clock menu more-arrow no yes

If Obama and Clinton are "affirmative action" candidates, so are white men

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Weekly Standard's Joseph Epstein has written a piece that's worth responding to because his argument is the kind of thing we'll probably hear a lot more of between now and the 2016 election: that Hillary Clinton, like Barack Obama, is an "affirmative action" candidate.

This, of course, is based on the laughable idea that only women and African Americans — and not white men — have ever benefited politically from their demographics.

Here's Epstein's main argument:

If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016 she will not only be the nation's first woman president but our second affirmative-action president. By affirmative-action president I mean that she, like Barack Obama, will have got into office partly for reasons extraneous to her political philosophy or to her merits, which, though fully tested while holding some of the highest offices in the land, have not been notably distinguished. In his election, Obama was aided by the far from enticing Republican candidates who opposed him, but a substantial portion of the electorate voted for him because having a biracial president seemed a way of redressing old injustices. They hoped his election would put the country's racial problems on a different footing, which sadly, as we now know, it has failed to do. Many people voted for Obama, as many women can be expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, because it made them feel virtuous to do so. The element of self-virtue—of having an elevated feeling about oneself—is perhaps insufficiently appreciated in American politics.

Guess who else benefits from their demographic, and always has? White men.

The most generous read of the piece is that Obama received and Clinton could receive a boost from voter excitement about what an African American or woman president would be motivated to do to ensure full civil rights for others who share his or her identity, or about the barrier-breaking symbolism of someone who is not a white man being in office.

Epstein is probably right that, at least on the surface, Obama and Clinton both have an angle that allows them to stand out among white male candidates who don't typically stir up much enthusiasm talking about the struggle and rights of their demographic groups, or about glass ceilings being broken. The obvious —  but apparently overlooked — reason for this is that white men have not, as a group, been oppressed in this country because of their identity.

Most important, to argue that only members of racial minority groups and women have ever benefited from their identity in elections is absurd.

Epstein seems to forget that there are other ways to benefit from your identity: such as being a white man.

Women and black Americans were legally or practically (because of racism and sexism) prohibited from making serious runs for president for the vast majority of our country's history, making white men the only ones who had a chance to compete or win until very recently.

And more recent data confirms that being white and male can still give a politician a boost among a certain percentage of the population. In 2008, 5 percent of white voters acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate. This year, an Emily's List poll found that 75 percent of Americans thought a woman president would be a good thing — but that still leaves 25 percent who aren't open to the idea. This happened even in what some would complain is a far too politically correct society, where Epstein argues that perceived "victims" thrive.

Epstein's affirmative action argument only makes sense if you imagine white men as completely neutral — free of race and gender, and thus incapable of enjoying any political boost connected to their identities — and if you think the benefits they enjoy (and have always enjoyed) are the only ones that are standard and fair. Even people who resent the particular kind of excitement around Obama and Clinton's campaigns should be able to look at the evidence and admit that's not the case.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.