Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Biden Administration's Demographic Diversity Is Where the New Progressivism Meets the Old Democratic Party

History was made on Wednesday when the daily White House briefing was delivered by Karine Jean-Pierre, the chief deputy press secretary, filling for press secretary Jen Psaki. The briefing itself was not unusually newsworthy. But Jean-Pierre was the first openly gay or lesbian person ever to fill the role, and the first Black woman to do so in three decades. The Biden administration proudly publicized this milestone, which attracted significant media notice including a post-briefing televised interview with Jean-Pierre by MSNBC's Joy Reid.

The White House's enthusiastic promotion of Jean-Pierre's turn at the briefing podium fits a larger pattern. Biden and his team have been especially devoted to presenting themselves as commited to increasing demographic diversity in government. This theme dates back to the 2020 campaign; Biden promised to choose a female vice presidential nominee near the end of the Democratic primaries and ultimately signaled, prior to the selection of Kamala Harris, that he would probably name a woman of color as his running mate. Since then, Biden has claimed credit for unprecedented aggregate representation of women and racial minorities in senior administration positions, as well as a long list of individual history-making appointments: the first-ever female treasury secretary and director of national intelligence; the first-ever Black secretary of defense; the first-ever Native American and openly gay Cabinet members; the first-ever transgender sub-Cabinet appointee; the first-ever all-female White House communications team. (Biden has also promised to name the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, but an opportunity has yet to arise.)

This emphasis can be seen as attempting to satisfy contemporary progressive activists' intense interest in categorizing individuals by social identity and judging the fitness of an organization by counting the members of historically disadvantaged groups within its ranks. But there's nothing new about a president, especially a Democratic president, working to ensure the visible representation of his party's major constituencies. Franklin Roosevelt was the first chief executive to appoint a woman to the Cabinet, and Lyndon Johnson the first to appoint a Black Cabinet secretary. Bill Clinton, hardly a left-wing purist, promised "a Cabinet that looks like America" during the 1992 campaign, and ultimately appointed the first-ever Asian-American secretary and the first women in history to serve as attorney general and secretary of state.

For Biden, attending to and publicizing the demographic composition of his administration can simultaneously accommodate the traditional organized interests of his party and appeal to ideological activists who increasingly prize social group diversity as a core political value. With narrow congressional majorities and the Senate filibuster presenting serious long-term obstacles to the administration's ambitious legislative agenda, Biden's appointment decisions may turn out to be an important way for him to satisfy the priorities of multiple blocs of supporters.

Of course, diversity in government can mean more than one thing. Biden's administration contains no top Republicans or independents, and the only member of his Cabinet whose educational credentials are limited to a single bachelor's degree is Marty Walsh, the secretary of labor. The dominant substantive ethos of the Biden presidency is a technocratic liberalism that appears to prevail across its senior personnel regardless of ethnic or gender identification. But this merely reflects the current state of the larger Democratic Party, where fundamental ideological divisions have eased over time even as the number of component social groups seeking representation only continues to grow.