Here Comes Everybody

Sometimes a nation ought to pause in order to celebrate a major collective achievement. And the approaching presidential primary season may well be one of those times. After more than 200 years when only one segment of the populationnamely, white, non-Hispanic males who, with just two exceptions, were Protestantran for president, the pool of presidential possibles has grown markedly. It is now the most diverse presidential pool in U.S. history. Those politicians who officially have thrown their hats into the ring for 2008, as well as those who are still considering a run and those who may be cajoled into it by supportersall are plausible competitors. They are plausible enough that when the major political parties next convene, they could present to the electorate the first woman nominee for president, the first African-American, the first Hispanic, the first Mormon and possibly the first Jewall in the same race. It is possible that barriers to the government’s top spot may finally be starting to melt like a warmed-up glacier.

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
12 years 1 month ago
I read the editorial from the 2/12/2007 issue and, while I agree with its premise that a diverse pool of candidates for a national election is a very good thing, I take issue with a phrase that was used in the penultimate paragraph: "Just this year the first Muslim-American won a seat in Congress."

You reference to Congressman Keith Ellison as a "Muslim-American" falls short of the journalistic standards I have come to expect from America. By using the hyphenated construct, the editorial seems to infer that being Muslim is an ethnicity, similar to the reference, earlier in the editorial, to Barack Obama being the first African-American candidate.

Islam is a religion, not an ethnicity. If the editorial were to be consistent, then it should have referred to candidate Mitt Romney as a "Mormon-American". Similarly, was JFK a "Catholic-American"? You see my point.

Muslim / Christian relations are troubled enough now. Please do not add to the difficulty by using such unclear designations when referring to adherents of religion.

Sincerely, John MacLerran

12 years ago
The editorial "Here Comes Everybody" truly does positively reflect on our nation's progress relative to equality and acceptance of the diverse racial, cultural, gender and religious make-up of our populace. While we have a need for continuous improvement, glancing back over the past 70 years, we see significant progress in this area. The author does note that other governments have elected female and black heads of government however this may relate to the culture of the European nations who have had female Queens and to the population of South Africa which is predominately black; neither aspect yet of our national culture or racial make-up. None the less, I absolutely agree with the author's final sentence relative to comparing our accomplishments in social justice areas with-in our own espoused values. It's unfortunate that we Catholics can't "celebrate" in a similar fashion. The clerical leaders of our 2000 year old religious society have not yet established or espoused values which would enable us to similarly celebrate actions that benefit every member of our Catholic society.

Ed Wade Gloucester, Ma.


The latest from america

An anti-Brexit supporter stands by European and British Union flags placed opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, on March 18. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Parliament is being asked for the first time in history to enact something that it does not believe in.
David StewartMarch 20, 2019
The question of trust, of giving ourselves to something outside ourselves, is quite fundamental. It goes to the nature of who we are as human beings. One might pose the question this way: Are we clams or clovers?
Terrance KleinMarch 20, 2019
Catholic parents should vaccinate their children for the good of their children and the community said the Pontifical Academy for Life.
A nun’s ability to find humor rather than outrage, to remain humble while believing oneself to be in possession of the truth, is something we can use more of in today’s church.
Addison Del MastroMarch 20, 2019