Trump Should Pick a Non-White Veep

Kellyanne Conway, the former aide to President Donald Trump, wrote a New York Times op-ed urging him to appoint a person of color as vice-president — but not, she insists, for reasons of “identity politics.” This raises a fascinating philosophical question: What exactly does Conway believe “identity politics” means in this context?

Conway’s op-ed runs through various candidates for the position and theories for picking them. It prominently cites her credentials as having helped select Trump’s last vice-president, Mike Pence. (Conway tastefully avoids mentioning the reason the position has opened up again — namely, Pence’s reluctance to participate in Trump’s coup attempt and Trump’s subsequent refusal to immediately rule out the idea that his disloyalty should be punished via summary execution at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries.)

The key thing, Conway explains, is to avoid identity politics. Here is how she defines that:

The most popular suggestion I’m hearing is that Mr. Trump do as Mr. Biden did four years earlier and “pick a woman” as his running mate. But Mr. Biden — and the country — suffer daily the consequences of embracing identity politics.

In contrast to picking a woman, which is identity politics and therefore bad, Conway proposes Trump “choose a person of color,” which is not identity politics:

Taking all of this into consideration, if I were advising Mr. Trump, I would suggest he choose a person of color as his running mate, depending on vetting of all possibilities and satisfaction of procedural issues like dual residency in Florida. Not for identity politics a la the Democrats, but as an equal helping to lead an America First movement that includes more union workers, independents, first-time voters, veterans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and African Americans.

I have scrutinized both these passages attempting to understand the distinction between bad “identity politics” and the good, completely different alternative of selecting somebody of a certain identity for political reasons. The first is “pick a woman” (which Conway puts in quotes). The second is “choose a person of color.”

Is the difference that committing to appoint a woman is identity politics, but appointing a person of color is not? That seems unlikely. If you believe that merit should not compromise your selection criteria, then restricting the candidate pool to the roughly one-third (or perhaps a bit more) of eligible candidates who are not white is a bigger compromise than limiting yourself to the slightly-more-than-half of the population that’s female.

A Republican might say that their version of using a person’s identity for politics is different than identity politics because they are not appealing to voters on the basis of identity. The problem is that Conway specifically argues that the benefit of a non-white vice-presidential candidate would be getting more non-white people to vote for them: “As with women voters in 2016, Mr. Trump need not win a majority of minority voters to be elected president so much as eat into Mr. Biden’s margins.”

So is the difference simply that it’s identity politics to “pick” a candidate based on identity, but not to “choose” a person on that basis?

Political parties have selected candidates on the basis of identity considerations for as long as there have been elections. Voters don’t always pay close attention to the candidates’ qualifications or issue position and often use their identity as a heuristic. It was long-standard practice for presidential tickets to select a vice-president on the basis of regional balance. John F. Kennedy, whom Republicans generally regard as the last good Democratic president, excited Catholic voters who supported him for that reason. When the categories of identity began opening up beyond North/South or Catholic/Protestant, conservatives started calling it “identity politics” before eventually deciding to play the game.

Yet they still can’t admit they’re doing it. Hence bizarre jesuitical exercises such as Conway’s inscrutable distinction between good and bad ways to pick a candidate of a certain identity.

At one point in the op-ed, she writes mysteriously, “The ‘pick a woman’ theory also runs counter to the fact that politics is not about biology, or even chemistry, but about math and science.”

What does this even mean? How is it that biology and chemistry are not part of politics, but science is, when biology and chemistry are both parts of science? I promise the context does not clarify it at all. Maybe Conway believes the answer lies in metaphysics? Theology?

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