Kamala Harris as Vice-Presidential nominee: The issue of representation

Kamala Harris as Vice-Presidential nominee: The issue of representation

By Sabine Stroband

The presidential elections in the United States are coming closer. On November 3rd, the American population will vote either for President Donald Trump, or his opponent Joe Biden. The United States seems to be in a state of crisis, not only due to covid-19, but also with the current Black Lives Matter movement pinpointing the complicated racial history and the present-day issues of racial inequality that impact communities of color. These racial issues will play an important role in the 2020 presidential elections. 

The choice to make Kamala Harris, Biden’s vice-presidential running mate, therefore seems all the more important. Kamala Harris, half Jamaican and half Indian, is the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major political party and she could become the first woman of color to be vice-president of the United States. Only two women went before her as vice presidential nominee. This lack of women, and especially women of color, in the white house reflects the lack of diversity in United States politics on the local, state, and federal level. 

On average, women hold one seat for every 3 seats held by men, even though they make up half of the population in the United States. On the federal level, the House has 101 women in Congress and 26 women in the senate against 436 and 74 men. Men and women of color take 114 of the 535 seats in the House. This means that nearly 8 in 10 of the politicians are white, even though they only make up about 60% of the population. Of the electorate, meaning those eligible to vote, about one-third identifies as non-white. The rest of this article will focus on women (of color) to explain the issues relating to the lack of representation.

The lack of diversity has two main reasons: the electoral structures, and deep-rooted social factors that make it harder for women (of color) to be chosen. Firstly, the electoral structure. In the United States, most governing branches have a “winner-take-all” system, which means that the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of their vote share, making this person the representative of all voters. These representatives, then, are held accountable to their voters for their activity within the government. If the district is homogeneous and a large majority votes for this candidate, it can be said to be a fair representation. However, in many places in the United States, there are heterogeneous, diverse, societies that need representation, yet there is only one person that represents this heterogeneous society.

Secondly, there are deep-rooted social factors that make it harder for women (of color) to be elected. (White) men have always dominated the electoral playing field, which has led to a masculine culture around politics and elections. Events concerning the elections, for example, are often talked about in terms that come from the traditionally masculine domains of war and sports. “Candidates attack their opponents”, “the attention in presidential races goes to critical battleground states”, and in a political debate “one of the candidates has scored a knock-out punch”, are all examples. Additionally, expectations on the qualities, appearance and behavior of candidates are also gendered. Leaders are supposed to be tough, dominant and assertive, which are seen as masculine traits, but when a woman has these qualities, it is not liked. Expectations of how women should dress and behave also make their election harder. And it can be said to be even harder for women of color due to racial biases. 

But why does representation matter? Simply put, the more reflective the government is of the nation, the more legitimacy it has as a representative institution. For people that have been historically marginalized from formal political power, like women, and especially women of color, representation can increase trust in these institutions and motivate women to consider political leadership themselves. Additionally, governing bodies that lack diversity, do not benefit from the different views, insights and talents of the communities. Research shows that women (of color) often have different views regarding policy priorities and preferences, and thus will make a difference in politics and policy making. It is not to be forgotten that by a lack of representation, it can be said that people often lose their voice. 

Therefore, the choice of Kamala Harris to be the vice-presidential nominee is important. It means that one of the highest positions of government could be filled by a woman of color, which is important for both the population in general, but also for the Democratic party. From all registered voters that identify or lean towards the Democratic Party, 40 percent identify as non-white, and 56 percent as women. For the Republican Party, both these percentages are much lower, 17 percent and 38 percent.  

Kamala Harris has had a strong career, having worked as San Francisco District Attorney, former Attorney General of California, and as Senator of California from 2017 onwards. She thus has plenty of experience in the political field. In her career she has focused on historically marginalized groups, advocating for equality under the law and the fight for social-justice reform. As a Senator she has introduced and cosponsored legislation to raise wages for working people, reform the broken justice system, work towards health care for all, and expand child care. It should be mentioned that her record has been criticized. Harris has been called out on raising the San Francisco’s conviction rates, and was charged with being too punitive as a San Francisco District Attorney, specifically in communities of color. At the same time, we can recognize that in political discussions, politicians can change positions by listening to the public and responding to this. More recently, Harris has been changing her policies and actions, which show more of an alignment with her goal to reform the broken justice system, for example. This has impressed some, and left others to still doubt her actions.

Although the decision of Kamala Harris as vice-presidential nominee is extremely important, it is not enough to reach the conclusion that the Democratic Party represents the electorate. Over the summer Biden’s presidential campaign has grown more diverse, with its full-time staff now nearly half being filled by people of color and women growing in their majority. As more and more political action is taken to advance diversity, equity and inclusion, this could be an important step in a government that represents all of the American people.

Sources

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/11/us/politics/kamala-harris-vp-biden.html

[2] https://genderwatch2018.org/scaling-womens-political-representation-matters/

[3] https://cawpdata.rutgers.edu/women-elected-officials/position

[4] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/02/these-two-graphics-show-the-lack-of-diversity-in-the-house-and-senate.html

[5] https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/racial-issues-define-2020-presidential-election/story?id=72394595

[6] https://www.fairvote.org/research_representation#minority_representation

[7] https://www.fairvote.org/research_representation#representation_general

[9] Gender and Elections, introduction p. 4

[10] Gender and Elections, introduction p. 4-5

[11] Gender and elections

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/05/elizabeth-warren-drops-out-women-politics-sexism-analysis

[13] https://genderwatch2018.org/scaling-womens-political-representation-matters/

[14] https://www.fairvote.org/research_representation#representation_general

[15] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/06/02/democratic-edge-in-party-identification-narrows-slightly/

[16] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/06/02/democratic-edge-in-party-identification-narrows-slightly/

[17] https://www.harris.senate.gov/about

[18] https://www.harris.senate.gov/about

[19] https://fair.org/home/not-all-criticism-of-kamala-harris-is-created-equal/[1] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/14/politics/biden-campaign-diversity/index.html