used to be. The North grew weary of extended occupation, treating the South like a conquered province. And even if it had kept troops in the former Confederacy, resistance would have been especially heavy. The Union was never greeted as liberators by anyone except for former slaves. Only a few years later, Jim Crow became the law of the land for most Southern states.
Jacobin efforts to force the hand of the unwilling opposition may not be a tenable solution. Though many reformers grow weary with the American public, I think we must concede that steadily moving forward is our best approach. The gridlock we have now, however, is the absence of change. Liberals have a laundry-list of programs they would like to see enacted, and the Presidency of Barack Obama has shown that we may only receive a fraction of them. What we will receive in the years to come remains to be seen.