Scoppe: The right road to diversity

Associate EditorNovember 5, 2010 

THERE’S A bunch of white guys around our state today who are surprised to find themselves feeling smug for having elected South Carolina’s first female governor.

They’re surprised about feeling that way because they don’t get into identity politics — and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t be feeling good about voting for someone whose demographics they can’t identify with. But why shouldn’t they be smug? They just showed all those people who were certain that they were a bunch of unreconstructed sexists who would never vote for a woman.

Those other people, by the way, are feeling deeply conflicted today, after female voters gave a slight edge to Sen. Vincent Sheheen over Rep. Nikki Haley. A lot of women on the political left, and some in the middle and even on the right, want so much for more women to be elected to office. They simply love the idea of having a woman as their governor. But not this woman. They don’t like her politics. Or maybe they don’t like some of the things that came out about her in the campaign. In either event, they are feeling quite guilty about the fact that they just can’t celebrate the election of South Carolina’s first female governor.

These women are thinking about Ms. Haley’s election in exactly the wrong way. The smug white guys have got it precisely right.

I’m not saying they voted for the right candidate; I don’t think they did. But they’re right to feel good about voting for the candidate they agreed with who happened to be a woman. And rather than feeling bad, the conflicted women ought to be feeling even better — if getting more women into office is really that important to them, as opposed to merely getting more women into office who think like they do.

It’s true that in an ideal world, there would be nothing unusual about having a female governor, or a black president. And we might expect to have a legislature whose racial, gender and other demographic characteristics roughly mirrored the population’s. But as long as we’re talking about ideals, we need to remember the ideal way of achieving them — not by, for instance, women all banding together to vote for one candidate because she’s a woman. That’s no different than men voting against a woman simply because she’s a woman.

Although it might make some women feel better simply to have more women in office, it seems to me that our dual goals should be to get the best people in office and to get to the point where we can elect the best people without even thinking about whether they’re male or female — or black or white, or second-generation American or 10th-generation. Didn’t Martin Luther King Jr. say something along those lines?

What progress do we make toward such goals if we vote for candidates merely because they’re female, or black, or skinny, or short? Don’t we only make real progress — progress that’s more than skin-deep — when we vote for candidates because we agree with their ideas, or we trust them, or we believe they’re most likely to be able to do the job?

Many people believe that we are not there yet when it comes to race, and while there’s a bunch of smug white guys in South Carolina’s First Congressional District who would argue to the contrary, I’ll concede that’s a legitimate point of debate. But when it comes to gender politics — and I realize there are women who have been around politics much longer than I have, who have seen things that I haven’t — I don’t think we’re far from the goal.

Yes, South Carolina has among the fewest elected female officials in the nation, but I have never seen convincing evidence that this is the result of men (or women) refusing to vote for female candidates. It always has looked to me like the problem was that female candidates didn’t run for office often enough. If two women run for constitutional offices and both of them lose, we say voters won’t elect women. But if 30 men run for constitutional offices and 21 of them lose — that’s more than 10 times as many men who are rejected — we figure that voters simply didn’t like those particular candidates. And we’re right.

The people who spend a lot of time worrying about his sort of thing point out that women face barriers to running that men don’t face: child-rearing responsibilities, a reluctance to ask for money or to be as confrontational as men or to put themselves through the nastiness of a campaign. But those barriers aren’t created by the voters.

And in the state that critics have told us for years has a problem with electing women, we just went through an election in which the voters — even some who detested her politics — rallied around the female candidate when she was confronted with the nastiness of the campaign. (I’m talking about the sexual allegations — not the perfectly legitimate questions about her taxes and transparency and job history.) Those people who want more women in office — even those who don’t like this woman — ought to feel good about that too.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571.

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