"A black guy, a Mormon, and two Catholics walk into a presidential election."
A clever beginning to Peter Schrag’s article on The Daily Beast that made the astute observation that 2012 is the first presidential election in which the major parties did not field a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or WASP for either president or vice president. He goes further, saying it is a “clean sweep” of the branches of government as the posts of Supreme Court Justice (one black man, five Catholics, three Jews), Speaker of the House (Catholic), Senate Majority Leader (Mormon) are all occupied by non-WASPs.
This is no accident. It is a reflection of a changing American society. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, being Catholic was political baggage. Today, the talk surrounding Paul Ryan has very little to do with his Catholic faith. It mostly surrounds Medicare, entitlements, and our favorite "e" word, the economy. According to a Pew Research poll, only half of Americans identify President Obama as Christian, and of the 60% of Americans who know that Mitt Romney is a Mormon, 81% are either “comfortable” with his faith or believe it “doesn’t matter” to them. This is not to say religion is irrelevant in the political arena because that is far from the truth. When introducing Paul Ryan, Romney said, “A faithful Catholic, Paul believes in the worth and dignity of every human life.” With the so-called “value” voters, Ryan’s Catholic faith represents a religious commitment to pro-life policies. However, we are coming incredibly close to a point where a religion won’t be a prerequisite to holding the highest offices in the United States. (I hesitate to say that now because we have yet to have a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other “Eastern” religion represented in the aforementioned posts, or an atheist.)
And the giant W in the room, white? President Obama defeated the notion that the country would never elect a black person president in 2008, and Clarence Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court in 1991. These are important triumphs in American history. These minorities are not in positions of power because of government mandates or requirements to have minorities in powerful government positions. Rather, they are legitimately qualified to hold these positions. To reiterate the same point with religion, I’m not implying that there are not social constructs in the U.S that need to be overcome in regards to minorities in office. We have yet to have a non-white Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader, and there is not a single black senator currently in the Congress. We still have plenty of progress to make on these fronts. It is important to acknowledge, however, the significance of not having a WASP candidate as it has eluded the first 236 years of American history.
What about the social and economic attitudes that are associated with being a WASP? This is our next challenge as a country. Our president broke one barrier, but his $7.3 million net worth is far above the $96,000 median (no need to even get started on Romney). The median net worth of a U.S. congressman is $878,500. No doubt, we continue to have problems associated with money and elected office in the United States that one could argue is the true legacy of the WASP.
This unprecedented moment in American history should not be celebrated as the changing of the guard or the decline of the WASP as Schrag implies, but rather the broadening of the American representative base. We have made significant strides, and there are plenty more that need to be made. This moment is special in American political history and should be acknowledged for its worth. Simultaneously, it should generate more awareness for the challenges that we have yet to overcome.