In November 1961, the New York Times published a story describing an alarming yet still relatively obscure idea. Radioactive byproducts from a nuclear explosion and tests in distant parts of the world had been detected in the teeth of St. Louis area infants conceived in the early 1950s.
In short, the effects of nuclear weapons -- what's now called "fallout" -- were not only far-reaching in a geographical sense, but long-lasting. Subsequent studies have confirmed that and more. And those studies have helped to transformed the term "fallout" into one of those buzzwords or perhaps an overworked political metaphor used to describe big events where it seems that the full magnitude and consequences have not yet become clear. Just try Googling the "political fallout." What we mean will be clear.
But alas, it seems that fallout is a particularly instructive idea when contemplating the ramifications of a pair of comments recently made by two prominent Hillary Clinton supporters about the obligations of women to support the first woman with a real shot at winning the White House. The comments have been described as everything from damaging to cataclysmic for a campaign already not faring well with young, white women. And if a good share of the nation's political reporters and commentators are right, some of the early detectable fallout showed up in New Hampshire on Tuesday night.
Heck, if some of the people who have been talking about the whole Albright-Steinem-Clinton fiasco are to be believed, this is the week that identity politics took a body blow. On Tuesday, Clinton won 44 percent of women's votes in the New Hampshire Democratic primary but lost them by 11 points to Sen. Bernie Sanders. And, not surprisingly, people are blaming those comments made by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and feminist icon and activist Gloria Steinem. Both reprimanded women for not unilaterally and enthusiastically backing Clinton. Clinton's sworn enemies and ideological foes have offered up a steady menu of excoriations, describing the trio as sexists, gender supremacists, elitists, aged-out radicals and individuals who represent a kind of odd, outdated and toxic politics.
What may be most remarkable is the way political factions with very little in the way of a this-century track record of concern about sexism or any other force that feeds exclusion or inequality have pounced with great and dramatic effect on what was said. They are collectively and deeply outraged. They have taken the opportunity to express umbrage in every conceivable way. Reasonable people cannot help but notice that some of these people -- most of them conservatives -- have in the past few days exhibited barely contained glee. To them, this seems like a moment in which Democrats, progressives, liberals -- those who keep telling the world that they are inclusive and not just merely tolerant -- have been exposed as the real source of social division in this country. That, and the identity politics Clinton and her surrogates rode in on, have been shown to be the poisonous democratic forces that they are.
The rest of the political world -- liberal candidates and their surrogates, politically affiliated and unaffiliated commentators, reporters and voters alike -- are somehow not supposed to notice that a good portion of this criticism is also coming from people who want very much to advance the idea that if we simply stop talking and thinking about race, gender, class and other social (but admittedly not scientific) demarcations, they will cease to matter. The fact that the majority of these people are white, and therefore most likely quite inexperienced in the very tangible and quantifiable ways that race (and more often, combinations of race, class and or gender) shape other Americans' lives, is also supposed to escape our collective attention. And the fact that an end to identity politics would limit the political dominance that the country's changing demographics are set to unleash is also, for some reason, supposed to evade notice.
But to deny the central role that real and complex identity politics have played in helping people of color, women, the disabled, LGBTQ Americans and many other groups secure basic rights and push the country toward making good on legal promises of equality is to ignore much about the political system about which Americans collectively have to be very proud. Identity politics have, in fact, changed this county in ways that, when specifically highlighted -- an end to legal racial segregation, the franchise for women and racial and ethnic minorities, to name a few -- only a small number of people across the political spectrum would say have been a bad thing.
And those who do should probably consider reading the writing of Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Alice Paul, Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, and yes, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (There are others who belong is this pantheon, too, but that is a short and essential reading list to get you started.)
It is also true that complex identity politics -- the kind that that have almost indisputably made the nation better -- should not consist merely of simple pronouncements. That's the "I'm a woman, you're a woman too, and therefore you must vote for Clinton" thing that Albright attempted to tap. And it's really not surprising that, in 2016, that went all kinds of wrong. Voters deserve far more respect and effort to obtain their votes than that.
Real and complex identity politics have most often consisted of both the circumstantial evidence of declared group membership -- i.e. "I'm a woman, you're a woman, too, and we care about the same things." But they have served important and great causes when they have been paired with democracy's version of tangible, physical evidence. Those are the policy ideas and promises that candidates make and the quantifiable change that can be the result of either. People -- all people -- have reasons they want both. But all voters have very strong ones to require the later.
In the course of American history, it is women of all races and ethnicities, as well as people of color, who have demonstrated the most pronounced and consistent ability to ignore or at least keep in its proper place the circumstantial evidence of identity politics, and vote for people of races and genders different from their own. Given this, they are the least deserving of lectures about principled participation in democracy. Most voters of color and women of all races and ethnicities often have not had the option to vote in favor of people who share their racial, ethnic or gender identities. And in most elections today, they still don't. But white Americans -- and particularly conservative, white American men, including and up to the 2012 presidential election -- have almost no track record of this kind of out-of-group voting. That may sound a bit harsh, but it is true.
Finally, there is this.
Clinton is not a candidate who has always demonstrated a particularly sophisticated or consistently respectful understanding of identity politics. In 2008, she was so eager to show that she was as tough as a man and assuage what she and her campaign staff seemed to view as pervasive concerns about a female commander in chief, that she made the rather obvious tactical error of running as the hawk-like alternative to then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Voters across the political spectrum were war-weary. But Clinton persisted with the tough talk and the commercials featuring 3 a.m. phone calls and implied national security risks. And although former president Bill Clinton has denied this, his comments about the prospects of an Obama presidency seemed to many voters of color to drip with a kind of racial supremacy and insider's entitlement that suggested that 2008 was Hillary Clinton's rightful turn at the Democratic nomination. That also was not received well. There were more than a few Clinton enemies and ideological opponents who seemed to enjoy this moment in time, too. We could offer other examples, but we won't.
This election cycle, Clinton and her campaign staff have talked openly from almost the very start about the historic potential of her candidacy. Clinton has spoken publicly and frankly about the ways her life as a woman has made her more inclined to put economic and social issues that deeply effect many women at the center of her campaign. And, whether Sanders fans or Clinton haters want to admit it or not, she has matched that with policy proposals and commitments. Then, she has sold them in a way that polling data reveals to have been appealing to voters of color and older white women -- but not what young, white voters and young white women prefer to hear.
People -- be they Sanders fans, Clinton enemies or conservatives bent on the idea that this can be the moment that helps to sink the Clinton campaign -- can and will continue to hope that Clinton is about to crash and burn. But no matter how much some of us may wish that identity will cease to have political meaning -- for our personal comfort or for our personal political gain -- the real-life experiences of American women, people of color and the economic and social data continue to demonstrate that they do.
And like the insights that have come from studies of nuclear fallout, we might all do well to at least take that information seriously.