With the presidential primaries well underway in the United States, voters are faced with the possibility of making history by choosing either the first female president, the first Jewish president, or the first Latino president. As in 2008, when Democrats were split between Clinton and Obama, the political sphere is deluged with arguments over how much minority status should and will influence the results.
As an American woman, I’ve been called upon by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and feminist giant Gloria Steinem to join my sisters in solidarity for Clinton. It is intriguing to observe this living as a woman in Germany, where Angela Merkel has been chancellor for over 10 years. Her policies aside, I consider her greatest success as a female politician to be the way in which so little attention is afforded her lifestyle and femininity. Few people know what her husband looks like because he shies away from politics. That she has never had children of her own is rarely mentioned let alone a headline. And she has had to endure hardly any national discussions of her fashion sense. (Indeed, it took the media 18 years to notice that she’s worn the same dress at gala events for nearly two decades.) It seems crucial to appreciate such an absence of time-wasting sexism when considering the way in which Julia Gillard had to face down accusations of her partner being gay, the way in which Margaret Thatcher had to pose with pots and pans to prove her housewife credentials, and the way in which Hillary Clinton has had to field questions about her last name, her scrunchies, and her sex life.
So what will it mean if the next U.S. president is a woman, Jewish or Latino? Seeing a member of any long-oppressed minority rise to power can be very moving. Only the fiercest of cynics could not find it heartening to see the United States seriously consider a female president nearly 100 years after so many fought to crush women’s suffrage. The same goes for seeing Sanders’ brother Larry tear up when he wishes that their parents—Jewish immigrants who lost relatives in the Holocaust—were around to see Bernie get this far. “They would be so proud,” he smiles.
When Barack Obama was elected, I could not suppress the lump in my throat upon seeing Virginia and North Carolina—two states that had banned families like the one he came from—swing in his favor. It was exhilarating to consider anyone who had fought to block the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act now having to take orders from a black commander-in-chief.
Similar smiles were exchanged here in Germany in 2009 when the government was run by a female chancellor, a disabled finance minister, an Asian technology minister, and an openly gay foreign minister. Of the latter a friend grinned, “I like the idea of the heads of state in Saudi Arabia and Russia having to shake his hand.”
Representation can have deep repercussions on a subconscious level. The phrase “You can be anything you want to be!” so often secretly strikes traditionally oppressed minorities as absurd, silently countered with a sigh of I’ll believe it when I see it. Representation offers proof of possibility.
And yet, as Barack Obama’s presidency has shown, one single person’s ascent to the most powerful position in the land is no guarantee of equality for all. Black Americans shot by police continue to be twice as likely to be unarmed than white Americans shot by police. The Southern Povery Law Center reports the number of hate groups in 2015 had risen from the previous year. The 114th Congress is the most racially diverse in U.S. history, albeit men and whites remain over-represented. And of course racist backlash to the very idea of our first black president is all but a Google search away.
This is perhaps unsurprising when a closer look at Obama’s electoral victories show that in both 2008 and 2012, the majority of white men did not support him. Opposition to Obama is of course not always racially motivated, but the numbers do not show as many segregationist minds being changed as all the fanfare about a post-racial America seemed to indicate.
Similarly, the Bundestag under Angela Merkel’s current government remains two-thirds male. The U.K.’s parliament is roughly the same, nearly four decades after Thatcher broke the glass ceiling. Benjamin Disraeli’s legacy as the U.K.’s first Jewish prime minister did not prevent the country from turning away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. There is thus little reason to conclude that simply electing a female, Jewish, or Latino president will signify a permanent absence of sexism or racism among the people.
But what could signify true and lasting change? Proportional representation has been shown to be a far better indicator of equal opportunity for all than the odd representation by a particularly powerful politician. Sweden has not yet elected a female head of government, but just under half of the representatives in the Riksdag are female. This percentage has been generally maintained for the past 10 years. It is the result of a continuous push from the Swedish women’s movement in the second half of the last century, which brought the proportion to 20% in 1972, 30% in 1990, and on up to the current near-parity. The U.S. Congress has the same proportion of female members now as the Riksdag did in 1972, ranking it 75th in the world.
This is why Steinem has been urging American women to help each other out in every election since the women’s movement, not just this one. Solidarity is certainly one of the best paths toward justice. But her eight-year history of accusing all of Clinton’s opponents of opposing the idea of a female president is unfair and as simplistic as sexism itself.
After all, voting for a candidate only for the sake of having a female head of government immediately supports not only the candidacies of Clinton and Merkel and Thatcher, but also of Sarah Palin and Marine Le Pen. Barack Obama and Ben Carson could not be more different, nor could Bernie Sanders and his former fellow senator Joe Lieberman. Policies should always—er—trump identity in the voting booth.
But while it is unreasonable to vote for a candidate only because he or she belongs to a certain minority, it is also unreasonable to vote against a candidate only because he or she belongs to a certain minority. This is why the discussions of identity and institutionalized xenophobia surrounding this election are as valid as they are necessary.