Tea Parties and women in politics
By Jonathan Bernstein
Do reports of women as major players in Tea Party activity signal that women are about to be more serious players in GOP politics? Dara Lind takes on the argument, pointing out that few if any of the most visible female GOP candidates this cycle emerged with the Tea Parties -- they're either experienced pols looking to move up, or newcomers who had little to do with the Tea Parties. I do think there's a bit more to the story. First, contrary to what Mark McKinnon says, 2010 is not shaping up to be a very good year for female politicians. Why? Because it's likely to be a good year for the GOP, and that's bad news for women in office. Just take a quick look ... only four of the 17 women in the Senate are Republicans; there are only 17 women in the House Republican conference, compared with 56 women in the House Democratic caucus.
That's still going to be true in 2010, regardless of any stats you might hear about large numbers of women running on the GOP side this year. The person who's been tracking this most carefully as far as I know is the excellent journalist (and brother) David S. Bernstein. His conclusion so far has been: Lots of GOP women running, but very few running as strong candidates in winnable races (see his updates here and here, and the prognosis for today's primaries here). So for the most part, any claims of an immediate effect of Tea Party activism on women in high office, especially Republican women, is mostly hype.
On the other hand, I don't really agree with the point that Lind and the Economist's Democracy in America blog make about activists being shunted aside away from a candidate track. Lind's two examples of "party apparatus" types are telling -- she cites party chairs Tim Kaine and Michael Steele, but of course both of them got to those positions by being candidates for office first. More to the point, it works the other way, as well. Indeed, Nancy Pelosi's path to office involved several formal party organization positions before she ever became a candidate herself. One of the things that makes American democracy robust is the absence of a single career path that leads to Congress. Or, for that matter, the Oval Office. Barack Obama, of course, got started as a community organizer and then became a state legislator. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had highly developed political networks before winning office. Ronald Reagan was a party activist for years before politics became his career. Or, to look at it another way, it's easy to list people who started out in politics as organizers within a social movement and eventually because interested in running for office themselves -- look at John Lewis, Andrew Young, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson and plenty of others from the civil rights movement. For some people, the candidacy comes first; for others, it's an evolution from some other political role.
Now, I'm pretty skeptical that there's a Tea Party "movement," so I wouldn't really start talking about how it will affect American politics going forward. As far as I can tell, most of the Tea Party momentum is probably best seen as Republican Party discontent with unified Democratic government. But there are Tea Party events, and Tea Party organizers, and it is no doubt true that some people are becoming involved in politics for the first time, or increasing their level of involvement, through Tea Party activity. If it's true that a lot of the organizers are women, I think it's likely that some of those women will eventually forge serious political careers, and look back to the early Obama years as the spark that got them started. I hope that it's true; I tend to think it's not very healthy for the nation for one party's pols to be overwhelmingly white men while the other party is far more inclusive. So don't expect 2010 to be a good year for women in politics, but perhaps it will be the year that the Republican Party starts catching up to the Democrats and most of the rest of the world by nominating and electing women.
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