The Republican nominee for the 2012 slate hasn’t even been picked yet, but we’re already speculating about who might run in 2016. The latest rumor is that New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is going to ask Hillary Clinton to run again. This isn’t terribly surprising, as Gillibrand has been working a project called Off The Sidelines to get more women to run for office. It’s a problem we’ve made little progress on: women make up half of the population, yet they hold only 16 percent of Congressional seats, 12 percent of governorships and 8 percent of mayoralties. And that highest office in the land? No female has yet been named Commander in Chief besides Geena Davis.
Jamelle Bouie wrote a fantastic article at The American Prospect recently that made a similar point about African Americans. Just as with women, he notes that black people aren’t proportionally represented in politics. African-Americans make up 12.2 percent of the population, but there is not a single black Senator in the current Congress, and at the most the 2012 election cycle will produce two black governors and out of 150. Just over 8 percent of Representatives in the House are African-American, which is a bit closer but still not quite proportional. And of course Barack Obama is our first black president, out of forty-four.
But in a follow-up blog post, Bouie notes that black Republicans may actually be better poised for taking higher office. Which for him:
…raises a larger and more difficult question.… Which is more important: racial diversity in higher offices or effective representation of minority interests? Black Republican officeholders add diversity to our political system. But it’s also true that black lawmakers who represent white constituencies have no history of supporting measures that equalize economic opportunity or improve public education and social services upon which African Americans disproportionately rely.
This is a question feminists grappled with during the ascendancy of Sarah Palin, particularly when she tried to take up the moniker of feminist. Do we want more women in office just because they’re women? Or do we want progressive, feminist women in office to fight for our concerns? We of course want the latter. Women don’t vote solely based on reproductive organs; the McCain campaign’s vice-presidential pick was so cynical because it assumed women will vote for a fellow woman no matter her values or viewpoints, when in reality, like any other voters, we base our choices on who we think will do a better job in office.
But on a larger scale, getting more women to run for office—and to get elected—if successful will, at least eventually, mean more Sarah Palins and Michelle Bachmanns. Women don’t vote for women as a monolith, and that’s partly because women just don’t vote as a monolith. As with men, we have a variety of opinions and issues that matter to us. We aren’t completely concentrated in the progressive camp, but run the ideological gamut. Once women make up half of our political bodies, they should be just as diverse. Which will necessarily mean making room for moderates and conservatives.
The same will likely go for African-Americans. While it’s problematic that black Democrats lack an edge over Republicans, once that playing field is—hopefully, someday—more level, both conservatives and progressives from the black community should have a shot at running for office. And that will, in turn, mean more Herman Cains.
We’re far from there yet on either of these fronts. But eventually, once we find ways to get our representatives to truly represent the diversity of our people, more Sarah Palins and Herman Cains will be a good sign. Progressives won’t have to vote for them, but we’ll know that they come with the territory of greater equality.