One morning, it dawned on me – at dawn – that the rules of political life are much like the rules of boxing: they are structured to favor specific people, but are applied as if they are neutral.
Boxing is governed by rules that favor upper body strength. The only legitimate targets are the body and the upper torso; hitting “below the belt” is strictly prohibited. Despite the fact that boxing is a sport, anyone who does not follow boxing rules in an actual fight outside the ring – such as a woman defending herself against a man or a boy defending himself against a bully – is considered a “cheater.”
Applying the rules of sport fighting like boxing to real life, we get a culture that accepts without question that women can’t protect themselves from men because men are “bigger.” But in a self defense situation, no one should be following rules that put them at a disadvantage. Fighting for your life is not a sport.
The political rules don’t rely on physical strength and many of them are unofficial, but they’re biased in favor of a rich white male status quo. Money is fundamental – you can’t succeed in politics without it – but so are gender and race. Our image of a leader continues to be a white man. Someone who fits that image can be rude, loud, and even very, very stupid and still get elected. Women and people of color must always be polite and never shout, and they only get away with being stupid if they’re firmly allied with the white male power structure.
We magnify this problem by demanding that women of all races and ethnicities be perfect, decrying them both when they stray from being ladylike and when they don’t seem to be sufficiently forceful. Similar strictures apply to men of color: they can never show anger, even when anger is the appropriate response. The recent news coverage of Elizabeth Warren’s decision to pursue the presidency demonstrates the first dramatically, just as Barack Obama’s years in office do the second.
Women can fight men. Body size makes a difference, but the difference it makes is in how you fight, not whether or not you can fight successfully. If you structure a fight to favor large men, they will win most of the fights, but that’s a function of the rules, not of fighting. The same can be said of politics.
Rich white men are only in charge because the rules, both written and unwritten, favor them. They also continue to expand the rules to cement their power. The epidemic of campaigns that make it difficult to register and to vote are one example, while gerrymandering districts to dilute the effect of voters of color or young voters is another. When those things weren’t successful enough, the people in power turned to outright disenfranchisement of registered voters and also closed polling places.
Those of us who are tired of having our society run by and for the minority of wealthy white men must challenge the unwritten rules and change the written ones. Give women and people of color who run the same latitude that rich white men get. Sue to challenge voter suppression and gerrymandering. Run for office. Get people out to vote.
The 2018 election showed that we can make some changes even with a lot of bad rules in place. When passionate people challenge the status quo, they make a difference. But while we’ve made progress, women and people of color are still underrepresented in elected office and other positions of power.
We need to change the rules. If we change the rules, we can change it all.