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Supporting Historic Candidates and a Reflective Democracy

Leah Greenberg - 01/18/2019

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The 116th Congress brought a raft of historic firsts — the first two Native American women, the first two Muslim American women, the youngest woman and the youngest Black woman, the first Latinas from Texas, the first Black women from Massachusetts and Connecticut, the first queer Senator from Arizona — the list goes on. The incoming Congress looks more like America and less like a country club than it ever has. This will change how Congress works because that’s what happens whenever the circle of who has power widens. 

A healthy democracy is reflective of the experiences and identities of its people. Decisions are made by the people in the room, and for generations, that room has intentionally been kept white and male. The result is that our policies suffer, the relationship between Americans and their elected officials weaken, and critical voices go unlistened to. It's deeply damaging for democracy when Americans — of every race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other identities — can’t see themselves reflected in the leaders who make decisions for our country.
 
We all know that our government was originally structured to explicitly exclude participation from non-white and non-male Americans. We’re only just beginning to take on the systemic power structures that continue to lock people from marginalized backgrounds out of participation and leadership. When choosing our leaders it’s important to recognize that for far too long, our ideas about who is a leader and which candidates are ‘viable’ have been shaped by the prevailing biases and power structures of our society. 

“Viability” as a metric is too often a trap. If we keep defining a candidate as viable because they’ve got the background, biography, and funding base of past leaders, we’ll never break out of this cycle and achieve a genuinely reflective democracy. As we discussed in our Endorsement Guide, institutions in politics typically look to the same type of people for leadership: older, whiter, and richer. Anyone falling outside of that scope is vulnerable to being characterized as unelectable, which helps institutionalize a harmful status quo. 

Even among those who hold progressive beliefs, unconscious biases can still impact perceptions of women and people of color who run for office. Unfortunately, well-meaning attempts to “not see gender” or “not see race” can wind up putting candidates who are not white men at a disadvantage. In the most harmful version, we’ve even heard justifications for not supporting historic candidates based on a fear that “other people” won’t support them. This is precisely backwards — it’s the hesitance to back candidates who don’t fit the traditional mold that creates this vicious cycle. The existence of racism in the electorate can never be a reason not to support a candidate of color. The existence of sexism in the electorate can never be a reason not to support a woman. By focusing on a narrow and flawed definition of electability, we endanger our ultimate vision of a just and equitable society. 

In our electoral work as in all of our work, we have to consciously overturn the patterns of discrimination that have historically kept women, people of color, and other marginalized groups out of political power. And that’s why, following the lead of Indivisible groups across the country, we were proud to endorse a slate of candidates in 2018 that included many history-making progressive leaders. The candidates we backed in their primaries — from Rep. Pressley to Mayor Andrew Gillum — weren’t always the establishment choices. But we were proud to stand behind them because we recognize that progress doesn’t look like the past and neither will the candidates who represent it.

With the 2020 elections already beginning to capture the country’s attention and imagination, we expect even more new candidates to step forward from underrepresented communities to inspire voters to victory. We know we’re going to have more conversations and shared struggles about the kind of movement we want to be but we’re committed to working with our Indivisible community and broader movement allies to organize in support of a more representative government. 

For our part, we are never prouder of the Indivisible movement — and we believe that our impact in dismantling oppressive systems of power is never greater — than when we step forward on behalf of historic candidates like Rep. Pressley, Andrew Gillum, and Stacey Abrams. These are the future leaders who were the best choice in our pursuit of a more progressive and inclusive democracy. Though we still have a long way to go, the 2018 midterms saw the most diverse selection of candidates in history that resulted in the most diverse Congress in history, and critical progress forward on the state level. In public service, it’s the courageous leaders who are willing to take on outdated norms and poisonous policies who make lasting change — and in the end, those are the ones we are proudest to stand behind.