Presidential elections are always about race and gender. The reason people are talking about them now is that a black man and a (white) woman are serious contenders for a major party nomination. Their success is making visible what historically has been hidden in plain sight.
In every previous presidential campaign, voters had the choice between two (or three) white men. Anyone who thinks that this homogeneity was just a coincidence and not a function of race and gender is truly living in what Bill Clinton in another context called a "fairy tale."
In previous elections, the "race" that mattered was whiteness. Without that credential, potential candidates didn't stand a chance, and everyone knew it. Voters did not get to choose between a range of candidates representing the remarkable ethnic and racial diversity of our country. They got to choose between two (or three) white men -- which brings us to gender.
Presidential contests until now have been contests between men. Men were the gender that mattered. No matter how qualified by intelligence, leadership ability or experience, women were not seriously considered for the top job in government, and everyone knew it. Their gender prevented people from seeing them as "presidential."
If there is one thing that truly represents "change" in this historic election season it is the change in what it means to appear "presidential." In the past, whether a candidate was a Republican or Democrat, conservative, centrist or liberal, their race and gender were predetermined. They were inevitably- - and invariably -- white and a man.
Regardless of how the general election turns out, the pathbreaking candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have already forced a shift in the definition of "presidential." Millions of Democratic primary voters are casting ballots for these candidates, and thus casting aside the limitations inherent in the old idea of the American president as the embodiment of white patriarchal authority. Of course this is not true among Republicans, the majority of whom seem to yearn for the bygone days of misty memory, when no one had even heard of "whiteness" or "male privilege," much less considered voting for anyone other than a middle-aged or older white man.
For months, conservative commentators and talk radio hosts have chastised the Democratic electorate for taking race and gender into account in their decision about whom to support. It is perfectly understandable why right-wing ideologues would want to shame Democratic voters for voting (at least in part) on the basis of something as superficial as the color of someone's skin or their biology: it keeps people's attention off the right's obsession with the whiteness and masculinity of their own candidates. As Rudy Giuliani is fond of saying about terrorism, when you stay on offense, it's a lot easier to play defense.
Make no mistake -- the modern electoral fortunes of the Republican Party are due in no small measure to the skill of the G.O.P. over the past 40 years in harnessing white male backlash against the historic gains made by people of color and women. When he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Lyndon Johnson, a white southerner, accurately predicted the Democratic Party would lose the south for a generation.
In retrospect, someone in the 1970s should have predicted that because of their embrace of equal rights for women, the Democrats would lose the men's vote for a generation. When you consider how much the G.O.P. has depended on the votes of white people and men, and you factor in the rapidly increasing percentage of the electorate that is comprised of people of color and women, you can see why Republicans and conservatives would not want 21st century elections to highlight questions of race and gender.
It is now almost certain that the general election this fall will pit a white conservative Republican man against either a white woman or a black man. It is equally certain that many in the punditocracy -- especially but not exclusively conservatives -- will argue passionately that the election should be about issues such as national security and the economy, not about trivial things like gender or racial identity.
Don't let these pundits fool you. Campaigns for the U.S. presidency in the era of mass media always turn on the personality and style of candidates, their skills at televisual performance, their race and gender, and how all of these interact with questions of national identity at a given historical moment. The biggest difference this time is that the Democratic nominee will not embody and hence reinforce the dominant position of white masculinity in the race/gender system.
The very presence of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton on the fall ballot will generate an outpouring of commentary as well as celebration of progress in our long national struggles against racism and sexism. But because one (or both?) of them will likely be running against John McCain, and the conservative racial and gender politics of the party and movement he (perhaps imperfectly) represents, the 2008 campaign could be the catalyst for an unprecedented national conversation about the racial and gender factors that influence the white male vote. That is a conversation that would surely not take place if this year's campaign featured yet another contest between two white men, and thus was simply another replay of the tired old politics of race and gender.