U.S. presidential campaign in the Humanosphere, #2

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., co-sponsored a bill to withhold funding to the U.N. (Gary Skidmore/flickr)

This is the second story in a running series of dispatches providing analysis on issues that come up in the U.S. presidential primaries and election that are relevant to the Humanosphere. Global poverty and inequality will get scant attention from the campaigns, but issues raised and ideas tabled during the process will have an impact on the world’s poorest people.

‘Good morning Baltimore / There’s the flasher who lives next door’

At a recent campaign stop ahead of the Maryland primary, Bernie Sanders said that parts of the city of Baltimore are worse than some of the least-developed countries in the world. It is a tried and true rhetorical device to compare something against countries perceived as poor or bad in order to show just how bad things are for a given group.

“If you are born in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhood, your life expectancy is almost 20 years shorter than if you’re born in its wealthiest neighborhood,” Sanders said. “Fifteen neighborhoods in Baltimore have lower life expectancies than North Korea. Two of them have a higher infant mortality rate than Palestine’s West Bank.”

Sanders stepped on a bit of a third rail by mentioning the West Bank. But that is more of a distraction from the complex reality of U.S. poverty. First off, it is in some ways worse than most people realize. Recent research shows that roughly 1.5 million U.S. households are living on less than $2 per day – aka extreme poverty. So, there are many Americans living on as much money as the world’s poorest. But it is hard to compare the living conditions of a poor person in Baltimore to someone in North Korea.

There are various ways to determine how well countries are doing when it comes to quality of life, but in each one the U.S. does very well. It does not perform as well as exceptionalist rhetoric claims, but it is among the best places to live without a doubt. It is really hard to compare living conditions in Baltimore neighborhoods against the West Bank and North Korea because of their very complicated political situations and a lack of data.

Sanders makes his claim because of that very problem – and the fact that they are better known than countries like the Central African Republic, Niger, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone. All that aside, there are still real problems facing parts of Baltimore and other segments of the U.S. Unfortunately, it takes public demonstrations and strong-worded rhetoric to garner attention for the problem. But comparing such places to other parts of the world does those communities a disservice given that solutions and needs are widely divergent.

‘My milkshake brings the boys’ to the girls shower

In case you were living under a rock over the past few weeks, there is a major controversy regarding a law passed in North Carolina that discriminates against transgender people. It is one of many states taking legal steps to limit the rights of transgender people and is based heavily on prejudice and fear. No candidate embodies that better than Ted Cruz.

“There is no greater evil than predators. If the law says that any man, if he chooses, can enter a women’s restroom, a little girl’s restroom, and stay there, and he cannot be removed because he simply says at that moment he feels like a woman, you’re opening the door for predators,” said Cruz at a recent campaign event.

It is a clever rhetorical switch. Cruz focuses on the potential deviants who could exploit allowing people to determine which bathroom is appropriate for themselves. Aside from the fact that Cruz is taking a stance that restricts the rights of individuals – something he supposedly opposes philosophically – it does not sound all that different from rhetoric by African leaders on homosexuality that led to a serious rebuke from the international community.

“They’re disgusting. What sort of people are they?” said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 about homosexuals. “I never knew what they were doing. I’ve been told recently that what they do is terrible. Disgusting. But I was ready to ignore that if there was proof that that’s how he is born, abnormal. But now the proof is not there.”

Like the backlash now experienced in North Carolina, Uganda came under serious financial consequences when it tried to pass a strict bill against homosexual acts. The World Bank, for example, paused the disbursement of funds for the government shortly after Museveni signed the bill into law. It was later overturned by the courts on a technicality and may potentially come back.

What is striking is the similarity in the way in which transgender and gay people are discussed in both cases, Cruz and Museveni make their disgust clear. They both find ways to say that it is not “natural” or “normal” with a heavy focus on the inherent and/or potential deviance associated with such people. That leads to absurd arguments like claiming that boys will pretend to be girls to shower with girls.

“You’ve got the Obama Education Department suing to try to force junior highs to let teenage boys shower with teenage girls. That’s crazy,” said Cruz in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Glenn Beck.

‘Go back to Africa’

The verbal attacks that have taken place at rallies for Donald Trump took an interesting turn recently. A video by Tony Dokoupil, a national reporter at MSNBC, shows a man shouting at a black woman to go back to Africa. What follows is a confrontation between the two.

It was not the only time the phrase was used and it is one that has a long history. It is also plain racist. In a recent piece for the Monkey Cage blog, political scientist Fodei Batty delved into the complex history of Africans in America. From the non-slaves that worked here as early settlers to the slaves “return” to Africa that created the country Liberia. But he ends with this mic drop:

As a black man living in America, I think it goes without saying that one’s skin color should not determine inclusion here. But I’m also an African – a Sierra Leonean, to be precise — and a political scientist steeped in the complex political history connecting these two continents. It’s history worth keeping in mind when considering who belongs on which continent. After all, since the human species comes originally from Africa, the invitation to return could be offered to all.

Put the ‘binders full of women’ in the Cabinet

Hilary Clinton made the promise for half of her Cabinet if elected president, to be made up of women, during a town hall earlier this week. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow pushed on the former secretary of state after discussing her reasons for being a feminist, whether she would follow the lead of feminist Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by making a gender-equal Cabinet pledge.

“Well, I am going to have a Cabinet that looks like America, and 50 percent of America is women,” Clinton responded.

Quotas to improve gender balance in political leadership are far from a novel idea. In Rwanda, a quota system introduced in 2003 has led to women taking the majority of positions in the House of Deputies. The country mandates that 30 percent of all political representatives are women. Their Equality of Results quota reserves the seats for women only all the way up to parliament. As a result, representation jumped from 23 percent to 49 percent in the lower house the first year. Women now make up 64 percent of the House of Deputies.

The growth is directly due to the fact that women who got into parliament through the reserved seats used their victories to run for and win non-reserved seats. That is a rather remarkable achievement. But that does not necessarily means that it is translating into power or influence. A February report found that more women are reaching higher parts of governments, yet it is not necessarily leading to gender equality.

“There is a hurdle to women accessing power. Even when they overcome that hurdle, there are often substantive hurdles to having influence,” said co-author Tam O’Neil, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, in an interview with Humanosphere. “We need to do the things that give women power when they are in positions of influence.”

If Clinton is elected president and follows through on her pledge there is good reason to believe that all members of one of the most important advisory bodies of the U.S. government would have influence. But that is a big ticket item that will not change the fact that the major representative bodies, the House and Senate, are woefully under-represented by women.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.