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Biden's cabinet: the importance of diversity

Mike McCartney

19th January 2021

This blog entry takes a quick look at the balanced nature of representation in the cabinet of the 46th POTUS.

This isn’t going to be a long and detailed exposition on the usefulness of the cabinet in assisting the President in the performance of his duties as the executive in chief, commander in chief, de facto chief legislator in chief and so on.

There is a very good introduction to the cabinet in this tutor2u study presentation here: https://www.tutor2u.net/politics/reference/the-us-cabinet

There are a couple of points to stress, however:

If you are a Year 12 reading this and are familiar with the role and function of this collective organisation, then bear in mind that its US counterpart does not have anywhere near the same significance as a decision making body.

If you are a Year 13 reading this, you will know that in recent years, pretty much from the time onwards that Bill Clinton said he wanted a Cabinet that “looked like America” then politics watchers have been keeping a score card on the number of appointees that are female, are from minority backgrounds, and so forth.

But in both cases, these words from the Economist’s checks and balance (sent via weekly email, so more evidence as to why A Level Politics students should sign up) are politics gold:

"Joe Biden will be inaugurated as America’s 46th president next week and, in case you have not heard by now, he is set to have the most diverse administration in American history. Mr Biden’s cabinet will have more women than any before it. And it will have as many non-whites as Barack Obama’s did, tying them for second place just behind Bill Clinton’s. Deb Haaland will be the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. More junior ranks of the incoming administration will be diverse (which is shorthand for not white and not male) too. The Biden-Harris transition team announced with some glee that 60% of the first 100 or so White House employees are women and 54% are non-white. Mr Biden has already let it be known that if he gets to make a Supreme Court pick, he will choose an African-American woman.

All of which invites a question: is prizing diversity for its own sake, and putting so much emphasis on a candidate’s race and gender, a good way to go about staffing such an important organisation? Were Mr Biden running a company, the answer would be: probably not. However, the federal government is not like a company.

To do the governing part, Mr Biden needs to manage divisions within the various factions of the Democratic Party. The Democratic divide that gets the most attention is the one between the party’s left wing, occupied by people like Bernie Sanders, and the mushy centre, which is Mr Biden’s ideological constituency. But that’s not the party’s most important divide, at least when it comes to doling out jobs that come with power attached. In both the administration and in the House of Representatives, achieving the right mix of Hispanics, African-Americans, whites, men and women—so that all the constituent parts of the Democratic coalition feel they are having their say—matters more. (The Senate is different. It still has a rather Japanese culture built around seniority.)

Putting diversity ahead of ideology has interesting consequences for a centrist like Mr Biden. Take the nomination of Lloyd Austin, a retired general and board member of Raytheon. Ordinarily you might have expected a backlash from the party’s left wing, which does not much like the revolving door between the federal government and large defence contractors, and worries about keeping civil-military relations tilted towards the civil end of the hyphen. Yet because Mr Austin is African-American, and will be the first black person to hold this job in American history, the criticism from the Democratic left was muted.

Because the Democratic Party places so much value on diversity, being non-white and/or female can work as a kind of ideological body armour that saves the wearer from friendly fire. This in turn means that the incoming president has been able to pick a team that is more centrist than would otherwise be the case. It helps that African-Americans, to whom Mr Biden owed his victory in the primary, tend to be a moderating force in the party, anchoring Democrats in the ideological centre now in the way that organised labour once did."

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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