If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, she will be the first-ever female presidential candidate from a majority political party in United States history. If Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, he will be the first-ever Jewish presidential candidate from a major political party. What’s a liberal Jewish feminist voter to do?
The question of whether to privilege your feminist identity, your progressive Jewish identity, or neither, takes us back to the 2008 election. That race was arguably very much about…race. In the primary, Clinton downplayed her candidacy’s historical significance at first, while Barack Obama embraced the symbolism of being a historic candidate at a historic moment. Although Obama’s race hurt him in the general election among a broad swath of voters, many others were undoubtedly inclined to vote for Obama or extra-inclined to do so because he would be America’s first black president.
There’s nothing wrong with that. In the United States, identity is often a proxy for values. We assume that black leaders will care about the least powerful among us, help root out racial bias and other forms of discrimination, and generally prioritize fairness and equality of opportunity in the policies for which they advocate. And this has been, generally (ahem, Ben Carson) the case. Whether allied white politicians may actually be able to stick their necks out farther on issues of race without being accused of bias and self-interest is an important question; regardless, equal representation in the halls of power and a sense of common cause and common identity with our leaders is a right that should be afforded to every group of Americans — not just to pale, male Protestants.
Yet, interestingly, in the midst of this context, the liberal Jewish women with whom I’ve talked seem especially unmotivated by Bernie Sanders’ religion. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised; Sanders is a fairly secular Jew — more culturally Jewish than religiously so. But then again, so was Jerry Seinfeld, and I’ve definitely heard my liberal Jewish friends proudly embrace Seinfeld not only because he’s funny but also because he’s a funny “one of us.” And Sanders taps into a political tradition in America that is simultaneously very radical and very Jewish. That tradition includes the prominent communist intellectual Dorothy Healey active in the 1930s, the civil rights organizers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner killed in Mississippi in 1964, and many more.
But it’s Bernie’s politics that appeal, not his personal identity. “I’m leaning toward Bernie in the primary because I feel like there’s real value in voting for a self-described socialist,” Sarah Seltzer, a writer based in New York City, told me. Though she added that she has been surprised by her own joy at seeing voters respond to a left-wing Jew who she feels comes from a radical secular wing of tradition that is often overlooked in the Jewish community.
As for Hillary, the Jewish women I spoke with seem more influenced by her professional qualifications and perceived ability to win the election than by her gender. But being a woman was certainly more of a factor in their overall enthusiasm for her — if not their actual decision-making — than Bernie’s Jewishness was for his supporters.
Clinton “is the most capable, most effective candidate,” Wendy Wolf of Haverford, Pennsylvania, said. Pragmatically, Wolf added that Clinton has “a history of getting things done” and that “we must win this election and she is the one to do it.” Wolf is excited about the idea of having politicians who actually reflect the diversity of the voters — instead of, for instance, a reality in which white men make up 68% of Congress even though they’re just 38% of the voting population. But gender seems more like the exclamation point on her decision.
Likewise for Julie DeLoca of New York City. “I want to see the first woman president,” DeLoca said. “I also want to see the first Jewish president, Latino president, gay president, etc.” But that’s not her primary consideration. “Most importantly,” DeLoca said, “I vote for people who can get sh-t done.” DeLoca is supporting Clinton.
Adding to the quixotic picture is the fact that, at least according to some recent polling, women voters in New Hampshire support Sanders more than they do Clinton. Meanwhile the only primary poll that included religion, conducted the American Jewish Committee in September 2015, suggested that Jewish voters support Clinton more than they do Sanders. Still, despite even the fact that Clinton’s campaign has embraced feminism and its historical role more now than in the 2008 race, gender and religion just don’t seem to be guiding variables in driving primary support either way.
I can’t help but wonder if any of this would be different if the Republican candidates weren’t consistently bashing political correctness. Through their implicit underhanded dig at both Obama’s legacy and the rising focus on racial justice brought about by Black Lives Matter, Republicans have suggested that the idea that we should simply treat everyone equally and with respect actually presents an unfair advantage to women and people of color. The GOP implication that this keeps white male voters somehow oppressively muzzled mocks the real oppression experienced by women, people of color, Jews and others, historically and to this day.
But it also denigrates the very idea of identity politics. It suggests that lifting up identity, let alone making voting decisions based on identity, is a shameful act. Mind you, some of the same people promoting this view don’t seem to notice that they are very much supporting Donald Trump because he is white, Christian and male.
This could also be a reason why Democratic voters are moving away from identity motivators in this campaign: They’re reacting against the rhetoric on the Republican side, which is motivated by identity in the ugliest way possible. Recoiling from this, Democrats find themselves craving a candidate — any candidate — who can clearly and powerfully stand up for the American identity and values that we all share.
Sally Kohn is an essayist and CNN political commentator.