If you follow politics at all, then you no doubt noticed that this past week had a spate of elections across the country. Most of the media coverage of the elections spoke of the overwhelming success that the Democratic Party had. Much of that coverage speculated on whether the results were a referendum on President Trump and his low approval rating. Some talking heads debated whether the Republican candidates lost because they tried to run campaigns too much like Trump did, or because they didn’t embrace Trump enough. But what I found interesting (and maybe just the slightest bit worrisome) was the amount of media attention focused on a few of the winning candidates almost entirely because of their race/gender/religion.
I understand that as a heterosexual white male, I don’t have the same kinds of life experiences as others and therefore don’t have the same appreciation for how meaningful some of these events can be. At the same time, I can certainly understand the appeal of certain historic firsts like the election of Barack Obama. I also can see how, in light of all the news coverage over the white supremacist movement, people would want to celebrate any evidence that we’re a country that does not discriminate. What I worry about, though, is that too much importance is being placed on some of these electoral results and that we’re reading too much into things that aren’t quite as special as they might seem.
Danica Roem‘s victory over Bob Marshall had a number of compelling story-lines, perhaps the most obvious being an openly transgender politician defeating a 13 term incumbent who called himself Virginia’s “Chief Homophobe”. However, Roem isn’t the first openly transgender person to serve in a state legislature. Althea Garrison was a member of the Massachusetts state legislature but was outed after being elected. Roem wasn’t even the first openly transgender politician elected. Stacie Laughton of New Hampshire was elected in 2012 but was never sworn in because a felony conviction surfaced. Thus, I’ve seen Roem’s victory described as “the first openly transgender candidate to be elected and serve in a state legislature” (emphasis mine), which seems a bit presumptuous considering she hasn’t started serving yet. The alternative that I’ve also seen is “the first elected openly transgender candidate to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates”, which doesn’t seem quite as historic.
However, Roem’s victory probably is more notable than most of the other examples I’ve seen cited. Most news sources I’ve read have reported that Ravinder Bhalla is the first Sikh mayor elected in the state of New Jersey. That latter part is important, because he isn’t the first Sikh mayor ever elected as mayor (a fact that even the Washington Post had to correct). It’s a similar story for many other politicians that show up on these lists: Melvin Carter, Kathy Tran, Jenny Durkan, Michelle Kaufusi, Vi Lyles. All of these politicians have pretty narrowly defined “firsts” in that they are the first elected politician of a specific race/gender/sexuality for a specific city/position.
When do we stop reporting on these specific “firsts”? Does every city have to have had an openly transgender gay female mayor of every non-caucasian ethnicity before we can stop? Also, who makes the rules on what attributes get celebrated? Would we celebrate an atheist mayor as much as Ravinder Bhalla? A color-blind politician as much as Jenny Durkan? A brunette female as much as Melvin Carter? A short male as much as Michelle Kaufusi?
Sound ridiculous? Maybe not. Atheists are one of the most distrusted and disliked groups in America. The color-blind face a wide array of challenges that most people don’t even consider. Shorter individuals also face a number of challenges, from decreased dating prospects to lower salaries. Even hair color seems to factor in to unconscious biases that women with darker hair might have to fight against. If the point of noting these “firsts” is to celebrate individuals overcoming public distrust or hidden challenges, then is it so different to celebrate the atheists, color-blind and vertically challenged? Are some of my counter examples weak? Sure, but so are some of the ones from the news articles listed above. Jenny Durkan might be the first lesbian mayor elected in Seattle, but her predecessor was the first gay mayor of Seattle, Seattle has one of the largest LGBT populations in the country and has been described as a “Bulwark for Gay Representation“. At this point, it might be a bigger deal if a straight politician was elected mayor of Seattle. So given all of this, who determines which of these situations are newsworthy?
Who determines which of these situations are newsworthy?
What worries me is that this type of media coverage encourages the type of identity politics that isn’t healthy in our current political environment. I encourage you to re-read the articles I linked to at the beginning of this post (links here and here) or seek out your own sources, but this time keep an eye on the information about the candidates conveyed in the articles beyond simply their gender or race or sexual orientation. Specifically, look for their stances on the issues. My guess is you won’t see a lot of that. In fact, very few of the articles I read seemed interested in going into any detail at all about the candidates other than the occasional sound-bite quote and/or perhaps a few lines about their early life or where they went to school.
Some readers might assume a liberal viewpoint for many of the candidates based on their race/gender/sexuality or the “historical” nature of their election, but assuming such a thing can be dangerous (see Mia Love). If the only information we’re given on these politicians is their gender/race/religion/sexuality, how is it not stereotyping to assume certain viewpoints based solely on that information? Is it okay to assume a black politician would support affirmative action or a female would be pro-choice?
An alternative viewpoint might be what could be considered the Sonia Sotomayor “wise Latina” viewpoint, when she said, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life”. Could an argument be made that, all things being equal, a more “diverse” politician is superior simply because of their diversity? Diversity for diversity’s sake? This is also something I am not comfortable with because it treats people as members of groups instead of individuals. Not all Latina women have the same experiences. A gay individual in San Francisco likely has different life experiences than a gay individual in Birmingham. A poor white male in West Virginia could easily face more challenges than a rich white male in New York City or different challenges from an affluent black female in Los Angeles. Is it right to say that somebody might be more or less qualified to be mayor or governor (even with all else being equal) solely because of their gender or race or sexual orientation? The idea gives me pause.
The last reason that I can see for celebrating these elections is because what it says as a reflection of the voters (and rejection of certain political movements). The election of Danica Roem and Andrea Jenkins show a growing acceptance of transgender people. The election of Melvin Carter and Vi Lyles is a rejection of the white supremacist movement that has gotten media attention of late. However, this too makes me uncomfortable for a few reasons. First, it diminishes the accomplishments of the winning candidates, reducing their hard-earned victory to one that, once again, simply boils down to their race/gender/religion/sexuality. Roem was known for having an extremely strong grasp of policy issues, and her campaign also seems have outworked Marshall’s:
Roem outraised Marshall 3-to-1 with nearly $500,000 in donations, much of it coming from LGBT advocates and other supporters across the country. Her campaign was relentless, knocking on doors more than 75,000 times in a district with 52,471 registered voters. Roem sat for myriad public appearances and interviews and maintained a steady social media presence. Marshall kept his schedule private but also mounted a healthy ground game; his campaign said this week that staffers knocked on voters’ doors about 49,000 times this fall.
This type of thinking can also be inaccurate. By many accounts, the race between Roem and Marshall wasn’t a referendum on larger cultural issues, but on more mundane local issues like traffic (the most prominent words on her election signs outside of her name were: “Fix Route 28 Now!”). Lastly, it seems like an oversimplification to view election results as reflections of voter sentiment. Did American magically become less racist when it elected Barack Obama, or was he just a better candidate than John McCain and Mitt Romney? Was Hillary Clinton’s loss an affirmation that the country is still sexist? Or was she just a bad, scandal plagued candidate who was brought down by Comey/not visiting Wisconsin/Russian interference/etc?
I’m not at all saying that we shouldn’t be celebrating historic firsts when warranted. I’m not even saying that any of the rationales above are wrong. In doing research for this piece, I read about some of the candidates above and can say there are plenty of good reasons to celebrate their victory. Do you know what yours are?