The 2020 Democratic Primary was the most diverse in history — featuring six women, seven people-of-color, four candidates of Jewish descent and, one openly LGBT man. Yet, a man who was none of these things easily took the nomination and by January 2020, the debate stage was already all-white. While, no-one should automatically get the nomination because of their identity, it’s troubling how quickly the Democratic primary lost it’s diversity — and to the extent that identity did impact the race, it seems as though it hurt, not helped candidates from marginalised backgrounds (in spite of ‘identity politics’ narratives that suggested the opposite would be true).
When looking at the diverse 2020 Democrats, it becomes clear that their losses weren’t due to a lack of experience, political skill or charisma — from Kamala Harris’s unforgettable performance in the first debate to Elizabeth Warren’s awe-inspiring wonkery, it’s astonishing that none of these candidates went the distance in this race.
The loses of the likes of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg would have been easier to understand if the politicians who had beaten them had been strong, formidable opponents. Instead, the eventual top three polling candidates — Biden, Sanders, Bloomberg — all had serious defects as candidates. Biden was a self-described “gaffe machine”, Sanders had recently suffered a heart attack and, Bloomberg was an ex-Republican with a history of supporting racist stop and frisk policies.
When it came to electability and their strengths as candidates, non-diverse candidates were given the benefit of doubt, while everyone else was just doubted
This isn’t to say that there weren’t legitimate reasons for supporting a candidate like Biden or Sanders, yet all three of the aforementioned contenders had short-comings that it’s hard to imagine a women/person of colour/ LGBT person being able to overcome. For the many people who had invested so much hope in getting a nominee who would make history, it was hard to get to grips with what had happened. The diverse 2020 candidates had decades of experience between them, had strong electoral records and, held a diverse range of views and opinions; so how could they all lose?
Any discussion about the loses of the more-diverse candidates — especially the women candidates — is incomplete without examining the loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Dating back to her time as First Lady, Democrats had watched for years as Clinton faced a barrage of sexism and misogyny, yet, in 2016 it looked like it was finally going to be different. America, it seemed, had progressed a lot since the 1990s and, surely, a country that had elected it’s first black president and had legalised same-sex marriage would be ready for it’s first female president. Especially considering that the alternative was a crass, reality TV star who had bragged about sexual assault just weeks before the election.
Not just was Trump’s victory a backlash to Hillary Clinton, it was a backlash to the idea that a women could succeed a black man in taking control of an office previously controlled entirely by white men.
That Clinton could lose to Trump took many by surprise and caused a lot of people to reassess their faith in America’s progressive bonafides. Many saw the loss of Hillary as the culmination of long standing resentment towards the increasing social liberalism of the United States — not just was it a backlash to Hillary Clinton, it was a backlash to the idea that a women could succeed a black man in taking control of an office previously controlled entirely by white men.
For as many people as there were determined to elect a women to go against Trump, there were far more who just wanted to do whatever it took to get rid of Trump. If that meant electing a straight, white, Christian, man in order to appease anxious voters, so be it. For the most part, Democrats were personally willing to vote for a women, person of colour or LGBT candidate (though a quick look at the online treatment of Warren and Harris shows the left still has a sexism problem), they were just worried other people wouldn’t share their willingness. As networks like CNN spent the first years of Trump’s Presidency incessantly returning to the whitest, most rural parts of the Midwest to talk to voters, Democrats were given a clear message: it’s the white, working class Trump voters — not the disillusioned youth or the disenfranchised black non-voters — who matter. Democrats took this message to heart and picked a nominee who looked and sounded most like these voters.
At times, Democrats showed limited willingness to consider electing a women; Kamala Harris received a meaningful bounce after the first debate, Elizabeth Warren briefly tied with Biden for first place in the polls and, the victory of Pete Buttigieg in Iowa made many think — even if just for a moment — that America could get it’s first openly gay President. But, it was only after giving perfect performances that candidates like Warren and Harris could get even a cursory glance. Meanwhile, their white, male counterparts could make continuous slip ups without facing a hit. When it came to electability and their strengths as candidates, non-diverse candidates were given the benefit of doubt, while everyone else was just doubted.
It’s unclear whether Biden will be able to pull of the task of beating Trump — by all standard measures the race is a tossup. If he wins, America will get it’s first women VP — and very possibly their first women-of-color VP — who may one day become President herself. But if he does lose, perhaps the main takeaway should be that, ultimately, Democrats doubted too strongly their ability to achieve another historic first in 2020. Despite all the challenges they would’ve inevitably faced, a candidate from a marginalised background could have overcome the odds by turning out their party’s base of young, female, minority voters in record numbers. Regardless of what happens in November, the long march towards progress continues.