“I have often been disappointed to find that the foreign service staff of our embassies in Africa are overwhelmingly made up of white men and occasionally a smattering of white women,” Rep. Karen Bass complains in a new piece arguing in favor of “diversifying” the diplomatic service in order to make “American diplomats look like America.” It is not clear what exact percentage of racial division she thinks would make American diplomats look American or what type of late-stage imperial nonsense results in “affirmative action” in diplomacy. But she isn’t the only one.
Of late, Joe Biden is under immense pressure to “diversify” his cabinet, a code for racial quotas and an imperial-type spoils system for various groups.
It matters not that Biden’s cabinet is already historically diverse and boasts a vice-president of color. As reported, “Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La. ... will be a senior adviser and Symone Sanders...will be a senior aide to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris,” as well as “(t)hree of nine top White House jobs Biden announced last month will be filled by Latinos.” Alejandro Mayorkas, a Latino, is slated to head the Department of Homeland Security. At the same time, Linda Thomas-Greenfield is to become U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Given that Hispanics are around 18.5%, Blacks 13% and Asians 6% of the U.S. population, the cabinet is indeed f, just not in the way the critics of Biden imagine it to be. If the personnel selection is supposed to reflect America, it is also not clear how an all-female senior communication staff is representative of the entire country. But the pressure to even diversify beyond what has been done so far continues to mount. “UnidosU.S. and others are urging Biden to fill at least 20% of the top jobs and appointments with Latino candidates,” the report observes.
In a way, this is Biden’s own fault, as his election might turn out to be the last hurrah of a quintessentially meritocratic and moderate American liberalism before it collapses under the heap of its own logical contradictions. For decades, his party has favored—or, if you prefer the fashionable word, privileged—putative equality over merit and demography over excellence. The idea that America was once a Romanesque creed where anyone of real merit can eventually get a chance to succeed regardless of skin color has been diluted to the point of travesty. But more importantly, this is an identity politics chain which is self-perpetuating in the sense that novelty is worshipped and, in turn, breeds further novelty. There’s always a “first,” from the first African American president to the first Indian American VP, to the first time an all-female communication staff, et cetera ad infinitum.
Biden boxed himself in with his idea of having a female VP and was burdened with the baggage where he had to choose Senator Kamala Harris, and it appears he is once again wobbly about choosing diversity for the sake of it. Paeans after paeans were to be observed in the media talking about the biographies of the personnel and whether they tick all the intersectional boxes—with no mention, incidentally, of what actual policies they are going to advance, or whether they are even competent enough to do so.
But there are times, when the novelty wears off, and the only thing that remains are a type of racial spoils system, where a rapacious lobby system feeds on the rotting carcass of a declining polity. It also accelerates the realignment already in motion.
As Aaron Sibarium astutely pointed out recently, “An obvious objection here is that the results of the 2020 election could push Democrats back toward the center on cultural issues, undercutting Republicans’ culture-war appeal. Even deep blue California showed signs of reaction: a ballot initiative that would have repealed the state’s ban on affirmative action lost in a landslide, defeated by a multiethnic coalition of the un-woke.”
There is, however, a valid argument in favor of diversity, as America itself is more imperial in character than it used to be, and with that the natural consequences are coming to fruition. Diversity is simply a way here to assuage the ever-increasing demand for administrative jobs, for an overproduced multiethnic imperial elite.
To summarize the research of historian Peter Turchin: an idle overeducated elite without regular patronage is a menace, war is the crucible of civilization and history is decidedly not an arc. A sort of patronage system under the liberals was therefore inevitable given their imperial turn. With rapid migration and massive overproduction of elites, America has lost its small-r republican character, possibly never to get back. One can shape the future imperial style, however.
In the National Portrait Gallery in London, it is often easy to spot the portraits of imperial statesmen. HRH the Maharaja of Bikaner, for example, is found proudly standing in one of them among all the generals of the British Empire, during the First World war. Interestingly, there are different types of imperial patronage systems, the ones (with all their flaws) based mostly on merit regardless of ethnicity (like the Romans and the British), and the ones based on ethnicity (like the Habsburgs, or Mughals). It is not clear which one path Biden would choose. But it is unlikely that he will be able to reduce the decay, given his recent performance and choices, his party’s evolving political philosophy, and his side’s increasingly un-meritocratic turn.
Sumantra Maitra is a Doctoral Scholar at the University of Nottingham School of Politics and International Relations.