Ever since Richard Nixon’s cringeworthy 1968 cameo on Laugh In, politicians have sought some talisman to make them “hip”: a saxophone, some hoop skills, a Macarena dance. But perhaps those concerted efforts of cool are just too overt in our modern age of irony. It’s trying too hard, and it seems desperate. Worse, it’s not a reliable vote winner.
Enter the domestic hipsterdom of racially mixed family, a multivalent Rorschach for political campaigns. It appeals to multiple demographic groups. It demonstrates that race doesn’t matter. It demonstrates that race does matter. Its mere existence is politically suggestive, even when the family members aren’t doing anything. It’s race baiting and race trading, with little effort on the family. Biracial cool: the newest electoral asset.
Using marriage and partnership to cement political allegiances is one of the oldest and most organic appeals to public relations and diplomacy. Dynastic marriages took place in the ancient world to forge alliances between nation-states. It was a favorite strategy of both Alexander the Great and Queen Victoria to meld political relationships. The blended children born into these marriages represented a united and hopeful future.
Even in our present age, political candidates are capitalizing on the wide appeal of mixed families. In certain jurisdictions, multiple alliances may work as an electoral asset. Jeb Bush’s marriage to Mexican-born Columba Gallo improved his image among Latino voters in Florida. Barack Obama’s famous incantations of Kenya, Kansas, Indonesia, and Hawaii made him an international everyman of mystery.
In no way, however, does de Blasio’s victory signal a universal acceptance of interracial marriage. It’s only been legal nationwide since 1967, and substantial vestiges of prejudice remain. In some parts of the country—and even parts of New York City—it remains taboo. His campaign might not work outside of New York and San Francisco, and it most likely would fall flat in a statewide or federal election.
Interracial marriage is still seen as a stain on political careers, as it has been for most of American history. The relationship of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings continues to vex, as it did in 1802. Harold Ford, Jr. lost his 2006 Senate bid in Tennessee because a commercial suggested that he dated white women. Bob Bennett, a former Republican senator from Utah, claimed in 1999 that the only way that George W. Bush could lose the 2000 presidential nomination would be if he stepped “in front of a bus or some woman [came] forward, let’s say some black woman, with an illegitimate child that he fathered.”
Even today, in the age of Obama, interracial marriage and partnership in public office is extraordinarily rare—even rarer than the mixed institution itself. Freedom of intimacy is far from a settled issue in American politics and society, and it encompasses more than race. Discrimination continues against single people and unmarried and same-sex couples, and these tensions about the proper way to live out our home lives translate into domestic referenda at the ballot box. The overwhelming norm is for politicians to be married, with children, to someone of their own race and of a different gender.
But witnessing a politician with a nontraditional family succeed at the polls wonderfully legitimizes the de Blasios’ rightful place in the collective identity of “normal family.” There’s nothing wrong with celebrating these families as First Families—they’ve been in second class for too long.