Here was a thoughtful Facebook post this week from George Takei:
“We have made progress. Few even notice that the top contenders for the Oval Office are a woman senator, a black neurosurgeon, a Jewish socialist and a total douchebag.”
True enough. And we could go even further than that: It seems that equally few people have noticed that one of the five Democratic nominees is Catholic, as are not one, not two, but six of the Republicans. This in a country that has elected only one Catholic president and nominated only two others. So much for the fear of an American leader taking his cues directly from the Holy See.
Then there’s the fact that one GOP candidate is the son of Cuban immigrants, another is the son of Indian immigrants and a third wasn’t even born in the United States.
In previous elections, any of those pieces of trivia would be major headline news, and we would spend months ruminating, for instance, on how having foreign-born parents might affect a potential president’s foreign policy—as some people are still doing with our current president and his African father.
But in this election? Not so much.
Not really at all, in fact. I mentioned that one of the Democratic nominees is Catholic. Quick: Which one is it? Did the thought even occur to you until now? If so, has this person’s Catholicism had any impact on your interest (or lack thereof) in electing him leader of the free world?
For that matter, has Bernie Sanders’ Judaism had any measurable influence—in either direction—on his overall popularity? Is there a statistically significant chunk of Republican voters who support (or oppose) Ben Carson because he is black, or does his unlikely success in the polls exist entirely outside the context of race?
Wouldn’t it be nice to think so?
To be sure, none of these people has won a damn thing at this point in the 2016 presidential contest. Anybody can run for president, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that a minority or two would slip in every now and again.
The difference this time—as George Takei’s quip suggests—is that many of these demographic oddballs are being taken seriously and could actually win the nomination, if not the presidency, and hardly anybody seems to care about how “historic” these would-be presidencies would be.
A Cuban commander-in-chief? Yawn. An African-American in the Oval? Been there, done that. A woman as the most powerful human being on Earth? Yeah, sure, why not?
Perhaps I’m being needlessly optimistic. With 15 weeks to go before the first primaries, it’s still too early to take an accurate measure of what America really thinks about its options on the ballot next fall.
However, as gauged by media coverage—a not entirely useless barometer of cultural trends—the attention on this year’s contenders is focused less on identity and more on…well, not issues, per se, but definitely on the things coming out of these folks’ mouths.
With Ben Carson, for instance, the interest has been entirely on his muted speaking style, his career as a neurosurgeon and—for liberals, anyway—his galling opinions about Muslims and gun control.
And why not? When a serious candidate walks around saying things like, “Obamacare is […] the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” there really isn’t time to notice the color of his skin or any other details not immediately relevant to what his policies might be.
(Admittedly, a non-black candidate probably wouldn’t have uttered that particular sentence, although Carson didn’t let his non-Jewishness prevent him from saying the Holocaust might have been avoided if the Jews had been packing heat.)
In other words, Carson’s outlandish worldview has transcended his race and everything else about him. To the degree that his public comments can be considered “substance,” our public discourse on his candidacy has, in fact, been almost entirely substantive.
Likewise with Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator has become universally recognized for being a democratic socialist and not—so far as anyone can tell—for being Jewish. His theories about making the United States a bit more like Scandinavia—galvanizing to liberals, infuriating to conservatives—has totally eclipsed any concerns (or thrills) that his faith might otherwise have caused.
In 2000, the nomination of Joe Lieberman for vice president created a minor national tizzy—particularly within the Jewish community. This time, one could be forgiven for not knowing what Sanders’ religion is. He’s certainly never brought it up himself.
Maybe this will change. Should Sanders replicate Barack Obama’s 2008 miracle and defeat Hillary Clinton, it might only be a matter of time before we start wondering (for instance) whether having a Jewish commander-in-chief would be counterproductive in our ongoing negotiations with the Arab world, or whether a Sanders presidency would engender a new era of conspiracy-mongering amongst America’s anti-Semitic community, in the way that Obama’s presidency has seen a flowering of our country’s residual racism.
And should Clinton maintain her lead and fulfill her destiny, it probably won’t just be T.I. musing about how women can’t be trusted with power because their hormones might get the better of them. Some 92 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified female presidential candidate, but the road to that destination might be a whole lot messier than we think.
But I’m willing to be surprised. Maybe the United States really has moved beyond identity-based prejudices in choosing national leaders. Maybe electing our first black president—twice!—had the effect of getting all of our demographic hang-ups out of our system, and now we are prepared to elect anybody with the smarts and the fortitude to take on the most difficult job on planet Earth.
Soon enough, we’ll know for sure. In the meantime, we can give ourselves a soft pat on the back for ignoring or looking past the genetic characteristics of our presidential contestants and focusing, instead, on things that really matter. Like those damn e-mails.