In discussing presidential hopeful Nikki Haley’s suggestion that politicians over 75 should undergo mandatory mental-competency tests, Don Lemon, on the February 16 broadcast of CNN This Morning, said that Haley—who, at 51, is 29 years younger than Joe Biden—was “past her prime.” When asked about the comment on Fox News, Haley shrugged it off: “I have always made the liberals’ heads explode. They can’t stand the fact that a minority female would not be on the Democratic side.”
Liberal heads did explode when the former governor of South Carolina and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations announced her bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination in a campaign ad last week. While the ad touted Haley’s accomplishments in these two roles, it also focused heavily on her identity as the daughter of immigrants from India who grew up in Bamberg, South Carolina—a town with a current population around 3,000—in the 1970s.
The ad begins with Haley noting that when she was young, the railroad tracks in Bamberg “divided the town by race.” “Not black, not white,” she continues, “I was different. But my mom would always say, ‘Your job is not to focus on the differences, but the similarities.’ And my parents reminded me and my siblings every day how blessed we were to live in America.”
This statement struck a nerve with many left-wing commentators, who have come to believe that the country is irredeemably racist.
Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali said of Haley on MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan Show: “I see her, and I feel bad because she’s using her brown skin as a weapon against poor black folks and poor brown folks, and she uses her brown skin to launder white supremacist talking points.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, tweeted that she found Haley’s campaign ad “highly offensive.” On ABC’s The View, Whoopi Goldberg exclaimed, “Nikki, you know, since you have been asleep all this time and just woke up, you are just finding out that there are things about our country that are not perfect. For us to pretend that it is, and nothing has happened, is ridiculous.”
But Haley never said that America is perfect. In fact, her ad highlights America’s imperfections by recounting the time when a white gunman killed nine black Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston during her time as governor. The ad features footage from the aftermath of the attack, while Haley says: “And when evil did come, we turned away from fear, toward God and the values that still make our country the freest and greatest in the world.”
The central message of Haley’s first presidential campaign ad, then, isn’t that America is perfect, but rather that her political principles—liberty, equality, individualism, and merit—allow it to come closer to perfection than any other nation in history. Our politics haven’t always lived up to those principles (as history can attest), but they did help make it possible for a Punjabi woman to be elected governor of the first state to secede from the Union in defense of slavery.
As political scientist Samuel Huntington noted, lapses between America’s political principles and its political institutions and practices are inevitable. In his 1981 book American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, Huntington described such lapses as “a continuing central phenomenon of American politics in a way that is true of no other state.” America’s one-of-a-kind promise of liberty and equality for her citizens requires all of us to use our freedom in a moral way, and as imperfect human beings, we sometimes don’t. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on America’s promise.
When Huntington wrote American Politics 42 years ago, he observed that most Americans didn’t want to give up on those principles: “Almost everyone agrees that the United States was conceived in terms of certain political ideals and inspired by the promise or dream of liberty and equality. These political ideals are central to American national identity and have played a critical role in shaping American political evolution and development.”
But commitment to those ideals is much less firm today, at least among race essentialists like Ali, Hannah-Jones, and Goldberg. In response to Haley’s statement, in a presidential campaign speech—“Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history: America is not a racist country”—Hannah-Jones tweeted, for example: “One could argue that being the first and only ‘minority female governor’ in the history of this nation demonstrates the opposite.”
Of course, Haley isn’t the only minority individual in politics today who believes in the promise of America even after living through moments when this promise was broken. In his Republican response to President Biden’s 2021 economic address, South Carolina senator Tim Scott described America as “the greatest country on earth,” despite its flaws, because it is a country whose principles, when upheld, allowed Scott’s grandfather to see “his family go from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.” For this reason, Scott said, “I am confident that our finest hour is still to come. Original sin is never the end of the story, not for our souls, and not for our nation. The real story is always redemption.”
Another leader who believed that America’s story, particularly for minorities, was one not of condemnation but of redemption was Martin Luther King Jr., who said:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. . . . But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
Haley and Scott aren’t denying that America has failed to live up to its ideals in times past. They’re just saying, as King did in 1963, that our response to these failures shouldn’t be to toss the ideals aside, as many on the political left would like us to do, but instead to strive harder to meet them.
“Even on our worst day,” Haley says in her campaign ad, “we are blessed to live in America.” She’s right.
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