Picking Your Spot.
There’s a lot one could write about at the moment. There’s the insanely massive Women’s March this weekend (about which I will likely write next time after I’ve had time for the subject to peculate) and there’s, of course, the nakedly hateful shutdown situation which…is kind of beyond my purview here. I could go on. We live n an age where the news comes so fast that something important is almost immediately pushed to the back burner and out of the immediate conscience by the next “something important” to come along sometimes mere hours later.
But I can’t really let escape my attention one relatively small story that speaks to a bigger issue. Chelsea Manning is running for the U.S. Senate.
Naturally, this has engendered the predicable fierce reaction. The bigots of course don’t want any trans person in a position of power. Those who feel passionately about the crimes for which she had been imprisoned think that not only should she not be in the senate but that she should in fact still be in Leavenworth. We can dismiss the former as contemptible, and the latter as a can of worms I do not choose to open. The extent and nature of her crime, and the degree to which it was either wise or properly executed is not something I wish to debate. It is far more complex than the usual knee-jerk comments the subject provokes. For the purpose of this discussion I wish to lay aside the political implications of that action except in the sense that having done so and subsequently transitioned grants her a high name-recognition and degree of celebrity she would not have otherwise had, and which is certainly the factor she is trying to leverage in this race.
First out of the gate, let me clearly state a couple of important points. One: Ben Cardin, the Democratic Senator whom she is challenging in the primary, is not part of our problem. Her positions are well to the left of his – sometimes extremely so – but he’s a solid liberal and a vote we could count on in terms of LGB/T issues. Also, he’s just completing his second term so he’s not a Senate dinosaur.
Secondly, she has absolutely ZERO chance of even getting kinda close to him. You can look for him to exceed 70% of the vote unless there’s some local mark against him of which I’m unaware. So what follows is not offered in the sense of political support or opposition to the specific race. To bother with that would be tantamount to commenting on the chances of some random truck driver who wrote in his own name.
No, what’s on my mind is not even Manning’s race per se but what it represents, particularly as one contrasts it with last year’s election of Danica Rhoem to Virginia’s legislature. Manning is not the first, nor is she likely to be the last, trans person who for whatever reason gained a level of celebrity and went on to try and leverage that notoriety in a political race. Kristen Beck, for example, someone who’s basically possessed of the exact opposite personal background (in the eyes of the public) from Manning, took on her House Representative Stenny Hoyer (who serves in the Democratic House Leadership team) in 2016 and was soundly defeated.
I’ll tell you why this concerns me. Leveraging name-recognition over actual political ability is not only bad for governance but a bad look for our community. For a demographic that – rightly – has a great deal to say about having been marginalized, the apparent since of entitlement sits wrong. Just as wrong as it seemed when Kid Rock was making people think he was running for the Senate. While it is true that there’s a danger in limiting politics to the political class, when an “outsider” decides to step into a race they should still be able to cite qualifications relevant to the job they seek. For example, when Carly Fiorina ran for the GOP nomination in 2016 it was very fair to say, even with her business world experience, it would have been more reasonable to run for the Senate or governor of California. When Ben Carson ran, it was fair to simply say “Why?” – in what since does being a neurosurgeon, even the best among them if he were, qualify one to be even a governor, let alone a president. This principle does not go away because the person in question is trans.
Laying aside her background which is going to alienate a LOT of potential voters, laying aside her extreme positions (like doing away with prisons altogether), laying aside the incredible odds against her and the fact that Cardin is a poorly chosen target, the bottom line is that a 30 year old who’s sum total of experience is as a U.S. Army private/corporal has no business in the U.S. Senate. Look at Bernie Sanders, the most left wing Senator we have. It took him a lifetime to get up to th level of influence he currently has and even now he can’t push any of his passionately held views even into the party platform, let alone legislation. But Chelsea is going to ignite the revolution? No. She’d be hopelessly in over her head and basically nothing but an object of ridicule if she somehow managed to be seated.
That is NOT to say she should sit down and shut up. It is certainly true that this country is in great need of under-40 liberal candidates and particularly female candidates. But running and losing doesn’t move the ball. Run for a seat you can win. If possible (Manning or anyone else) consider moving to a swing district or state rather than marginally moving a seat that’s already friendly.
(As an aside, that applies to voters to. If your finances and circumstances permit you to leave a heavily blue state and become active in a state that can be moved in a liberal direction (particularly on issues of equality) then you should. If you’re abandoning a “red” state consider moving to Florida, North Carolina, or Arizona – for example – and helping move those states in a positive direction)
Most importantly, work the system. Start with the City Council and the school board, the state legislature at least. And in the meantime become involved in the party organization, help get out the vote, learn what makes an effective campaign tick. WITHOUT surrendering your values to cynical political goals. A couple of terms in the state legislature is an invaluable credential when you ask voters to send you to the U.S. House.
Whatever else one might say for or against Manning’s candidacy, she’s running for the wrong office and she’s just as likely to do harm as good in the process. A well intentioned loss seldom (can’t say never) helps the overall agenda.
Photo via IIP Photo Archive