If you’re a straight white man who’s into progressive politics and you think you could really make a positive impact on this crazy world by running for Congress or your state legislature, Jack Teter and Kyle Huelsman have a novel idea for you: Don’t.
Teter and Huelsman, two Denver-based white men, are the founders of a new PAC dedicated to dissuading overconfident, underqualified straight white guys from clogging up the Democratic primaries and crowding out the women and people of color who’d be better for the job. The PAC is called Can You Not, and its site is a gold mine of delicious portmanteaux and tongue-in-cheek bons mots, plus one arresting photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who once said there will be enough women on the Supreme Court “when there are nine”). The site boasts of (fake) alumni of the Can You Not program—young, all-American white guys from private East Coast colleges whose qualifications include “class president,” “Eagle Scout,” and “Americorps ’08-’10”—who decided not to run for office after all.
But be not fooled: This PAC is no joke. The founders registered Can You Not in Colorado last month and have started accepting donations, which will go to nonwhite, nonmale, and nonstraight candidates chosen by an advisory board of other nonwhite, nonmale, and nonstraight people.
There is a Dunning-Kruger epidemic tearing through the country’s population of white men, Can You Not contends. When encouraged to run for office, men are more likely to think themselves worthy and jump at the chance; women usually take a lot more persuading. In 2001, American University asked a group of uniformly qualified potential political candidates if they were “very qualified” to run. Men were nearly 60 percent more likely than women to say yes. This imbalance is a constant in political gender dynamics: Researchers repeated the study in 2011 and got the same results. And when women do run for office, they’re often seen as greedy and untrustworthy due to a persistent suspicion of confident women who ask for power. (The precise, oft-gendered backlash against Hillary Clinton, even among Democrats, is a perfect example of this trend.)
“Lots of organizations we love and respect are focused on lifting up the voices of women and people of color and LGBT folks so that they will run for these positions, but we also think it's an important task to tear down the egregiously overconfident white men who are running,” Huelsman told Slate. Can You Not’s primary target is the “brogressive,” which the PAC defines as a “nice progressive straight white man fighting like hell to make sure his voice is represented in politics, when it already is.”
Can You Not’s raison d’être is evidence-based. The founders cite numerous studies that have shown that women, people of color, and LGBTQ people are more reliable champions of progressive legislation when they get into office. Representative politics matter, Can You Not says, and it drops facts to make the argument: Anti-LGBTQ laws usually pass in legislatures with few, if any, out LGBTQ members. Black state lawmakers are more likely to introduce bills that improve the socio-economic lives of other black people. A USC study published in 2014 found that state lawmakers who support voter ID laws, which disproportionately harm immigrants and people of color, were less likely to respond to emails from constituents with Latino-sounding names. Across party lines, female and black legislators are more likely to introduce bills about health care, civil rights, and education. Women are better than men on the environment, better than men on incarceration reform, and better than men on issues of reproductive justice.
For a left-leaning white man, this data should speak for itself. “If I’m a Democratic operative and I want the most progressive policy possible and data tells me that progressive policies do better when there are more women and people of color and LGBT folks in office, why would I run against those folks except to feed my own ego?” Huelsman says.
The PAC has gotten lots of predictable criticism on its Facebook page from white men who believe its mission is racist (against white people) and sexist (against men). One commenter suggested that demographics underrepresented in politics just need to do better: “Why don’t we raise girls and people of color to be more confident in who they are,” he asked, rather than “try to suppress a group of people based on the color of their skin?” Can You Not prefers the “lean out” philosophy. Instead of trying to force change among groups already facing systemic disadvantages—in other words, making them “lean in”—the PAC promotes the idea that it would be easier, more effective, and better for the common good if mediocre white men stopped grasping for positions they don’t deserve any more than, say, a female candidate of color.
Can You Not will focus its efforts on Colorado to start, in Democratic primaries in progressive districts where a Republican won’t stand a chance and in diverse areas where straight white men are not representative of the constituency. Teter and Huelsman were inspired by observing the homogeneity of government officials in their own state: The Denver suburb of Aurora, which is more diverse than New York City, has had white male mayors for more than a century. They plan on endorsing and opposing candidates in advance of the primaries in June, and again before the November general election.
But the PAC could have a broader effect outside of any particular race, just by making straight, white, progressive wannabe-congressmen reckon with the fact that they may not be the best ones for the job. If these men truly want to see racial, economic, and gender justice, they might be better off throwing their money and social capital behind candidates who are not themselves. In other words, in the parlance of this new PAC, “If we want to live our values, we have to not.”