"I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent."
Sec. of Interior James Watt, in a Sept. 1983 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
I was reminded of that infamous quote yesterday when reading the New York Times and, in particular, an article entitled “A New Class of Democratic Leaders Is on the Rise in California.” Clearly, the title was not in reference to the fact that 76-year-old Nancy Pelosi prevailed once again in the election to become the House Minority Leader. Nor was it in reference to the fact that the sitting Senators from that state are 83 and 76, respectively, or that the Governor is our old friend Jerry Brown (78) for whose benefit I attended a concert with the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt in the 70s. And nor was it in reference to the fact that outside of the State of California, it would appear that the Democratic Party has no superstars who haven’t already gone through menopause or had their first prostate operation. Joe Biden indicated that he was thinking about running for President in 2020 when he’ll turn 78. Who knows? He may be joined in that contest with such other septuagenarians as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. They may have to move the Primary Debates to 3:00 p.m. so as to allow the candidates to finish in time for their early-bird specials.
Under the circumstances, I was excited to read that in at least one of our 50 states – and a big one at that – we actually have new Democratic talent in the farm system. The title alone gave me hope. Then I happy read on and eventually came to a picture of the 11 rising superstars on which the article was based. Next to each individual there was a one-paragraph blurb. And I was struck by the overarching but unstated theme of the portraits: diversity.
All 11 were in their 40s or 50s. Ten of the 11 were Democrats. Of those ten, five were Latino, one was Jewish, three were women, two were Asian, three were women, one was a lesbian. (No, I’m not bad in math – some of these politicians can check off multiple boxes, such as U.S. Senator-Elect Kamala Harris, a woman who will be both the first black and the first South Asian senator from the state.) Of the ten rising Democratic stars, the only straight white male was Gavin Newsom, who came to be nationally known by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples back in 2004 as the mayor of San Francisco.
Folks, this is truly inspiring stuff. Think about how far we’ve come in the last 50 years. Think about what a group of 10-11 blurbs about rising political stars would have looked like in, say, 1960. Think about how far our society has come in accepting not only the value of respecting people from different backgrounds, but also the value of having representatives of different backgrounds as leaders. The societal benefits from this kind of diversity are indeed profound, and don’t let resentful traditionalist tell you otherwise.
But then I started asking myself a question: can we tell from the ethnicities, genders and sexual preferences alone whether this group of 10-11 rising starts is truly diverse in all important respects? Or even in all necessary respects? How well can they relate to Americans who are NOT at the top of the socio-economic ladder? Do they know what it’s like to work a blue-collar job, or to be out of a job? Do they understand in their bones why so many Americans have grown alienated from Washington (and, no doubt, Sacramento)? Do they speak more like they’re on a Brookings Institution panel or like they’re at a Union Hall? Have they risked their political futures because of their passion to help the needy, or have they succeeded politically because of their passion to advance their own careers?
Frequently, I’ll turn on MSNBC in the evening and I’ll see a parade of talking heads reflecting various ethnicities and both genders. Yet they don’t strike me as diverse. As a general matter, they come across as smug, narcissistic, and disrespectful toward those whose ideologies differ from their own. They tend to prefer mocking their political opponents to learning from them. And yet somehow, despite these unflattering characteristics, they also seem very well-heeled. Diversity is the last word that comes to mind when I watch that network.
But I won’t condemn the gang of ten from California. I honestly don’t know enough about them to form an opinion. Frankly, our country NEEDS this group to produce some genuine superstars. Whether it’s the woman who is both black and Asian or the straight white male, I’d be thrilled if they fit the bill. I just want some of these folks who “get it” – who care deeply about poverty, climate change, economic inequalities, corporate fraud, infrastructural degradation ... and yes, the value of diversity.
James Watt was wrong to mock affirmative action. But truly, affirmative action and identity politics cannot become a fetish. Before we are women or Jews or blacks or gays or white males, we are still just people. Some of us are skilled at our jobs, others aren’t. And whether it’s time to pick a teacher, a doctor or a statesperson, I want the most qualified person for the job, full stop.