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National Issues

The Representation Game: Who to pick and why

These first two decades of the 21st century appear to be the beginning of a new era in presidential politics. Gone are the days of all-white Anglo-Saxon Protestant candidates; we now look out on a campaign trail of unprecedented diversity.

In 2008, as we all know, Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president, and in 2016 it’s possible we’ll again have another first — perhaps the first female (Hillary Clinton), the first Jew (Bernie Sanders) or the first Latino (Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz) will occupy the Oval Office.

All of this diversity raises a question, though: Are we obliged to support the candidate who represents our demography, even if he or she doesn’t represent our political ideology?

Some people would have you think that demographic representation — racial, gender or religious — is the most important criteria by which to support a candidate. At a recent campaign event for Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright (the first woman to hold the office of U.S. Secretary of State) warned the audience that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” The implication, of course, is that a female vote for Bernie Sanders would betray the sex.

This comment came in the wake of Clinton’s slide among young Democratic voters who tend to overwhelmingly support Sanders. In Iowa, for example, entrance polls showed young Democrats aged 17-29 preferring Sanders by a margin of 84-14 percent. To be fair, Albright has retracted her comment after it received a great deal of backlash, but just like Freud said that every joke is a half truth, so, too, do I think every inciting stump speech comes from an underlying conviction.

By this logic, am I then supposed to support Bernie because he’s Jewish, even though I disagree with much of his platform? And are my black friends supposed to support Ben Carson because he’s black?

If so inclined, you could read mountains of literature and commentary about the different theories of political representation. For example, should representatives be delegates or trustees? That is, should they represent exactly what their constituents say they want, or should they act in what they think is the best interest of their constituency? And, conversely, what types of candidates should voters choose to represent them?

The primary flaw with pushing voters to support the politicians that look most like them is that it assumes all demographic groups have homogeneous political needs. Not all women hold the same beliefs about government involvement in healthcare delivery or corporate income tax structure or even reproductive rights. Why, then, should all women support Hillary? Is it not possible that women consider other issues more important than seeing a woman in the White House?

It could be that the person who best aligns with your ideology looks most like you. But it’s also possible he or she looks nothing like you. It was great when Cornel West said in an August 2015 CNN interview that “Brother Bernie Sanders” was the best candidate in the field to represent the minority vote, even though the two look about as different as can be.

As we push through primary season and toward the general election, let’s be careful not to get wrapped up in electing someone who looks like us, but instead focus on electing the candidate who will do the best by us.

Max Stayman, from Oakland, Calif., is a Duke senior studying public policy.


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