Change agents running for president probably would do well to leave the ghosts of crises past stashed in the attic. Instead, Hillary Clinton’s latest stumper, Gloria Steinem, is a vision from a time that is, as Barack Obama’s youthful contingent would say, “so yesterday.”
Appearing in Austin before the Texas primary, Steinem’s words on Clinton’s behalf merely served to remind young voters why they prefer Obama. Indeed, the race and gender dimensions of the presidential campaign have been important mostly to an older generation of Americans, including the Clintons, who are slow to recognize that the world they sought to change has, indeed, changed.
The contest between Obama and Clinton isn’t about sex and race. It’s about age — and the gap is about generations, not gender. Steinem, who at 73 is two years older than John McCain, tried to make the case that Hillary’s faltering campaign was owing to America’s greater guilt over racism than sexism. Voters feel worse about slavery and Jim Crow than they do about “gynocide,” according to the Ms. magazine founder. “A majority of Americans want redemption for racism, for our terrible destructive racist past and so see a vote for Obama as redemptive,” she said.
Steinem isn’t the first to note the redemptive quality of voting for Obama. Shelby Steele wrote a book about it, saying that Obamamania is largely a white phenomenon for the reasons Steinem mentioned. But like Steinem and Clinton, the white-guilt vote belongs primarily to an older generation.
Young people who didn’t experience the civil rights movement — or Steinem’s feminist movement, for that matter — aren’t thinking about race in the same ways older Americans do. And though Obama’s race clearly did count among black voters — 80 percent of whom voted for him in the states he carried up through Super Tuesday — his youth and perceived racial transcendence are what speak loudest to post-boomer voters.
It’s not that young voters are more open to diversity — though they are; they simply are more diverse than the American electorate as a whole. Exit polls of voters 18 to 29 in 2004 found that young Americans identified themselves as 13 percent Hispanic/Latino (compared to 8 percent of all voters); 15 percent black (compared to 11 percent of all voters); and 6 percent gay, lesbian, or bisexual (compared to 3 percent).
Not surprisingly, this age group is the most tolerant and becoming more so, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE). Here’s another batch of demographics to spice the stew as older Americans ponder Obamamania: This same youth group is better educated than previous generations, less likely to be married than their counterparts 30 years ago, less likely to have served in the military, more likely to be concentrated in the West, and more likely to be unemployed.
The America of the Steinem/Clinton generation has changed in hue and ’tude, in other words, and politicians who seek ascendancy with arguments of a boomer past will merely highlight that his or her time belongs to history. Steinem and Steele may be right that some Americans unconsciously seek atonement through an Obama presidency, but that’s clearly not the case among young people who show almost identical attitudes toward Hispanics, blacks, and whites, according to CIRCLE’s research.
And what about gender? Do people care more about a racist than a sexist past? And is it possible, as Steinem recently claimed in a New York Times article, that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life”?
Um, probably not. Few statements could more vividly illustrate the growing gap between yesterday’s sisterhood and today’s young women. Contrary to the myths they’ve been fed since birth about their second-class status, young American women today are thriving.
They may be a little lonely in college where they outnumber men. They may be frustrated by a lack of adult male company as their opposites amuse themselves with pixilated playmates and video games. But patriarchal oppression is a hard sell.
The Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz recently reported that half of American men ages 18 to 34 play video games almost three hours a day. Which sex needs saving here?
Trying to convince women under 50 that gender is a barrier to success feels not just stale, but dishonest. And nothing says “yesterday” like a 73-year-old feminist foot soldier who didn’t get the memo that she won the war.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group