Joe Biden has finally won the election. After several tense days of fluctuating leads, armed pro-Trump protesters, and one state’s late-breaking realization that people cared about the outcome of this race, it is an immense relief to know that if all goes according to the rule of law, the Trump administration will no longer be in power on Jan. 21, 2021.
For me, this profound gratitude is accompanied by a faint twinge of sadness. Yes, Biden’s win is without question the optimal result: Getting Donald Trump out of the White House was essential, and we will still be calculating the damages of his presidency for some time. With or without a Democratic Senate majority, Biden will be a fine president. But this election week has resurfaced all my memories of the last presidential election, which offered the possibility of the country’s first female president. Sure, Kamala Harris was on the winning ticket this year, and her vice presidency will be historic. And yet, there is still a bitter aftertaste to the knowledge that, several months after the most diverse presidential primary the U.S. has ever seen, the final result is that another white man will be president.
There are a lot of specific features of Joe Biden that contribute to this kernel of disappointment sitting at the center of my relief. His platform is far from transformative. His campaign seemed to excite more voters as a harm-reduction measure, a least-common-denominator electability threat to Trump, rather than as a stand-alone proposition. If the Democrats don’t gain control of both branches of Congress, it will be nearly impossible for them to enact any meaningful part of their agenda—and, anyway, Biden is already talking about building bridges with the party of stolen court seats and voter suppression. He is also extremely old and visibly losing steam.
But on a broader level, the knowledge that Biden could beat Trump while Hillary Clinton—a leader at least as vital and decent and capable as Biden—couldn’t will always sting. The memory of U.S. voters, via the Electoral College, choosing a hateful, proudly incompetent man over an intelligent, competent woman will never go away. And the fact that many Democratic primary voters chose Biden because a racist and sexist president convinced them that Americans were too racist and sexist to accept anyone but a white man will anger me for a long, long time.
After election night, as it became clear that, despite record turnout for Biden, this wasn’t going to be a landslide repudiation of Trump, some wondered whether Clinton had been unfairly maligned as a uniquely despisable nominee, especially since more than 8 million more people cast votes for Trump against Biden than against her. But I’m not here to rehash the specifics of the 2016 election: what Clinton did wrong, what Trump did right, why she’s best understood as a bad candidate and not as a female candidate, or whether, given Biden’s performance, she wasn’t all that bad after all. And I’m not here to speculate on whether Biden was truly the most electable candidate, the only Democrat who could possibly win by drawing racist white voters away from Trump. I’ve already done that too. I am here to express my frustration with the enduring racism and sexism of the American electorate, and to give voice to my precious hope that Trump’s calamitous presidency, even though it was ultimately ended by Biden, doesn’t doom the Democratic Party to another generation of white male presidential candidates.
As it happens, white men are a small minority of Democratic voters. Around 40 percent of Democratic voters are people of color; 56 percent are women. The extent to which white men are overrepresented among Democratic elected officials, in relation to the party’s rank-and-file makeup, is an absolute outrage. This is not an argument for gender or race essentialism. Women and people of color can indeed have bad politics. Newly minted Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett wants the government to force women to give birth against their will. Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a Black Republican, has gone out of his way to protect the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. On the flip side, as many have pointed out, Sen. Bernie Sanders is an elderly white man whose politics would improve the lives of people who aren’t white men. There are plenty of exceptions. But I might point out, as the makeup of Trump’s base reminds us, everyone else’s politics are less bad, on average, than white men’s.
This complex reality does not change the fact that bigotry, however ambiguously it manifests in voters’ perceptions and preferences, are depriving us of the opportunity to draw from a full roster of political talent. In a country in which two-thirds of voters do not believe their “neighbors” would be comfortable with a woman in the Oval Office, the horizons of political possibility are truncated. Biden’s win is a demoralizing reminder that in the year 2020, there are certain positions of power women still can’t get—that even as women lead formidable political movements, define entire schools of jurisprudence, write game-changing public policy, make a swing state out of Georgia, bring their expertise to high-level Cabinet positions, and direct some of the country’s most powerful political advocacy groups, voters still do not trust them with the presidency.
I know, #NotAllVoters. A woman won the majority of presidential votes in 2016. But the fact that more than 71 million people voted for the multiply accused sexual assailant who dreams of punishment for abortion patients and recently told women (“housewives”) they should be glad he was “getting your husbands back to work” suggests that there may be some sexism afoot here in the ol’ American electorate. It’s obviously present in the GOP, but it’s not confined to any party. You don’t have to look too hard to find evidence that Biden’s gender and race gave him an unearned advantage in both the primary and general elections: There were those Sanders-landslide counties that abandoned Sanders and delivered Biden landslides this year (I guess Clinton’s centrist politics weren’t the problem?). There was the way that Democratic voters who exhibited more “hostile sexism” were more likely to support Biden or Sanders than Elizabeth Warren. There’s the fact that anti-Black “racial resentment” was a stronger predictor of voter support for Biden than any positions on policy issues during the primary. And, of course, there’s the 2016 Jill Stein voter from Ohio who’s voting Biden this time because “I thought the girl”—73-year-old former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—“just wanted the job because she wanted to be the boss.”
Like any institution infected with racism and sexism, our democracy suffers dearly for it. While women and people of color seeking office work harder and amass more qualifications to surmount their higher barriers to entry, mediocre white male candidates with inflated senses of self clog up the pipelines. Cal Cunningham, a Democrat who looks unlikely to unseat Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, beat out several Democrats, including progressive state Sen. Erica Smith, to win the nomination earlier this year, in large part because he had the full support of the party establishment. He has also been having a stupid secret sexual affair that damaged his favorability ratings when it was revealed in October (he is married). The affair also threatened his strong polling lead in a state Democrats probably need to win to gain control of the Senate, and with 95 percent of votes counted in North Carolina, Cunningham has slightly underperformed Biden. Cunningham is one of a long line of white men whose sexist behavior, racist actions, and/or selfish sexual indiscretions have threatened their party’s ability to retain political power. In 2016, I wrote that Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton had “prioritized their own sexual proclivities over their wives’ careers and ambitions,” which helped land America with a Trump presidency in the first place. Let us also not forget Ralph Northam, Al Franken, John Edwards, and Gary Hart.
There’s a pattern here. You know who is a lot less likely to have blackface and KKK cosplay in their past? Candidates of color. Guess who’s orders of magnitude less likely to have sexually harassed people, demeaned women with unwanted hugs, or imperiled their political careers with an embarrassing secret affair? A female candidate! But white men, even those who take their responsibilities to supporters and constituents so unseriously that they risk it all for a few laughs, keep rising to the top. They win, in part, because the racism and sexism of the U.S. electorate makes it a lot easier for them. And women and people of color, who make up the majority of the Democratic Party, turn out to support them because the alternative is so much worse.
Equitable representation in politics isn’t everything. It’s not just about boys touching Barack Obama’s hair, or girls pinkie-promising Warren that they’ll always remember that they can run for president too—though it is a little bit about that. But it’s also about getting the best candidates possible in line for the job. In our democracy, diversity cannot be implemented from the top down—unlike some countries, we don’t have electoral quotas for women and religious or ethnic minorities. In U.S. politics, the only way to get our elected officials to look more like the populations they serve is to make voters less sexist and racist.
What I am worried about is that even as the lower ranks of the Democratic Party diversify, what we will learn from the Trump years—and from this race, which was closer than it should have been, given Trump’s disastrous tenure—is that the stakes are too high to risk the presidency. Warren had barely announced her exploratory committee when Democratic power players started calling her “too unlikable,” too “cold” and “aloof.” They boasted that Biden was an easier sell because “he’s an old white guy.” It’s hard to imagine a near future, after Trump, in which Democrats find themselves willing to boost the presidential candidacy of someone who isn’t a white man, whether it’s because they’re bigoted, or because they’re cowardly and willing to preemptively cave to others’ bigotry. The imaginary all-important swing voter will always be the racist, sexist white man who can be seduced by the likes of Trump rather than the young, Black nonvoter who doesn’t see herself in the Democrats’ leadership or policy priorities (or whose vote is deliberately suppressed).
Even as I celebrate the end of the Trump administration with my entire being, I’m still thinking about four years ago, when American voters had the chance to prevent the irreparable damage that was to come, and declined because they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman. That some of those people decided they could stomach Biden, and were motivated to turn out in record numbers for him, can’t undo the catastrophic damage Trump’s tenure has done. Yet the Democratic Party’s bounds of possibility will continue to be tailored to those voters, whose bad politics deserve no tailoring. This was always going to be the way Biden won, and he knew it. In January, as he courted primary voters, Biden assured Iowans that while Clinton faced “unfair” sexist attacks from the right, “That’s not going to happen with me.” Lo and behold, he was right.