Equality of opportunity is no new goal. Since its founding this nation has aspired toward that ideal and has worked to realize it. But it has taken a grueling civil war, protracted struggles for women’s suffrage and civil rights, a massive body of laws and a steady influx of immigrants who have enriched the citizenry to set the stage for this historical moment. It has also required the ratification of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, giving black males first (in 1870) and then women (in 1920) the right to vote. Until potential leaders could vote, obtain an education and rise on their merits in the workplace, the pool of qualified leaders was kept small. In those days equality walked paces behind the rhetoric extolling it. That has changed.
The electorate has changed, too. It determines which qualified candidates are electable, and social acceptability is a major element in electability. No law barred Al Smith from receiving his party’s nomination in 1928, and the delegates were willing to gamble on a victory. But Smith’s Catholicism was a major hurdle for voters. Three decades later, the electorate had become accepting enough to put John F. Kennedy in the White House.
Today’s presidential possibles walk in the footsteps of many others. Delegates at the 1984 Democratic convention, for instance, nominated Geraldine Ferraro for vice president (one first) and voted on a slate of potential presidential nominees that included Jesse Jackson (another first). By convention’s end Gary Hart trailed the nominee, Walter Mondale, and Jackson trailed Hart, but Jackson had set a precedent. He had shown that seven generations after the abolition of slavery, an African-American could run for president and find support among voters beyond an African-American constituency.
For every candidate who does not fit the past presidential profile, electability includes an unfair burden. A prior issue must always be broached: the voter’s readiness to accept the nominee’s gender, race, religion and so on. If a voter will not countenance an African-American, a woman, a Chinese-American or a Hindu, the specific candidate does not matter. This is the other side of how far we have come and a measure of how far we still must go.
It is ironic that the march toward diversityso gradual or perhaps so in step with the changes among the electoratehas begun to seem natural, expected, a yawner, almost a self-evident right. Of itself, this is a striking measure of progress. Consider that in 2000, when Elizabeth Dole’s brief bid for the Republican presidential nomination came up short in the Iowa straw poll, she withdrew from the contest before any primary election had been held. Few blamed her gender for her failure to raise enough money or voter interest. That same year, when Joseph Lieberman ran for vice president, the fact that he was Jewish was conspicuous as a nonissue. Voters seemed to realize that as a pro-business hawk, his presence was to counterbalance Al Gore. Theirs was an electable duo that won the popular vote.
To entertain the question of who, realistically, can become president of the United States brings to mind any number of groups that are still not electable, whatever an individual nominee’s particular qualifications. But time favors diversity. Just this year the first Muslim-American won a seat in Congress.
Why celebrate our tardiness, given that other nations (Great Britain, India, Israel, Pakistan, Chile, Norway ) have elected female heads of government, and that a leader like Nelson Mandela has shown the world how powerful and magnanimous an African leader can be? Our country is not at the forefront in these respects, it is true. The reason for celebrating has nothing to do with comparisons among nations, but everything to do with comparing our society’s actions with its own espoused values.