It was probably only a matter of time before the right rolled out the “affirmative-action” argument. Apparently that time is now.
In the new issue of the Weekly Standard, Joseph Epstein suggests Hillary Clinton may become the next president of the United States, but she won’t really deserve it.
If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2016 she will not only be the nation’s first woman president but our second affirmative-action president. By affirmative-action president I mean that she, like Barack Obama, will have got into office partly for reasons extraneous to her political philosophy or to her merits, which, though fully tested while holding some of the highest offices in the land, have not been notably distinguished. […]How have we come to the point where we elect presidents of the United States not on their intrinsic qualities but because of the accidents of their birth: because they are black, or women, or, one day doubtless, gay, or disabled – not, in other words, for themselves but for the causes they seem to embody or represent, for their status as members of a victim group?
Epstein explores his answer to his question over the course of about 3,000 words. The Weekly Standard put this on the cover.
Note the specific timeframe the author relies on. Americans used to elect presidents based on their “intrinsic qualities” – rather than “the accidents of their birth” – right up until that rascally Barack Obama won easily in 2008. In other words, according to this exciting new thesis, George W. Bush’s rise to national power had nothing to do with the circumstances he was born into. He wound up in the White House solely on the basis of his inherent skills and attributes.
The old joke about those who are born on third base and think they hit a triple? It’s funny because quite a few people apparently believe it.
When Americans elect 42 white men to be president, it’s because of their “intrinsic qualities.” If Americans elect an African-American man and a white woman, we’re evidently supposed to believe they’re “affirmative-action presidents” who are “members of a victim group.”
It’s worth noting that Clinton was a successful U.S. senator, twice elected in a large state, and she served four years as an accomplished Secretary of State. If she becomes president, Clinton will be the first chief executive in over 150 years to have served in the cabinet and been elected to statewide office.
But according to the Weekly Standard’s cover story, her “intrinsic qualities” won’t be the deciding factor.
Jon Chait responded, “The whole essay is a remarkable testament to the level of delusion of right-wing identity politics.”
I’ll concede that identity politics can offer some benefits to some national candidates. In 1960, for example, Catholic voters may have been more engaged in the presidential election thanks to the prospect of electing the nation’s first Catholic president. In 2008, it’s equally easy to imagine African-American voters getting more invested by their chance to make history as well.
But that’s not “affirmative action.” It’s also not evidence of a president undeserving of the office. Plenty of candidates have benefited from all kinds of related advantages related to geography, party, or last name.
Jenee Desmond-Harris had a good piece this morning, explaining that to believe “that only members of racial minority groups and women have ever benefited from their identity in elections is absurd.”
Women and black Americans were legally or practically (because of racism and sexism) prohibited from making serious runs for president for the vast majority of our country’s history, making white men the only ones who had a chance to compete or win until very recently.And more recent data confirms that being white and male can still give a politician a boost among a certain percentage of the population. In 2008, 5 percent of white voters acknowledge that they, personally, would not vote for a black candidate. This year, an Emily’s List poll found that 75 percent of Americans thought a woman president would be a good thing – but that still leaves 25 percent who aren’t open to the idea. This happened even in what some would complain is a far too politically correct society, where Epstein argues that perceived “victims” thrive.Epstein’s affirmative action argument only makes sense if you imagine white men as completely neutral – free of race and gender, and thus incapable of enjoying any political boost connected to their identities – and if you think the benefits they enjoy (and have always enjoyed) are the only ones that are standard and fair.
Keep this in mind when talk of “affirmative-action presidents” works its way into the national discourse in the coming months.