Wednesday 22 May 2019

Clinton versus Trump is a battle of two Americas - and of two sexes

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Photo: AP

Liz O'Donnell

Canadian feminist politician Charlotte Whitton's well-worn quote is apt when it comes to Hillary Clinton's qualifications to be US president: "Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good...Luckily, this is not difficult".

Forgive me for being 'braggadocious' but I have seen plenty of examples of this in politics. Although there has been a dearth of women elected in Ireland since the foundation of the State, women who did succeed in politics tended to be high achievers. Few were mediocre performers.

Despite massive shifts in female representation in all the professions in Ireland over three decades, politics remains a more difficult arena for women. When first elected to the Dáil in 1992, I was one of 20 women elected in a House of 166, and that was the highest number ever. When I left politics 15 years later, in 2007, the female head count was just 22 (13pc), the same as in 2002. Progress had been at a glacial pace, despite the stated best intentions of the political parties.

The reality is that politics is about the exercise of power and incumbent males resisted making space for women in a finite forum like the parliament where power and government is grounded.

It was only when gender quotas were legislated for in 2013 and used for the first time in the last General Election that the status quo was disrupted and 35 women were elected to a Dáil of 158 TDs, a historic high of 22pc, up from 15pc after the 2011 election.

Gender quotas are controversial, even among women. It is an intervention which many women feel is unwarranted and unwanted. The most common complaint is that women want to make it on their own strengths and not thanks to positive discrimination because of gender.

Indeed, in a survey of women TDs in the years leading up to the gender quota legislation, a majority opposed the quota. But, love it or loathe it, the gender quota was a game changer and shifted the dial in favour of a more diverse political culture.

The objective of having more women TDs is to make our laws, policies and discourse more feminised, more influenced by the perspectives and life experience of women. If women are absent when policy is formulated, it lacks credibility and leaves our democracy unfinished.

Female representation in US politics is not very much different to our experience in Ireland. It has been incremental and slow, only reaching a high of 19pc, lower than Ireland's, in 2014. In the country's 240-year history, no women had made it through the primaries in either party until Hillary Clinton's historic achievement this year. Surprisingly, the country's female representation in Congress falls below the global average. The US ranks behind 94 countries, according to the Inter- Parliamentary Union, including many developed and developing countries like China, Afghanistan and Uganda.

There have been high-profile US women politicians but most people would be hard pressed to name female American lawmakers beyond Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, all of whom served as Secretary of State. Now for the first time, a woman, Hillary Clinton (pictured inset), is the Democratic nominee for the presidency. She was beaten to that nomination by Barack Obama in 2008, to the dismay of her many admirers and supporters, but went on to join President Obama in his cabinet as Secretary of State, where she served with distinction.

As a two-term senator for New York she has been at the pinnacle of American politics. In one way or another, her entire life has been one of public service, as a lawyer, First Lady, senator and Secretary of State. She is now poised at the final frontier for any politician, male or female, in US and world politics, the presidency.

Her rival for this position is a person who many view as unfit to be in the race. Donald Trump is a flamboyant businessman, devoid of political experience, who because of personal wealth and a hopelessly divided Republican Party eliminated the other contenders for the Republican nomination. He now competes with Clinton, probably the best qualified and experienced candidate for the presidency in modern times.

Bizarrely, despite his inexperience, sexism, racism and dubious tax and business record, the polls show him neck and neck with Clinton, although she has a narrow lead in the key battleground states for the Electoral College votes.

A curious mix of angry, anti-intellectual and xenophobic sentiment is fuelling the Trump campaign.

Add to this the fact that as a perceived "insider", Clinton must defend her own and her husband's past political mishaps, including some valid questions about the finances of her family charity, the Clinton Foundation. Trump's latest assault, "Follow the money", is intended to discredit Clinton for her links to Wall Street and wealthy donors. Meanwhile, he views not paying federal or state taxes as smart business.

The first televised debate this week was viewed by more than 100 million people. The candidates performed true to themselves. He was the angry white guy, unprepared and bombastic. She was prepared, skilled and knowledgeable. She deftly reminded people of Trump's misogyny and racism; this could be the strongest card against Trump when people go into the ballot box. Ironically, Hillary's longevity and toughness, hewn from the hard knocks of real politics over the years, are traits which are being held against her. It is claimed she is "unlikeable" and Trump's character slur of "crooked Hillary" has stuck in the public mind.

Bernie Sanders's unexpectedly effective campaign against Clinton in the primaries has left behind a damaging legacy, with many Democrats unwilling to support her, even against the appalling Trump.

The challenge for Clinton in debates is to not stoop to Trump's base level of insult, hate and vitriol. She is wise to throw back his own words at him, reminding people of their depravity, as when he called women "pigs", "slobs" and "dogs".

This is a battle between two Americas, a truly divided society and polity.

As the world looks on gaping at the TV spectacle, bemusement is turning to fear.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss