Pasting Over Vacuity With Identity in U.S. Politics

I’m very, very strange. I think democracy would actually be a good thing, not just grounds for bombing other countries. As long as we’re stuck with electing supposed representatives, I want to make that system approximate as closely as possible actual democracy. This attitude results in some bizarre positions. For example, I want candidates to lay out a detailed policy platform with hard commitments to particular actions. Even weirder, I don’t really care what a candidate looks like or what he or she does consensually in bedrooms or what political party, if any, he or she swears obedience to — er, excuse me, belongs to.

U.S. politics is remarkably devoid of content, in general, and especially at the higher levels, and especially on unpopular positions supported by both big parties. Almost never will a candidate for the U.S. Congress outline a basic desired budget. Virtually none has a position on the level of military spending. Very few Democrats, and not that many Republicans, have any foreign policy platform at all. Campaign websites are dominated by personal stories, vague “principles,” and fluff.

Remarkably, I’m aware of four candidates for Congress this year who have won Democratic primaries in Democratic districts who have antiwar positions far stronger than just about any current member of Congress. All four are women. None is “white.” None makes her antiwar position prominent or central to her campaign.

Statistically, one would expect non-white, and female, and immigrant, and minority religion candidates to be better than average on foreign policy and most other things, because statistically members of those groups in general are more in favor of peace and social justice. They are also more likely to be personally familiar with at least certain struggles of certain groups they are part of. So, when Sayu Bhojwani’s new book, People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door, tells us that there is a new wave of candidates running and winning at the local, state, and federal levels, I take that to be probably good news. I could even say very, very probably good news. Between two candidates with equivalent platforms, using elections to address bigotry by favoring minority candidates makes sense to me and could make such a choice even better news.

But I don’t think vacuity is harmless or that important questions should be brushed over. I wasn’t ready to say that Judge Kavanaugh was lying until he proved himself to be blatantly and habitually lying. That statistically he was likely to be lying wasn’t enough for me to declare the truth of the matter (though I passionately opposed his confirmation on dozens of other grounds).

People Like Us treats “like us” as meaning race or ethnicity or immigrant status. It tells the personal stories of numerous new politicians. It may well inspire other new people to attempt public service. But it will inspire them to think of politics as a contest for prom king/queen. Never in the entire book is a candidate’s basic platform (what they might do if elected) ever discussed as relevant in any way or even mentioned at all. One can try to research the platforms of the candidates outside the book, but the book conveys a certain message by completely omitting them.

The book opens with quotes from John Kennedy and Madeleine Albright. They are generic quotes the likes of which could have been picked from almost any living American. So, the point was to pick a liberal and inspiring, if deeply flawed, president and a woman who defended killing a half million children on television with utterly no shame. What are we to guess from this that the candidates whose stories the book recounts stand for? The point is that we have to guess. We’re never told.

Bhojwani believes that single-member districts in cities and term limits open up opportunities. This, too, is worrying, as there seems to be evidence to support that claim on single-member districts. But the evidence on term-limits that I have seen suggests that they do not improve policies; they only change faces. Is the goal limited to changing faces? Is that why term-limits, rather than reforms that clean out the corruption and allow the public to vote office holders out, are thought of as successful?

Here’s how success is described: “[V]oters are able to choose from and elect someone who reflects who they are — whether that’s Latinx, African immigrant, working-class, transgender, or millennial.” Are there other things one might be as well? Might one be a supporter of single-payer healthcare or the right to organize or the right to protest or the conversion of the military or of a drastic all-out effort to save the earth’s environment? Can one identify as such things? Or, alternatively, can politics encompass more than identity?

A new candidate, Bhojwani writes, now “serves on the Anaheim City Council, representing families and children whose experiences mirror his own as a once-undocumented immigrant from Mexico.” That vicious racist fascist bigotry has not prevented this man from being elected is terrific news. But surely he also must represent people who have not been undocumented immigrants. And surely not every undocumented immigrant’s story mirrors his own.

Another candidate is said to have struggled because “she had no example of someone else like her to show her that it could be done.” My concern is not to blame the victim of bigotry for internalizing it. My concern is with the author’s limited notion of what “like her” can mean. Since we are never told what this candidate wants to get elected to accomplish, we have no idea whether any candidates with similar agendas have been elected before. (We are told that she went on to win services for English-language learners and the hearing impaired — a rare mention of policy, but no mention of an overall campaign platform or any items on it.)

These candidates are “new voices” we’re told. We’re just not told what they have to say. One of them, we are assured, did not win a primary “simply on the basis of identity,” but also on such things as “relating to voters on core values.” But we never get so much as a hint at what even one of those “core values” might be or what public policies it might entail.

Now, no book can include everything. And I’d certainly rather try candidates new in any way whatsoever, given how the old officials have been performing. But if we’ve learned anything from past experience, we know that, as a rule, candidates that perform better after winning tend to be candidates who made public commitments to taking popular actions before winning.

By all means, celebrate any blow to bigotry. But tell elected officials that you only care about their demographic characteristics at your peril.

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