Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
By now you may have come across, or read about, an article by New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen about the gay opposition to the presidential ambitions of gay candidate Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Ind.
The essence of the article, which embraces much more hemming and hawing than the usual run of her otherwise forceful journalism, is this final paragraph: “What makes Buttigieg an easy and reassuring choice for these older, white, straight people, and a disturbing possibility for the queer people who seem to be criticizing him for not being gay enough? It is that he is profoundly, essentially conservative. He is an old politician in a young man’s body, a straight politician in a gay man’s body.”
Hence the recurring theme that Mr. Buttigieg is “not gay enough” or “not gay in the right way.” If you have gay friends, or are gay yourself, the argument will be familiar. Mr. Buttigieg, who is married to a man and has been out for some time, is certainly gay. But his array of career choices, life opportunities and self-presentation tactics seems distant from what many people consider gay politics. Or, in the more precise shades offered by Ms. Gessen, he is LGBT but not LGBTQIA. He’s a normalizer, not a radical.
Suppose you slot into a non-majority demographic. Do you want to be accepted and embraced as part of the bell-curve middle, complete with weddings and kids and joint mortgages? Or do those victories of inclusion just mask an erasure of subcultural tribe identity, coded language and gesture, as well as the thrill of secret libertine lives? Do the long-overdue diminishments of prejudice and even violence compensate for basically becoming straight? (“I miss being gay,” a married gay friend of mine said recently.)
That issue can’t be resolved here. But behind it, with Mr. Buttigieg still in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, there is another question: Is it possible to become president of the United States without being, in effect, a straight white male neoliberal?
The answer is probably not. As of this writing, Bernie Sanders, the mildly democratic socialist senator from Vermont, is ahead in the Democratic caucuses and primaries. I happen to agree, along with writers from the leftist journal Jacobin (obvious) to the centrist USA Today (far less obvious), that Mr. Sanders could beat Donald Trump in November. But wider polls indicate that most Americans would sooner elect a gay man, a black man or a woman before anyone remotely describable as socialist.
That Mr. Sanders is no more than a familiar replicant of many a Canadian politician – pro-health care, anti-inequality – won’t help him. He will never be president, even though he scores three out of four of the traditional electability criteria (i.e., straight white male – also old, but we can bracket that one).
In short, whatever your factual sexual preferences, skin colour or gender, straight white men who support market capitalism, preferably billionaires, are the natural ruling order of allegedly diverse democratic countries. The United States still awaits its first female president, but we all know that Margaret Thatcher has her (whoever she may be) beaten by a long throw. Barack Obama was undeniably the first black president of the United States, but that did not affect his status quo decisions on drone strikes, bank bailouts and mortgage foreclosures.
Identity politics matter far, far less in electoral politics than the shadow parade of nominations and debates might suggest. You don’t get to be president of the United States by being radical. That’s for campus activists and special interest groups pursuing social justice agendas. In politics, wearing the big-boy pants means exactly what it says: get straight, get white, get male, get neoliberal. And do that pretty much right now if you want to win or even just be taken seriously.
No doubt many citizens will think: “Straight white capitalist men are pretty good at what they do.” Fine, but let’s stop pretending that the personal qualities of the candidates matter or that the electorate’s “tolerance” of candidate diversity is a democratic virtue. There is, beneath the surface, no diversity at all.
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