In an interview with CNN’s Van Jones this weekend, Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand was asked if it was a problem that a recent poll shows three white men are leading for the 2020 presidential nomination. Her answer, which grabbed headlines, was a blunt “Yes,” and drew a laugh from Jones.
Gillibrand explained her answer a bit, but only in very broad terms. She talked about the importance of Barack Obama’s first black presidency, then said, ““I aspire for our country to recognize the beauty of our diversity in some point in the future and I hope some day we have a woman president.”
This answer seems to indicate that at the moment Democratic voters don’t recognize the beauty of our diversity. Their top three choices — former senator Joe Biden, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, and kinda almost senator Beto O’Rourke — represent in Gillibrand’s view an electorate that has not advanced to a full understanding of equality and diversity.
This take seems a bit harsh to Democratic voters, whom by the way Gillibrand may be wooing for her own run at the Oval Office. There are good reasons these three are the current leaders. Biden was vice president, Sanders came in second for the nomination last time, and O’Rourke has received the most celebratory media coverage since the Beatles came to America.
There’s also the fact that the last time the Democrats nominated a white man was in 2004. Granted, all the ones before that were white men, but over the past two decades it’s been a different set. Democrats elected a record number of women into office in 2018 and are handing the gavel back to the first woman to be speaker of the House. So is it really a problem that the three leaders for the nomination are white men?
There are two basic ways to address this question. The first is electoral, and the second is ideological. From the point of view of pure voting math, there are good arguments for and against a white male candidate. Proponents would say that it could help in Trump’s forgotten America. Detractors would argue that today’s Democratic Party must mirror the Obama coalition and pump up minority turnout.
A third option exists: most voters care far less about a candidate’s race and sex than most in the media and on the far left think they do, and it won’t matter very much at all. In looking at all of these electoral possibilities, it doesn’t seem accurate to say that fielding a white male candidate is a problem for Democrats.
That leaves the ideological problem as the one that is truly at issue here. It isn’t merely symbolic. Sure, somebody not white or male polling over 10 percent would be the kind of PR win Democrats got with the photos of their wave of new female legislators. But for many Democrats, apparently including Gillibrand, equal representation on the basis of race and sex really does go beyond campaign narrative and is a driving principle of the party itself.
Many Democrats feel a pressure that if they talk the talk they must walk the walk. Institutions diversify when they decide to do so intentionally, when they decide to make people’s identifiers of sex, race, etc. a key component in hiring, publishing, and promoting. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Even Mitt Romney once famously asked for binders full of women because he wanted more of them serving in his administration.
But in general it is Democrats who favor more aggressive quota policies in forms like affirmative action. While conservatives at least in rhetoric focus on the importance of equal opportunity, progressives focus on equal outcomes. From this perspective, the unequal outcome of three white men sitting atop the polls must be the result of bias or discrimination in the system.
If Democrats really do think they have a problem, there are things they can do as an institution to ameliorate the situation. The party could aggressively set quota goals for elected offices. It could take race and sex into account for levels of candidate support. In all likelihood, soft forms of this kind of thing probably are happening. In some sense, the core identity of the Democratic Party today is that it is diverse and inclusive, so maybe it really is a problem for them that only white men are scoring significantly in their presidential polls.
The political calculus that the Democratic Party and progressives in general must think about is how far they want to push the agenda of decreasing white men’s power. Jones’ laugh and Gillibrand’s reaction seemed to show that they both thought she was saying something radical, or at least something that pushes boundaries.
Frankly, in the context of modern progressive thought and its influence on the Democratic Party, this was not a particularly radical thing to say. But in the context of presidential politics and the centrist smoothing of the Electoral College, it may be. There is a risk that many voters will look at conversations like the one between Gillibrand and Jones and at best roll their eyes, at worst accuse them of divisiveness, or even racism or sexism.
Over the next year and a half, Democrats not only have to find the person who can beat Donald Trump, they must find the one who can do so while representing and defining the values of their party. I deeply hope that a candidate’s race and sex plays an insignificant role, if any, in judging his or her fitness. But what we are hearing from Democrats lately makes me wonder if that will be the case.