Friday, July 22, 2016

A note about our 'boring' VP nominees


With Clinton's selection of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her vice presidential running mate and Trump's pick of Indiana Governor Mike Pence, political pundits universally agree that they are both 'boring', 'generic' and 'conventional' politicians. Liberals accurately perceive these characterizations as largely code for 'white male'. You could perhaps add on some additional qualifiers like, 'experienced', 'middle-aged', or 'lacks a strong media brand', but basically they're 1,000% correct. So is this necessarily a biased, prejudiced or malicious description?

In a high-level conceptual sense, there is something subtly privileged and wrong about associating neutral descriptors like 'boring' exclusively with white maleness. But the link between this intellectual mistake and real-world harm is quite complicated and causally mushy. It's a valid and important critique, but I think the deeper insight is actually the scandalous fact that boring is a strictly accurate description for white male politicians.

The historic reality of US politics is that, for the most part, white male politicians have been the overwhelming demographic status quo. The big problem isn't really with the use of 'boring' as a descriptor for white males, but rather the fact that it's accurate in the first place.

Scrapping the 'boring vs not boring' media frame might help elevate public discourse a little, but the ultimate goal (perhaps unachievable) is to have a politics that's so accessible and diverse that 'boringness' simply doesn't depend upon the demographic identity of a politician. This is largely a function of concrete recruiting and career trends in politics, but also dovetails with broader concerns over structural inequality and disadvantage among populations.

My general impression is that many local-level political units are getting decently close to this with regards to female politicians, and through career progression this cultural reorientation is starting to filter upwards into state-level offices. Being entirely non-facetious, Minnesota's Senator Amy Klobuchar, for example, seems eminently boring to me. Entrenched norms at the presidential level are especially gender-biased, but it's likely inevitable that over time we'll see normalization occur here also.

Other dimensions of identity like race will face greater headwinds. Notably, several physically disabled politicians are rising stars in statewide office: Tammy Duckworth in Illinois and Greg Abbott in Texas. Neither seems especially defined or characterized by their disability. Their respective stories speak to the uniquely martial and outdoorsy culture of the US, but also to FDR's historic example and maybe some fundamental openness in American politics.

1 comment :

  1. Great analysis.

    The "lacks a strong media brand" factor is key here. One of the systemic issues implied in your analysis is that candidates who are not male and white need to focus more on media representations to mount a viable campaign. "Boring" is a strange label to apply to Tim Kaine given his biography (mission work in Honduras with Jesuits, fair housing lawyer, smart growth advocate, walking the walk on current progressive positions like opposition to NCLB policies before they were widespread, etc). The central issue is that he didn't need to cultivate a robust media profile to be successful. The goal needs to be working for a day when this path is available to all politicians, regardless of demographic.