According to polls listed on FiveThirtyEight, the top Democratic Primary candidates are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris…
And Beto O’Rourke.
Now maybe it’s too early to talk about identity politics. I like many will happily support the nominee to defeat the Supremacist in Chief. The Democrats are turning ever left, looking for new socialist/conscious-capitalist policies, embracing a plethora of thought, and shaking off the typicality of white men being the savior. So it’s odd that the most favored candidates look remarkably like the 43 of 44 who came before*.
2018 saw the House not only turn blue, but the majority of the representatives being sworn in were, for the first time, majority minority and marginalized. Noticeably, more women, and women of color, ended up in Congress. A new wave of progressivism, idealism, values, and who represents is washing over the country. The party, for the first time in its 200+ year history, looks more American. Yet when it comes to the highest office in the land (and world), despite the plethora of voices looking to lead, voters are still gunning for the same, recognizable, even establishment archetype – by around 70% of all polls.
Bernie, regardless of how it ends for him, will be remembered for pushing the party left on a national stage. He demonstrated government doesn’t need to be run by the center or the nearer-left. There is space for new ideas and voices looking to get shit done. Yet here we are in 2019, and the eye is still looking in the same direction.
This shouldn’t just be about what they look like, but Biden and Bernie are the established preference we’re used to seeing: old, straight, white men. They may have wonderful policy ideas, but so did many of the old white men who came before them. And like those men, both have questionable attitudes and actions towards women and people of color, and too long ago either (see: Biden on Anita Hill in the 90s, comments on busing, and Bernie 2016’s treatment of women and their value). It’s all well to have sound economic and environmental policies, but when actions as political leaders inadvertently exclude significant swaths of the population – namely those who aren’t white men – then liberal policies become as nationalistic as those on the right.
And then there’s Beto whose inexperience is there for everyone to see. Donald Trump showed that anyone can jump in and win the race, but also how bad things can be when you don’t know what you’re doing. Beto lacks the credentials of the other candidates, but his record is also fairly centrist, and at times even Republican. Yes, he’s a viral sensation, tapping into a resource others have failed. The reasons people point to him aren’t exactly overwhelming. There are no strong, detailed platforms, nor is there a genuine story to state a reason why he’s in the race. What he does have, along with the same platitudes, is a folksiness, a “good guy” label, which is much easier to hold when you’re neither woman, not-white, and LGBTQ+.
Beto has national recognition from his (losing) Senate campaign in Texas. He came close, and his campaign was a sight to behold. He turned out a base of voters who hadn’t entered into Texas politics in a long time, visiting every county and embracing thousands of people. Yet before he announced everyone was dying to know if he would step on to the stage or not. Stacey Abrams, another nationally recognized and defeated candidate in 2018 (although it was stolen from her unlike Beto) has alluded to running – where’s the media hype, love, coverage, and constant attention on her? I’ll leave you to figure that one.
But let’s compare Beto’s national acknowledgment with another candidate with that label – Elizabeth Warren. Who is currently chasing Beto in the polls.
Senator Warren has widespread respect for her understanding of the financial sector, for having worked to dismantle it to even the field for many years before stepping into political life. She is strong, level headed, and highly intelligent. Objectively speaking, there isn’t a candidate with a more detailed and broad platform for the country than Warren, and few have as much grasp of the key issues, both domestic and foreign. On an individual level, her message is championed. Her platform will be the one where Democrats turn going forward. And she has a story millions of Americans can empathize. But the media attention is next to none. Instead it’s about whether Biden or Beto before him would even enter the race, where these white men stand against Bernie, and who of the three gets which votes.
Yes, there is the issue of Warren using her very minimal and distant Native American ancestry to advantage. She should have to answer tough questions on it. But similar to 2016, the negatives focused on women are multiplied than those of her male contenders; as well as Biden’s and Bernie’s history, Beto has an actual record – a DUI, and burglary via hacking. As Bärí A. Williams wrote, his candidacy is similar to a senior director at a tech company applying for a VP position after a review, failing to get the promotion, and then deciding to apply for the CEO job at a different company. This is failing upward – a special kind of privilege usually left to straight white men who don’t need to master the skills at other levels before heading to the top.
The Democratic voters made it clear new faces are wanted in politics, with a new wash of progressive values. Yet their desire doesn’t seem to reflect their actions. How can you demand change but still aspire to the same white men who have led America for all but eight years of its history? Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Harris, Booker – all of these candidates have platforms centered on leveling the field, on climate change, on the big issues impacting all Americans. Warren in particular could stand toe-to-toe with the progressive champion, Bernie, and yet she is still falling behind him by 20 points in most polls. There is no other reason for this than the standard tropes we use to separate men and women; likability, trustworthiness, authenticity, inspiration.
Those being polls apparently want the same comfort they’re used to. Perhaps after the devastation of 2016 that can be understandable. But rather than being measured on merit (in this so-called meritocracy *cue eye roll*), candidates who haven’t announced, or lack experience are already pulling way ahead of everyone else. All the women and non-straight, men of color with national platforms, experience from local office to the US Senate or former Cabinet Secretaries, are being discounted by the same microaggressions that give cis, straight, white men a leg up in every industry.
A President Biden, Sanders or O’Rourke would be welcomed, especially compared to Trump. But you cannot ignore the white male privilege in this race. Grand ideas and big announcements allow Democrats to whitewash the same negative points stapled to other candidates –criminality, inexperience, and chronicled histories of sexist and racist hypocrisy.
And if all of this wasn’t enough, let the money talk:
Of the top 3 candidates who have actually announced, two raised record-beating $6m and $6.1m funds in the first 24 hours. The third made one sixth.
I’ll leave you to guess which one that was.