Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics

Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics

Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics

Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics

Synopsis

The 2008 presidential election made American history. Yet before Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, there were other "historic firsts": Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972, and Jesse Jackson, who ran in 1984 and 1988. While unsuccessful, these campaigns were significant, as they rallied American voters across various racial, ethnic, and gender groups. One can also argue that they heightened the electoral prospects of future candidates. Can "historic firsts" bring formerly politically inactive people (those who previously saw no connection between campaigns and their own lives) into the electoral process, making it both relevant and meaningful? In Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics, Evelyn M. Simien makes the compelling argument that voters from various racial, ethnic, and gender groups take pride in and derive psychic benefit from such historic candidacies. They make linkages between the candidates in question and their own understanding of representation, and these linkages act to mobilize citizens to vote and become actively involved in campaigns. Where conventional approaches to the study of American political elections tend to focus on socioeconomic factors, or to study race or gender as isolated factors, Simien's approach is intersectional, bringing together literature on both race and gender. In particular she compares the campaigns of Jackson, Chisholm, Obama and Clinton, and she draws upon archival material from campaign speeches, advertising, and newspaper articles, to voter turnout reports, exit polls, and national surveys to discover how race and gender determined the electoral context for the campaigns. In the process, she reveals the differences that exist within and between various racial, ethnic and gender groups in the American political process at the presidential level.

Excerpt

Election 2008 made American history, but prior campaigns paved the way, starting in 1972 and 1984 with the candidacies of Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, respectively. While unsuccessful, they were significant. Rich with symbolic meaning and electoral consequence for future presidential hopefuls, they demonstrated the political progress that numerically underrepresented groups—particularly, women and African Americans—had made in electoral politics on the road to the White House. As historic “firsts,” Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, consciously saw themselves as representatives for underrepresented groups throughout the nation—both descriptively and symbolically. Such a relationship between the representative and constituent is non-territorial in the traditional sense—that is, bound not to a legislative district per se but rather to shared ideological views for which the representative advocates on behalf of citizens with whom they share an identity (Mansbridge 2003). Thus, I argue that historic candidacies change the nature of political representation when a strong psychological attachment or affective intragroup emotion like pride heightens the value of intrinsic rewards associated with voting and participating in other ways, from proselytizing and attending a campaign rally or political meeting to donating money and wearing a campaign button. With that said, this book has three main goals.

The first goal is to develop a theory of “symbolic empowerment” that conceives of descriptive representation and symbolic representation as inseparable. By introducing the concept of symbolic empowerment, I bridge the scholarly literature on descriptive and symbolic representation. The . . .

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