In the last several weeks, President-elect Joe Biden has been busy announcing his selections for a number of leading roles in his cabinet. In doing so, Biden is making it clear that he has his sights set on building a “diverse” administration around him. Alejandro Mayorkas was nominated as the first Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, was identified as United Nations Ambassador. Neera Tanden was nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the first woman of color and first South Asian-African to fill this role. And over the weekend, Biden announced an all-female communications team.
On November 23rd Biden also announced his nomination for Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines. The DNI is responsible for overseeing 17 governmental organizations including the CIA and National Security. If confirmed by the Senate, Haines would be the first woman appointed to oversee the entire U.S. Intelligence Community. Democrats have been steadfast in their support of her nomination, praising her personally and professionally while urging Republican senators to confirm her appointment. Mainstream media outlets have wasted no time celebrating her nomination as a feminist step forward.
The Myth of Representation
The appointment of so many women and people of color into these positions demonstrates the pressure political figures are under to appear “anti-racist” or “anti-sexist.” However, the repressive institutions these women and people of color are appointed to oversee are not built to improve the material conditions of women, people of color, or other oppressed groups. Biden is already receiving backlash from activists and the left, as many of his picks have terrible records on defending the interests of working class and oppressed people.
These nominations are a shallow attempt to enlist establishment Democrats who represent marginalized groups to prop up capitalist interests. They are empty concessions by the political establishment to appease radicalizing women, youth, LGBTQ people, and people of color in lieu of offering meaningful change. In reality, the Democratic party has played an active role throughout history in fighting against the basic interests of women and other marginalized groups, and the problems working women face under capitalism cannot be resolved by gaining “representation” at the top of the U.S. war and deportation machines.
Former President Barack Obama is a useful case study on this point. It was absolutely historic that he was the first Black man elected as president in a country built on slavery and anti-Black racism. But his appointment did not relieve Black workers and youth from the horrors of police violence, voter suppression, and joblessness. Obama oversaw the bailing out of the banks after the 2008 recession, while Black Americans lost their jobs and homes at astronomically higher rates than white Americans. The Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence during his second term.
In 2020, Obama emerged late in the primaries to block Bernie Sanders, whose platform of a $15 minimum wage, rent control, and a cancellation of student debt all would have disproportionately helped Black workers and youth. Obama intervened to stop a historic cross-league sports strike in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in late August, and recently has attacked the youth-led summer rebellion for taking up the demand to defund the police, something that is sorely needed to curb the violence of over-militarized, over-resourced police departments. Being Black or a woman does not mean a politician will automatically fight on behalf of people who look like them: we need to look at their records, history, and rhetoric.
Avril Haines’ Tainted Record
While Democrats and the media portray Avril Haines as a smart, capable, and sensible pick, her nomination has been met with opposition from progressives and activists who know her record. Haines has built her career in a number of prominent intelligence positions including serving as the deputy CIA director in 2013 and 2014. During the Obama administration she played a key role in the secretive drone program that has been criticized by human rights activists for unnecessarily killing civilians, including innocent women and children, overseas.
She also has an atrocious record of covering up torture. She has been criticized for her complicity in the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11. Additionally, she was controversially in support of Trump’s pick, Gina Haspel, for CIA director despite Haspel being implicated in torture.
Current DNI John Ratcliffe has come under fire for his lack of experience, and for his uncritical support of Trump and his policies. In this context, it can be appealing to suggest that Haines, in this position, reflects a marked improvement from the current state. However, even setting aside her personal track record, the Intelligence Community has a scathing legacy of perpetrating crimes against humanity with almost no accountability or consequence.
Members of the Intelligence Community — which Haines will be tasked with overseeing — include the FBI which for decades used its COINTELPRO to brutally stifle the black liberation movement, including ordering the extrajudicial killings of revolutionary black leaders like Fred Hampton. In more recent history, reports of the brutal torture methods inflicted on Iraqi war prisoners – many of whom were innocent – are a stark indication that regardless of their gender, the role of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) is fundamentally to uphold and advance a violent and oppressive war apparatus that has, and will continue to, oversee egregious human rights violations in the U.S. and abroad.
Way Forward to Advance Women’s Equality
While Biden and the Democratic establishment are celebrating the shattering of the DNI glass ceiling, what have they concretely done to defend women’s equality? Democratic Senators provided little resistance during the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, leaving millions now fearing for the future of their reproductive rights as Roe v. Wade – a victory fought for and won on the backs of working class women – is at risk.
They provided an equally toothless resistance to sexual assailant Brett Kavanaugh who was appointed to the Supreme Court the previous year. But when Tara Reade accused Joe Biden of sexual assault, the liberal feminist movement – inclusive of prominent female Democrats such as Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren – were quick to abandon the #MeToo movement, defending Biden and attacking Reade’s credibility outright. In this context, Biden feigning support for women’s equality through his nomination of Haines and others is performative and frankly insulting.
But this is the historic legacy of the Democratic Party establishment. Offering token concessions under pressure from below and ultimately depriving working class and oppressed people of a political voice, actively co-opting and derailing our movements, and betraying us over and over again.
Regardless of who is appointed to Biden’s cabinet, millions are still unemployed, going hungry, facing eviction, and unable to access critical healthcare. Haine’s appointment will not change the fact that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 1 in 4 women will be forced to leave the workforce because our government will not provide universal childcare. It will not resolve the staggering rate of women who are trapped in abusive relationships and unable to leave because affordable housing is not a guarantee. It will not ensure that families can avoid going into crippling debt because their employer-based healthcare does not cover the costs of delivering a child.
This is precisely why the fight for women’s equality, and the end to other forms of oppression, will never be won on the basis of seeking to diversify those in power under the two corporate parties. But, we do not have to accept these realities as our only option. Women and other oppressed groups do not have to wait in hopes that the political establishment will take bold action on the scale necessary to reverse the dire circumstances in front of us. Yes, we need diverse leadership – women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks and all oppressed people should be at the helm of struggles for a better world. But we should not fight for “diverse representation” within the repressive capitalist system. Instead, we should fight for a fundamentally new system, built on the basis of human need.