Op-ed: Stop pigeonholing presidential candidates

As a woman of color, I’m an advocate for an American political landscape with more females and more color. The influx of minorities into higher offices after the 2018 midterm elections shows this shift is already happening. The presidential election in November 2020 lingers on the horizon, and minority voices plan to solidify their position in the race.

As presidential candidates announce campaigns, I see college students already aligning themselves with potential figureheads because of a quality they possess—their gender, their skin color, or their advocacy for a particular issue. This narrow-minded thinking limits people from seeing the extent of a candidate’s platform.

From what I’ve observed, Emerson students are incredibly political–Niche even ranked the college as the third-most liberal institution in Massachusetts.

So it’s not rare for me to see a rousing endorsement for a candidate at school or on social media because they are brown or because they’re pushing universal health care. A minority in office and getting Americans the resources they need is obviously important, but the reasoning behind supporting a presidential candidate should have more depth than these superficial and often minimal backings. The position of president is comprehensive, as should be the logic behind a presidential election vote.

Freshman Abigail Michaud said college students default to supporting emblematic candidates because it’s easy for them to connect to individual qualities and characters.

“We are finding our identities and it’s easier to connect to personal policies and identities than it is economics and big business and what not,” Michaud said in an interview.

I understand this urge to rely on singular reasoning. For one of the most seemingly forward-thinking countries in the world, we have yet to have a female president. With a population that is 13 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic, America has had only one non-white president. And issues like mass incarceration, climate change, and income inequality do not receive nearly as much national attention they deserve. And I, too, am angry.

But students have to remember that there is no perfect candidate. Voting for Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, or any one of the parade of women running for office will not solve all of the nation’s gender discrimination and harassment issues. And electing a person of color like Cory Booker will not automatically appease the white supremacy and racism laced into the fabric of our society. It is arguable that Barack Obama’s election was a symbolic win for African-Americans and, indirectly, all oppressed individuals, but it did not end racism or abolish the hurdles minorities still face in the U.S.

Students are more likely to default to candidates today because of a growing partisan divide. A 2017 article in The Atlantic, “The Most Polarized Freshman Class In History,” showed that fewer students identify as non-partisan today than ever before. The Atlantic attributed this phenomenon to the divide within the legislative branch. A strong rivalry in Congress forces students to pick sides, so they are–and they’re sticking to them.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party. This milestone mobilized female college students, with 41 percent of them identifying as liberal or far left during the 2016 election—an increase from earlier years. The breadth of minority ambition in this upcoming election cycle possesses the power to motivate people in the same way—women voting for women, people of color voting for people of color. But voters should not pigeon-hole themselves into voting for the candidate only because they align with their identity.

Aside from that, students have also attached themselves to important issues. An Inside Higher Ed article, “Activism, not Political Parties,” said over 13,700 issue-oriented organizations exist on college campuses nationwide, a figure that is four times greater than the number of college party-based organizations. Emerson shines as a beaming example of this growth. Emerson students organized the Kavanaugh protest, joined the Marriott workers’ strike late last year, and a few even participated in a protest against President Trump’s national emergency declaration just last week.

I am not one to argue against students who have enough faith in their views to identify with a political party. And I am not denouncing the exceedingly important issues in our country that students are fighting for today. But a candidate’s advocacy for one issue does not ensure he or she will make a good president. One external quality and the experience a candidate gained because of this label do not automatically validate all of their other proposed policies and views.

Although Michaud said she would love to see a minority in office, she knows there is more to a candidate than where they come from.

“If we don’t have certain voices in big positions, then we don’t get to hear those voices and we don’t get to address those problems,” said Michaud. “But I look at what [candidates] want to do once they get elected and I vote based on that.”

I do not aim to discredit minority candidates who use their identity to benefit their position in the race. Kamala Harris’ experiences as a black woman are a tool she can use to gain the black public’s trust. And I do not want to devalue the legitimacy of candidates that put a handful of issues at the forefront of their mission, like Bernie Sanders, who prioritizes free college tuition, universal health care, and immigration reform.

I’m simply saying the options for America’s 46th president are as expansive as ever, and we should take advantage of them the right way. Walk into the voting booth on November 3, 2020 as an educated voter, and eventually come to support a candidate for more reasons than their profile and their policies that make the headlines.

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