Have you ever thought about running for political office? The answer to that question may well depend on your gender: Men are 35 percent more likely than women to see themselves as potential candidates for office. Of the 2 percent of Americans who have ever run for national, state or local elected offices, three-quarters of those people are men and 82 percent are white.
White men in America make up a much larger share of the political world than they do the population, which means that their overrepresentation is directly connected to the underrepresentation of everyone else. Women are less than 24 percent of state legislators and less than 20 percent of Congressional seats; African Americans are only 8.1 percent of state legislators, and though the 114th Congress is the most diverse ever, that body is still only 17 percent non-white.
This is where the Can You Not PAC (CYNP) comes in. While many political action committees focus on helping certain people or political groups to win office, Can You Not focuses on convincing certain people — specifically straight white men — not to seek it in the first place. The group’s founders Kyle Huelsman (straight, white and cisgender) and Jack Teter (queer AF, white and trans) initially started a Facebook page to share articles about representation in government. When the page took off, they started their own website and fund-raising drive, which officially launched May 2.
Teter spoke with MEL about why men should support CYNP’s mission for cultivating a more diverse, progressive electorate.
Tell us how this all got started.
We really wanted to push back on this rhetoric we’ve noticed, mostly from upwardly mobile straight white guys running for office, about how “uniquely qualified” or “uniquely positioned” they are to represent their districts.
The political scientist Barbara Burrell has found that in statewide races women equal men in fund-raising, public perception, and winning both primaries and generals. And yet they self-report being less qualified than men, leading to a disadvantage before anyone even files to run. Women are only 10 percent of our governors, only 12 percent of our mayors — men are overrepresented by 500 percent. That is an issue of too many men running for office, not of women being underqualified.
Why does representation in politics matter so much?
A 2016 study by the Victory Fund shows a direct relationship between the number of openly LGBT public officials in a state, and how well protected its LGBT citizens are. More openly LGBT public officials in a state leads to a greater number of LGBT legal protections. Fewer openly LGBT public officials leads to few to no protections for LGBT folks.
There is a study of gender differences in the Colorado Legislature — Lyn Kathlene from Purdue University compared gendered responses to crime. Women tended to see the long-term root causes of crime, while men emphasized individual responsibility.
African American state legislators — compared even to other progressive legislators, and even in similar districts — are more likely to introduce legislation that fights against discrimination and tries to improve socioeconomic conditions for people of color, but they’re also more likely to introduce legislation around health care access, educational equity, and social welfare and the economy.
There’s good data on voter enfranchisement, too — in a country with awful voter participation, data tells us that women and people of color are more politically involved when their legislators look like them. Women report that they feel like they can impact politics where they see women in office. Turnout is higher among Latinos and African Americans where there are people of color in office. Besides the obvious, incredibly crucial value of people feeling like their voices matter, of having legislators who are impacted and fighting for the issues that affect their communities, there’s also a super-practical application here, of which I would remind straight white men who want to run in progressive districts — Democrats do better when groups that aren’t straight white men turn up on Election Day.
How has your perspective as a trans guy shaped CYNP as an organization addressing male privilege and gender dynamics in politics?
Being trans gives me an uncommon lens to look at power and privilege with regard to gender and politics. I think there’s something to be said, too, about being able to notice my newly gained (and lost) privileges. I really, really firmly believe that it’s the absolute obligation of people in positions of privilege to dismantle oppressive power structures. I believe it is the obligation of men to call out other men when they say sexist shit. I believe it is the obligation of white folks to have conversations with other white folks about racism and white privilege. I believe it is the obligation of straight and cis folks to fight against legislation like HB2 [North Carolina’s highly controversial “bathroom bill”]. As a trans person, the power of allyship is so important to me. So in some way, this is a way to grapple with masculinity and manhood and how to be a good man in the world and rejecting the patriarchy.
What do you say to the folks who claim your PAC is an attack on men, or masculinity?
We’re not attacking men or masculinity; we’re here to fuck up the patriarchy. When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Feel that, and then get over it.
A group like CYNP is always going to feel personal. How can you go about discouraging men to run for office without alienating them or putting them on the defensive?
For sure. I think data has been a helpful way. I think the analogy of a professor asking a member of the class who dominates discussion to let someone else have a chance to talk has been helpful. I saw someone post on Twitter earlier that said, “On the playground, we call this letting someone else have a turn on the slide.” And I think it’s a conversation about service, too. We aren’t saying “leave politics.” We’re asking if folks have thought about bringing their time and their talent and their passion to the service of other people — to getting folks who don’t look like them elected. We both work in politics! Folks in positions of privilege should absolutely work in politics — and they should use their positions to dismantle the systems that they have been fortunate to benefit from.
Someone from across the country reached out to us recently to tell us a story about how he had recently decided not to run! He said he had been thinking of running, really gearing up for it, and he said, “I still am very much involved in politics, but your group has put into words what my heart was feeling regarding running for elected office.”
What do you see as your next steps?
We’re hearing from people across the country — candidates, people who swear us to secrecy and want us to tell their straight white man friends not to run, white supremacists calling us “self-loathing, pearl-clutching bed-wetters,” and lots and lots of folks saying stuff like, “This is what we’ve all been thinking.” We’re still talking to the folks in our nascent board about next steps, but I love the idea of something like chapters in different states. Also, now that our board is solidifying, we’ll start making our dis/endorsements soon, and forwarding funds to candidates and other groups!
Aside from supporting the PAC, how can progressive guys contribute to the mission of your organization?
In our own lives, I think it looks like listening and asking more, talking less. Asking how you can be helpful rather than telling folks what you think they’re doing wrong. Listen. Trust communities that aren’t your own to know their own needs. Get involved in groups like SURJ. Show up in solidarity for groups like Black Lives Matter, but don’t make it about you when you get there. Listen. Brush up on your intersectionality. Try not be defensive. Challenge your fellow bros when they say dumb shit. VOTE! Listen.
I saw this amazing quote somewhere online, it’s from a Lady Power Hour radio episode. It’s like, “Pretend you’re the intern.” Listen, learn, take notes; if somebody asks you to speak up, you would, and you’d ask how you can help. You’re not holding the meetings, telling the boss what he’s doing wrong, or pitching your Amazing New Idea. People have been doing this work. They are not doing it wrong. Being a straight white man in the world makes you think you’re born to lead; born to run in and save the day.
A couple of progressive folks have suggested to Kyle and me that our time would be better spent like, coaching women and LGBT folks and POC about how to run for office better. That’s absurd. What, we’re going to roll up to EMILY’s List and tell them our brilliant explanation of why their tactics aren’t working because men are still overrepresented in government? Hell no. There’s something missing, and it’s not amazing and qualified women, LGBT folks, or POC candidates. There are men who donate to groups like EMILY’s List and then simultaneously run against the candidates they endorse. Is this about progressive policy? Or is it about ego?
This is a project about privilege and allyship and knowing when to take a step back. There is no group of white men telling other white men to listen, and really grapple with why they want to run for office, and think about how we can actually make our legislatures more progressive — and evidence would suggest that, in many cases, the answer is not running for office.
Carmen Rios is a writer, editor and digital media know-it-all based in Los Angeles. She likes In-N-Out more than you.