For Affirmative Action in Politics

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Georgia Republicans are picking a Senate candidate out of a five-person field tomorrow. The top three candidates, says RCP (as others also say) are “businessman David Perdue, Congressman Jack Kingston, and former Secretary of State Karen Handel.”

I don’t have a strong sense of the strengths and weaknesses of these candidates. I do think, however, that conservatives should treat Handel’s being a woman as a reason to give her a mild preference. If a male candidate has views that are much more sound, is more competent, or has some other significant advantage, I would not vote for the female candidate on the basis of sex alone. When those considerations leave the candidates in a position of rough equality, though, I would favor the woman. I would do so not on any ground of equity: It’s not because I think it’s about time we had more women in office. I would do it because I think that having more conservative women in office would advance conservative causes. (If you consider a political campaign to be a job interview in which conservatives are selecting for the ability to advance conservative causes, then what I’m saying is that being female is a bona fide job qualification in the parlance of civil-rights law.)

Having more female pro-life officeholders would be especially helpful in dispelling the impression that opposition to abortion is a matter of men seeking to control women. It would be helpful, I think, in all kinds of ways. I suspect, for example, that the massive gender gap in attitudes on abortion among female officeholders has helped to contribute to the widespread but false impression that there is such a gender gap among voters in general. (In truth, pro-life women are the most underrepresented group in American politics.) That impression, in turn, makes Republican politicians unduly cautious about the issue, probably drives down support for the pro-life position, and complicates efforts to get the position across in the media.

Some conservatives think it would be wrong to practice this sort of affirmative action, and I am sure that it could have various negative consequences if taken too far. In principle, though, I don’t see anything wrong with it. I’d sure like the Senate to have more than two conservative women.