Monday, January 13, 2020

Do Democrats Have a Diversity Problem in 2020?

The news on Monday that Cory Booker was suspending his 2020 presidential campaign has led to expressions of frustration within many left-of-center corners of social media over the supposed lack of diversity in the Democratic field. Booker's withdrawal follows closely on the exit of Kamala Harris and Juli├ín Castro, leaving Democrats without an African-American or Latino candidate except for former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick—a last-minute entry who has failed to attract much attention to his candidacy.

Parties and party organizations are the habitual scapegoats of American politics, and some critics are automatically inclined to leave blame for these developments at the feet of the Democratic National Committee. Booker (and Castro before him) had been excluded from both the last and the next televised debates due to popular support that failed to meet the DNC's enforced standards, which in turn made it very difficult to achieve the visibility necessary to increase such support. But, of course, a more lenient set of standards that allowed Booker and Castro to participate would also have led to the presence of multiple secondary and tertiary candidates, limited camera time for each contender, splitting debates into two nights, and other measures that people similarly love to complain about. "The DNC should let the specific candidates debate whom I think deserve it, and exclude the ones I don't want to hear from" is a popular sentiment, but it is in no way a workable policy.

Booker, Castro, and Harris are out of the race not because of a feckless or malevolent party committee, but because—like the vast majority of people who ran for president before them—they never caught on with enough activists or primary voters. It always seems unfair to many observers that Candidate A, who seems by general consensus to be perfectly qualified and reasonably appealing, gets driven out of the race while the much more polarizing Candidate B does not. But the nomination system encourages—indeed, it requires—candidates to evoke personal enthusiasm among a critical mass of party members. Being many voters' second or third choice doesn't help a contender unless he or she is also some voters' first choice.

The combination of disappointment and bafflement over the recent withdrawals of three non-white presidential candidates has been compounded by the growing prevalence among writers and thinkers on the ideological left of a political philosophy centered around social identity that defines increasing the descriptive representation of certain social groups in high-status positions (from government office to Oscar nominees) as a, if not the, primary proper objective of political activism. In this view, the failure of a handful of presidential candidates inevitably becomes a powerful symbol of a wider systemic injustice.

But out in the mass Democratic Party, the pursuit of group interest is only sometimes channeled through supporting members of the group for elective office, and most citizens are resistant to—or even offended by—assumptions that they will or should line up behind a particular candidate simply because of shared social identity. Much has been made of Joe Biden's success among black Democrats so far, persuasively explained as a combination of these voters' collective ideological moderation, political pragmatism, and affection for Biden's service under Barack Obama. But even the decidedly non-moderate and non-Obamaite Bernie Sanders was winning substantially more black support than Booker was before his withdrawal, just as Biden, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all easily outpolled Castro among Latino Democrats.

Mass-level Democratic voters of all races simply are not currently placing descriptive diversity above other priorities—defeating Donald Trump, achieving policy goals, ideologically recalibrating the party—to the same degree as the disproportionately audible voices of the journalistic and academic left. The historical milestone of Obama's presidency has removed some urgency, at least in the short term, from efforts to elect another non-white candidate, and perceptions that women face a greater challenge than men in winning the presidency seem to have worked to the disadvantage of the female candidates in the 2020 race—perceptions that some feminist commentators have themselves unintentionally promoted. And the remaining Democratic field is not short on demographic diversity by traditional standards: Warren remains a leading contender, two major candidates are Jewish, and one is openly gay (it is, perhaps, a testament to the recent successes of the gay rights movement that much of the trendy left doesn't celebrate Pete Buttigieg as a pathbreaking figure but instead mocks him as a square, co-opted incrementalist).

The demographic diversity of the 2020 presidential contenders in fact compares quite favorably to the larger officeholding class in American politics, where severe proportional discrepancies in social group representation remain rampant. (For example, Harris and Booker are two of only three black senators currently in office, and Patrick is one of only two elected black governors in the modern history of the nation.) On this issue, as on many others, the presidency receives excessive attention from American culture at the expense of the rest of the political system. But there is surely a distinction worth making between voters freely choosing across lines of group membership not to support a particular candidate or set of candidates in a large and wide-ranging field, as has occurred so far in 2020, and the more formidable social inequities in electoral politics that continue to shape the composition of the larger pool of political leadership in America.