Uno sguardo da vicino alle Presidenziali: Il ruolo e il peso di alcune tematiche elettorali secondo Alice Kessler-Harris

Uno sguardo da vicino alle Presidenziali: Il ruolo e il peso di alcune tematiche elettorali secondo Alice Kessler-Harris

Per approfondire la nostra piattaforma di riflessione sulle Presidenziali americane (che stiamo portando avanti anche sulla pagina Facebook C’era una volta l’America – Verso le Presidenziali) proponiamo una breve intervista a una delle più autorevoli voci accademiche statunitensi, Alice Kessler-Harris. Specializzata in storia del lavoro e storia delle donne e di genere, ha risposto ad alcune nostre domande a proposito di quelli che ci sembrano i temi elettorali più dibattuti e più rilevanti in questa campagna elettorale – non solo nei discorsi di propaganda ma anche sulla stampa –, con una particolare attenzione per le politiche di genere e le tematiche legate alle donne. L’intervista è a cura di Annalisa Mogorovich.


We are approaching the Major Election in November and, first of all, our attention is focused on women. How do the two candidates consider women and their issues? How important are gender politics in the election campaign? Moreover, America is a multicultural environment: is there still a focus on race and class?

For the first time in many years, gender politics are central to the election campaign. The most apparent reason for this is that in the 2008 election, Barack Obama won a far higher proportion of women’s votes than the Republicans did. Explaining this is complicated because women are sharply divided. A strong evangelical Christian minority (rooted in the Republican Party) draws a sharp line against shifting gender roles, abortion, same-sex marriage, and gay and lesbian lifestyles. They oppose sex education and the distribution of birth control in schools. In contrast, many women and young people of both sexes support same-sex marriage and large majorities advocate at least restricted forms of legal abortion. These tend to vote democratic. Women have become something of a swing group. You ask about race and class: the answer to that question is not unrelated to gender. Republicans currently hold a strong lead among white working-class men who have been threatened by the economic recession of recent times and who are also threatened by the shift in occupational structure that places women in a somewhat stronger position in the job market. Many families now manage to survive because they have had two incomes in the past, or because wives have gone back to work. This has fostered discussions about the changing nature of masculinity, and, as well, it has bred resentment among men who tend to swing to the right. Republicans have played on these themes in their advertisements. They accuse Obama of encouraging poor, single women to rely on welfare and of undermining the 1996 “welfare to work” program that required everyone receiving government aid to work for it. Because “welfare” mothers are imagined as Black (less than half of them are), the consequence is to inject race as well as class into the campaign. Gender politics also participates in the current Republican campaign to suppress voter turnout by intimidating potential (mostly elderly) voters. In several states now, government-issued IDs are required. These normally take the form of drivers’ licenses or passports. The catch is that they must be unexpired.  Those who never had a driver’s license or passport,  whose licenses have expired, who are ill or confined to home, may not be able to get the requisite identification. The elderly, the poor, and women are disproportionately affected by these laws.


gender-gapIn January 2009 Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in order to fight the salary gap. It was a strong symbolic gesture to inaugurate his presidential role. At that time, the financial crisis had just started. Recession affected more women than men, but also more racial minorities than whites. The gender salary gap, in fact, is $1 to 77 cents for white women, to 61 cents for African-American women and to 52 cents for Latinas. Almost four years after the passage of the law, what has been done to improve women’s working conditions?

I don’t want to duck this issue, and yet I do believe that answers to improving women’s condition rest on far more than a single administration can supply. The data suggests that women’s employment was somewhat less affected by the recession than that of men, and that women have begun to recover marginally more rapidly. But I don’t think that can be attributed to Obama, any more than the continuing pay gap can. It does look as if women continue to gain in managerial and executive level jobs – though very very slowly; and it also looks as if poor women continue to be negatively affected by the draconian restrictions on public support for education and job training for those benefitting from welfare. The provision of child care remains minimal; public housing dangerous and often unsanitary; and transportation difficult for the poor among whom women predominate. A better outcome for Democrats in the Congressional elections might change some of this.


In this election campaign, contraception, abortion and medical assistance for needy women are key items. Romney underlined that, if he will be elected, he will defund Planned Parenthood; Ryan is an earnest pro-life; Todd Akin, Missouri Senate Candidate, was in the spotlight because of his statements about “legitimate rape”. On the other hand, Democrats have already emphasized these aspects and they warn women that, with a Republican administration, they will have “No choice. No exceptions”. How important is this topic in the public debate? Will it be able to drive women’s vote?

The pundits say that questions around reproductive choice do not drive the vote. I am not so sure. For one thing, it certainly influences how some women vote and in a tight election. But which women are influenced and how is difficult to say. During the past two years, the Republicans have repeatedly attacked Planned Parenthood (93% of whose services are health and not abortion-related), and have tried to de-fund it several times. The result has been an outpouring of private contributions and support for that organization. Akin’s comment (which assumed that women lied about having been raped in order to obtain abortions) caused such a negative reaction that the Republican National Committee withdrew support from his campaign for the Senate. Still, it is unclear whether his female opponent will win. My own sense is that abortion may not be a driving issue, but it is certainly one of a constellation of social issues that has a significant reach in the electorate.


During this campaign, the topics of same-sex marriage and adoption by homosexual couples have been raised in the public debate, but how much relevant are LGBT issues? Are they playing a central role among other civil and social themes in both candidates’ campaign?

Eight states have so far adopted legislation legalizing “same-sex” marriages, and other states are now considering it. The LGBT community has successfully promoted this as a civil right issue, declaring that the absence of legal protections deprives same-sex couples of rights to economic security, inheritance, and health care to which heterosexual couples have access. Because the Federal Government is constrained by the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex marriages are not recognized by the armed services or by other government agencies. The result is a constitutional morass because the Constitution binds the Federal government to recognize State law in most circumstances. The reach of these State laws and their implications are thus important, and the two parties have divided cleanly on them. The Republicans defend marriage as between one man and one woman; the Democrats insist that gay men and women are entitled to the same civil liberties protections as everyone else. My guess is that we won’t hear a lot of talk about this in the campaign, but that it will reverberate in the decisions that people make at the polls.


story-health-care-romney-20john-142208Obamacare has been strongly criticized by the Republicans. Romney has already affirmed that he will repeal it if elected. Will the health care reform play a central role in Obama’s reelection bid? What is your opinion about it?

Obamacare is already playing a central role in the campaign. Let me begin by saying that the achievement of something approaching universal healthcare by this administration was quite remarkable. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Bill Clinton all tried to pass health care bills to no avail. But with all the compromises the bill makes, the Republicans hate the bill. To eliminate it, they have falsely accused Obama of reducing the Medicare budget (for seniors) by some 760 billion dollars over the next ten years, and of shifting the funds to States in order to help them care for the poor. Apart from the fact that there is blatant distortion here, there is not-so subtle racism as well. Medicare recipients tend to be white (about 90%) while more than half of the newly insured will be Black and Hispanic. The level of hostility to the Affordable Healthcare Act also reveals something of the Republican insistence on labeling “big government” as a negative influence. To the Republicans, the provision for mandatory health insurance (requiring everyone to pay into a health insurance plan of some kind) has become a symbol of the evils of government. Most Americans (according to the polls) believe that they will benefit from Obamacare, but the damage that will be caused by Republican lies and distortions about it is unpredictable.


Occupy Wall Street seems to have a great deal of influence on the public opinion. If in New York the protests were above all focused on the banking system, in the last period of time, in Oakland and the entire West Coast, other themes like student debt – which has risen to a soaring one trillion dollars – have become of major importance. Moreover, the relationship between Obama and labor unions has also become relevant, with the unions declaring their support for the president and going against the hopes of OWS to create an alliance between them, outside of conventional politics. Concerning this, how is Obama acting? Does he think he can attract the OWS movement to the Democratic electoral base?

Many of us had great hopes for Occupy Wall Street last year, and expected that it would form a pressure group equivalent to the Tea Party. Sadly, its energies seem to have dissipated, perhaps as a result of the OWS’ amorphous leadership and lack of a policy agenda. But Obama did not “own” the issues raised by the group either, and that surely contributed to its ultimate lack of influence. In one respect, however, the OWS movement served an important purpose: it placed the issue of inequality on the agenda. For years American politicians haven’t talked about the role of equality in a democratic society; they are now doing so. Republicans call the issue “class warfare” but Democrats respond that class warfare is being waged on a different level. Over the past decade or so, government policies have led to a sharp decline in trade union membership, especially in the private sector. Only around 6% of private sector workers and 10% of public sector workers belong to unions. Although unions supported Obama strongly in 2008, he did not provide them with as much support as they wished when they tried to loosen restrictions on forming unions in 2009 and 2010. They have little choice but to support him now, and will do so strongly, but not with the kind of enthusiasm that they demonstrated in 2008.

There is another issue here worth mentioning. In the view of the trade unions, and to many Americans, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case provided unprecedented leeway to corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns through Political Action Committees (PACs).  Many of these committees are organized around issues that one party or another supports; donors to these committees don’t have to reveal their names, and the committees then spend huge amounts of money on advertising, presumably for a cause, but also for a particular candidate. Republicans have benefited hugely from these PACs and the amounts of money now being spent on scurrilous, often unattributable messages exceeds anything we have ever seen. I don’t know if you would call this class warfare, but it certainly gives far more clout to the wealthy than seems to me appropriate to a democratic system.


ofaxxxx_afam_button_pack_2In the last four years, Obama seems to have forgotten racial issues. How much weight does his silence have? And since 95% of African-American voters chose him as president in 2008, how much will his lack of attention to these themes affect his reelection bid?

It is the case that Obama has underplayed racial issues. He has, after all, been in a difficult position. As the first Black president, he has had to demonstrate his capacity to be president of all the people, and so has bent over backwards not to make race the central theme of his administration. We hear rumblings of discontent on this score all around. But African Americans have little choice but to support Obama, and I believe that he can continue to count on them. The Republican alternative is so hostile to the poor and the weak that there is nowhere else to turn. Then too, in subtle ways, this administration has prevented the gutting of programs on which African Americans among others rely: they have resisted school vouchers that would weaken the public school systems of major cities; they have strengthened unemployment insurance, fought to re-build infrastructure, and, of course, passed a health care plan.


In 2008, you were among the subscribers of the Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama Petition, along with other distinguished names like Linda Gordon and Marilyn Young. Do you still give the same strong support to the president, or did these four years disappoint you? What went wrong during his term, and what should he change in his policies, if reelected? What promises did he disregard and which ones did he keep? What judgment could future historians have looking back on these four years of Obama administration?

I’d like to think that historians will look more kindly on the administration than many Americans now do. Obama entered office in the midst of a financial meltdown that was not of his making; he managed, against great odds, to prevent the system from collapsing and to defuse a major depression-in-the-making. Faced with a Republican leadership whose goal was to deny him a second term, and which refused to pass even legislation that many supported lest it enhance Obama’s reputation, he nevertheless found ways to enact significant parts of his legislative agenda. He repealed homophobic policies in the armed services; supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act; sustained spending for public education; appointed a couple of good women to the Supreme Court, and saved a bankrupt automobile industry. Though he couldn’t solve the employment problem, he did manage to stave off further housing crises among ordinary home owners. On the foreign front, I’ve been very critical of his Afghanistan surge and continuing war; but at least he did get us out of Iraq, held back from bombing Iran (which the Republicans still propose), and restored some modicum of respect for American policy. I’d like to think that in his next term, he will prove to be the progressive president we all thought we had elected in 2008, and, if the Republicans cooperate just a little bit, perhaps we will yet see that happen.



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