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What the all-white, all-male MSNBC graphic actually teaches us about the 2020 race

MSNBC posted an incredibly white, incredibly male lineup of potential Democratic presidential candidates.

Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

This week, MSNBC wanted to give its viewers a simple, digestible summary of all the potential White House candidates who hadn’t jumped into the Democratic primary race yet — and somehow, with the most diverse presidential field in history taking shape, all 15 of the chosen contenders-in-waiting were white men.

The Twitter dunking was swift.

(You’ll notice Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Seth Moulton look like twins. They are not, in fact, the same person. The man in the graphic — twice! — is Sherrod Brown. Seth Moulton is this guy. I don’t see the resemblance.)

It’s a lot to unpack, aside from the unfortunate photo mix-up. Two centuries of white male political domination. The gatekeeping role played by the media, and the way tacit biases can limit the kind of candidates who are considered acceptable in the mainstream.

All of that can be found in the regrettable MSNBC graphic — but there is also a subtle reason for optimism as well. The poorly chosen title was a bit misleading: These are actually the potential candidates who are not running for president yet. They are still waiting on the sidelines. The candidates who have jumped in are much more promising on the matter of diversity: five women, two black candidates, one Latino, and a practicing Hindu. By my count, only two semi-notable candidates (emphasis on semi) currently in the race are white guys.

Implicit in their hesitation seems to be a recognition that white men running for the Democratic nomination need something on top of the bare qualification of holding public office. The party has embraced its diversity and been blessed with a litany of women and people of color who can claim the same qualifications as most of these white men in their pursuit of the White House.

Being an experienced white guy isn’t enough anymore. And the party doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

America is really used to white men running for president. That’s changing.

There is a fundamental truth that because of the very longstanding overrepresentation of white men in American politics, more of them have the profile and the “experience” that people think you need to be president. Moreover, because of that history, we as a society are simply more ready to accept white men as prequalified candidates. Women as much as men have internalized the imbalance, as the University of Virginia’s Jen Lawless covered in 2008:

We link this persistent gender gap in political ambition to several factors. Women are less likely than men to be willing to endure the rigors of a political campaign. They are less likely than men to be recruited to run for office. They are less likely than men to have the freedom to reconcile work and family obligations with a political career. They are less likely than men to think they are “qualified” to run for office. And they are less likely than men to perceive a fair political environment.

It’s not as if there was a lack of other names and faces to add to a people-to-watch list. Stacey Abrams, a black woman who just gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, has earned presidential buzz. Her exclusion is a reminder of tacit prejudices that undergird our White House speculation.

But politics, particularly within the Democratic Party, is changing. Democrats just won the House with the most diverse slate of candidates in their history, and the new Congress has more women and people of color than any before it. Ideological rifts still divide Democrats, but one unifying theme is the importance of representation.

The 2018 midterms, branded the Year of the Woman, brought democratic socialist and centrist women alike to Washington. Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, is far to the left; Sharice Davids, one of the first two Native American women in Congress, is firmly in the middle. They are both still part of this historic freshman class.

Democrats want diversity. That should make white men pause.

The jarring MSNBC visual of 15 white men all lined up in a row overshadowed the graphic’s subliminal message: These guys aren’t actually running yet. They’re waiting, while Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar jumped right in, firm in the knowledge that they are what Democratic voters just showed they were looking for in the midterm elections, not only in their qualifications and ideas and but in the fresher perspectives they would bring to the presidency.

Some of the holdouts, like Sherrod Brown, are trying to build a bigger brand and a movement before they launch a run. Others, like Vice President Joe Biden, do appear to be conflicted about whether they can unite the party.

Bernie Sanders is the exception that proves the rule: In his and his supporters’ minds, he has a reason to run. He has undertaken an ideological project to move the Democratic Party leftward, he has proven remarkably successful in doing so, and the left isn’t sure how much it can trust the other candidates to continue that work. So Sanders sounds like he’s ready to run.

But your Michael Bennets, your Jeff Merkleys, your John Hickenloopers — they have to pause and consider what they bring to the table that Warren, Harris, Klobuchar, and Booker do not.

Don’t be mistaken: The lopsided nature of our politics, even Democratic politics, has not somehow been solved because women and people of color have proven eager to join the 2020 race and white men have been more hesitant. Biden and Sanders, two white men, would enter the race as frontrunners. Beto O’Rourke, who just lost a Senate race and is treated as a star in the making, would also be formidable should he decide to run.

One reading of that extremely white, incredibly male lineup remains absolutely true — white men start the race a few steps ahead, by virtue of who they are and what our society expects of them.

But that need not always be true. The eagerness of Kamala and Elizabeth and Amy to leap into the 2020 fray, and the comparative consternations of Joe and Bernie, is to me a hopeful sign that the latter group recognizes they need to find a lane with more value than the disheartening truth that most American presidents up until now looked like them.