Last month, as he started shaping his future Cabinet, President-elect Joe Biden promised to form a team that offers a better representation of America as it is. Judging by the welcome that his Cabinet has received across the globe, one may conclude that he has delivered on his promise.
According to media reports, the Biden team has been "warmly received" in Canada, Mexico and Western Europe, among other places. Radio France Internationale even reports "a sense of jubilation" in Abuja because Biden's team includes several Nigerian-Americans at its second tier. In Tehran, the media take note of the inclusion of five or six Iranian-Americans in the new team with the hope that their presence would help change Washington's policy towards Iran.
Biden's team includes a number of "firsts".
It is the first US Cabinet in which those classified by "progressives" as "white men" are in a minority. According to the CIA World Factbook, "whites" account for just over 73 percent of the total US population, while the segment of citizenship labeled as WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) has dropped to under 47 percent.
Biden's team is composed of figures from the various ethnic or religious communities that furnished almost 50 percent of the votes that pushed Biden to the top of the greasy pole. Progressive commentators in the US speak of a rainbow coalition of minorities which provides the backbone of the Democratic Party with Biden's pledge of defeating "white supremacists" as the chief slogan.
But what does the term "minority" mean in a democracy based on equal citizenship for all? The term minority denotes "less-ness" compared to the "more-ness" of another entity. However, how could one regard some citizens of a democratic state as "less" than other fellow citizens?
For from being progressive, in a democracy like the United States, dividing the citizens on the basis of ethnicity is a reactionary position that belongs to pre-modern societies. Ancient Greeks understood the difference between ethnos and demos. The term ethnos denoted community of customs and traditions of groups within society that, when coming together to create and operate a common space, would form a demos. The talk in the agora wasn't about ethnocracy but democracy. If that is all Greek to you, let us put it in plainer language. Ethnicity and similar terms in countless languages, terms such as tribe in modern European languages, caste in Indian languages, or "qawm" in Arabic and other Islamic tongues, describe human communities before the emergence of The People with a capital P. Thus, the United States is about "We the People," not "We the Minorities". Democracy is a melting pot, not a salad bar.
Progressivism is a secular religion rather than an ideology that could have its place in the competitive field of politics. Dividing citizens even on the basis of religious faiths can have no place in a democracy. Saint Augustine used the term "religare" (binding) to promote his Christianity as the highest, if not the sole, means of sustaining human societies. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI and German philosopher Jürgen Habermas echoed that belief in their project for "saving the Western civilization". However, many as far back as Cicero and Isidor of Seville preferred such terms as "natio" (common birth in a distinct land) and "relegere", which means a common reading, and hence agreement, on a set of rules to organize and administer the common space.
In American democratic secularism, the state is tasked with protecting religious, and by extension, other communities, but not of relying on them as component parts. The French version of secularism, known as laïcité, is designed to protect the state, and by extension the nation, against religion.
Progressive critics of the very concept of nationhood, notably the late Eric Hobsbawm, claimed that nations are "creations of bourgeois capitalism" to be dismantled by toiling classes led by the proletariat.
However, towards the end of his life, even Hobsbawm had to admit that the nation-state had much deeper and firmer roots than he had feared. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the first state in history not named after a nation, a dynasty or at least an ethnic group, had disintegrated, leaving its place to 15 nation-states.
Benedict Anderson stated that it was nationalism that created nations, not the other way round. That analysis may sound bizarre in the case of nations that emerged out of centuries-long dynastic gestation. But it may not be out of place in the case of America, which started as a space for settlers from England but was put on the way of becoming a nation by "founding fathers": Their "one nation under God" had the distinction of being the first constitutional democracy. Its motto became: Government of the People, by the People, for the People.
It may be amusing to deconstruct Senator Elizabeth Warren back to Pocahontas. But to deconstruct the American demos into a string of ethnos would not be.
In a democracy such as that of the United States, terms such as minority and majority can only have a political meaning. The majority is represented by a political party or program that has collected 50+1 percent or more votes in an election, facing minority or minorities that gathered fewer votes.
In such a system, majority and minority do not describe a permanent state of affairs. Today's majority could be tomorrow's minority.
To pretend that this or that Cabinet minister was chosen because of his or her skin color, religious faith or other "minority" attribution is certainly not a compliment. If the choice is based not on the individual's competence but on salad-bar considerations, it cannot be justified on democratic grounds. If, on the other hand, such considerations played no part in the choice, why make such a song-and-dance about "rainbowism" and progressive representation?
Salad-bar compositions cannot succeed even on their own stated terms. You bring in a Buddhist; why leave out Jehovah's Witnesses? You elevate a Tamil; why leave Bengalis sulking?
Including an Amerindian in the Cabinet for the first time catches the headlines. But it could also make my friend, an Arizona Amerindian of the P'mac tribe, wonder why his tribe didn't get there first.
Fortunately, we shall soon be back in the real world in which political figures are judged by what they do; not who they are in ethnocentric terms.
Again, fortunately, many members of the new Washington team have impressive academic and practical resumes. It is in everyone's interest to hope that they will see themselves not as figures in a game of ethnic tokenism but the servants of the American demos at a difficult time.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.