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

Evelyn M. Simien, Author

Oxford University Press, 2015

Election 2008 made American history, but prior campaigns paved the way, starting with the candidacies of Shirley Chisholm in 1972 and Jesse Jackson in 1984. While unsuccessful, they were significant. This book focuses on primary contests, compelling us to think about the lasting impact of unsuccessful candidates–Chisholm and Jackson–insofar as they influenced American voters across various racial, ethnic, and gender groups as well as the electoral prospects of future candidates. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama benefitted from a shift in perception and the spectacle of past primary campaigns, which were grounded in a rather amorphous concept of brokerage politics. As a pioneer cohort challenging a winner take-all majority-rule system, Chisholm and Jackson employed an alternative campaign strategy evidenced by their representational style. Herein will be the innovation and contribution of this book, as it attempts to answer the following question: 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? The idea that the mere presence of a “historic first” who mirrors a marginalized group pictorially signals greater access to electoral opportunities and, at the same time, motivates political agency is described in terms of contextual effects that are symbolically empowering. All things considered, the present study has important implications for the stories of representation and empowerment as well as intersectionality-type research.

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