In the post-Trump era, how can a candidate be “unqualified” to be president? What do people even mean by “Presidential”?

With nineteen official announcements and more on the way, the field of candidates running as Democrats is already dizzying and, I guess, relative to the current standard in American politics, somewhat diverse. By my count, according to this article in the Chicago Tribune (April 17, 2019 and updated regularly) and including (unofficial #20) Joe Biden in the field because it seems like everyone is doing that, we have this:

  • 6 women; 14 men
  • 6 people of color; 14 white people
  • 2 women of color
  • 4 men of color
  • 4 white women
  • 10 white men

It’s at least encouraging, if not overwhelming, to see a number of hopefuls who do not fit the mold of the typical American president. Typical, let me be clear, in the sense of the broadest and simplest categories of identity: the typical American president has been first, a cisgender man, second, white. There are many ways to parse a person’s identity, but when we’re talking about the kinds of things that a president represents and symbolizes to us as a people, we start with broad strokes. Mostly, we stay there. Instead of calling that superficial, I’m going to say that there are some powerful reasons that the broad strokes of gender and race remain crucial; number one of those reasons is that white men still hold the lion’s share of privilege and power wherever there are privilege and power to be had.

We say we agree that denying people access to livelihood, education, protection under law, representation, etc., on the basis of race or gender is wrong. Therefore, we ought to agree that the extreme and longstanding imbalance of power, privilege, and wealth in the U. S. is wrong, and that it is our moral obligation correct it. Both symbolically and practically, expanding access to the office of president is a piece (though only one) of this work toward righting the balance.

In order to have presidents who redefine what is typical, people have to support and vote for people who are not typical. It does no good to keep saying that we would like to live in a country in which “even” girls and children of color can aspire to grow up to be president if we will not support and advocate for and vote for women and people of color.

Therefore, let me make some suggestions for us as we talk about and think about the Democratic field, starting now:

  • Verbally support, advocate for, and vote for a woman of color.
  • Verbally support, advocate for, and vote for a person of color.
  • Verbally support, advocate for, and vote for a woman.
  • Repeat.

If we engage in these activities, we will put women and people of color in the office of President in 2020 and future elections.

If you are bothered by these suggestions, then I invite you to ask yourself why.

If you think that you should vote based on a person’s “qualifications” for office rather than on such characteristics as race and gender, I ask you to consider these points:

  • The U. S. Constitution’s only stated requirements of a president are that the person be a natural-born citizen, at least thirty-five years old, and a resident of the country for fourteen years (visit the U. S. Archives here). That is, there are no Constitutional stipulations regarding education, experience, or ability to present ideas about policy.
  • Preferring to see that a candidate has credentials like Ivy League education, advanced degrees, Rhodes scholarships, and previous experience in elected office may seem responsible, an exercise of high standards. But we must acknowledge that access to these experiences and credentials is NOT equally available to all Americans. Access to all of this is disproportionately available to white, cisgender men. So, insisting that presidential candidates tick these boxes is a way of tilting the field toward white men, whether we intend to be doing that or not.
  • The current president does not tick all these boxes. Although I detest everything he stands for, I have to concede that he has been able to be a president. That is, his lack of qualifications by traditional standards has not been the end of the world. What has been far more damaging is a set of attitudes that he shares with a startling number of previous, supposedly better-qualified presidents, namely, racism, sexism, and classism. We might want to blame his -isms on his lack of “really good” education. But then we’d have to find a different way to explain how Woodrow Wilson, to pick one example, who was extremely well educated (Princeton, Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins), could also have been the president who gave the KKK a big boost by screening D.W. Griffiths’ racist drama The Birth of a Nation at the White House.
  • We may wish to believe in the idea of meritocracy, telling ourselves that a person who is “qualified” to be president should be able to offer proof of merit in the form of education and experience, which we may wish to believe are reasonable testaments to someone’s substance and ability. But a quick acknowledgement of the recent (tip-of-the-iceberg) college-admissions-bribery scandal ought to confront us with an undeniable reality: an unknown but not-insubstantial number of people who attend elite schools do not do so on “merit.” They do so because they can pay, either legitimately or not, to get in and stay in. To think that only the 50 people indicted last month (see here) have attempted such a thing is to indulge in extreme naivete.
  • To put that another way, the main thing that a person’s degree tells us is that the person — as far as we know — attended college. Neither it nor most of the other credentials that are perenially discussed with regard to candidates should stand as gateways or dealbreakers.

It does no good to keep saying that we would like to live in a country in which “even” girls and children of color can aspire to grow up to be president if we will not support and advocate for and vote for women and people of color.

If you find yourself thinking that a candidate — especially a female one — strikes you as “not presidential enough,” or as “strident,” “shrill,” “angry,” “aggressive,” “smug,” “patronizing,” “condescending,” or “unlikeable,” please try the following:

  • Check: has there ever been a person of that race and/or gender in the office of president before? Have you regularly and unremarkably seen persons of that race and/or gender portraying a U. S. president on TV or in films? If not, is it possible that you’re just not used to associating a person like that with the office of president, which has only ever been held by cis-men, all but one of whom were white?
  • Check: are the behaviors and mannerisms that you find unpleasant different from the behaviors and mannerisms you can observe in other current politicians whose race and/or gender differ from the candidate you’re considering? If not, is it possible that you interpret certain behaviors and mannerisms differently when they are embodied by a man vs. a woman, or by an African-American, say, vs. a white person?
For the visual learners

I know y’all think Mayor Pete is smart (and yes, he’s openly gay, but — still a white dude) and Beto is charmingly Kennedyesque and Bernie is radical (really, y’all?) and Joe is one of the good guys, and both Joe and Bernie have “the necessary experience,” but please, I beg you, please: stop with all that and consider whether the reason you like them is that you’re just more comfortable with having a white dude in the role of president than anyone else. I would suggest that, deep down, most of us are. That’s all we ever saw until 2008. And if we actually want to change this important, broken piece of the world, we first have to be honest with ourselves, and next, we have to vote people who are not white dudes into office. There is no other way.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg put it: “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine” (Chicago Sun-Times, 9/12/2017).

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.