A Problem of Ambition

Early on in Macbeth, after an encounter with a trio of witches who predict he will become the King of Scotland, Shakespeare’s titular character reflects on his plan to assassinate the current king and take the crown, forewarning the possibility of his own demise:

…I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other. (Act 1, Scene 7)

The line is spoken by Macbeth in a soliloquy, just before Lady Macbeth enters: more ruthless and cunning, it is she who assists with and insists on the murderous plot when he wavers. Similar villains — plotting, power-hungry, manipulative women, often temptresses — appear again and again in the myths created by men, from the Book of Genesis, to the narcissistic Evil Queen in the Brothers Grimm Snow White from the early 1800s, to C.S. Lewis’ White Witch in the mid-20th century Chronicles of Narnia, up to Cersei Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s turn-of-the-millenium Game of Thrones.

In the 21st century, popular fantasy literature authored by men presents a more enlightened version of female power: James S. A. Corey’s character Chrisjen Avasarala is a foul-mouthed bad-ass U.N. diplomat who cracks pistachio nuts and busts balls across the universe of The Expanse — antagonizing many powerful men — yet she is portrayed as sympathetic and well-intentioned, something of a heroine. Avasarala aspires less to a higher office and more to a higher purpose, operating behind the scenes to save the galaxy, in contrast to the duplicitous and destructive diplomacy of war profiteer Sadavir Errinwright.

I open with these examples because many discussions of “political ambition” often veer into ascribing character motivations, beginning from the idea that ambition itself is a negative characteristic, espeically in women (who, like our fictional characters, are moving through worlds largely created by men). It is considered extremely gauche for a candidate to display their political ambitions too early in the process, and yet such ambition is already widely understood by everyone to exist. The idea that people who seek a political office possess such ambitions is a tautology: why else would they run?

Pundits’ unfair focus on the “ambition” of women candidates parallels the manner in which strong-willed young girls are pejoratively labeled “bossy” in a context where a boy might be called a “leader.” Unfortunately, one strain of feminist thought responds by leaning-in to the term “girl boss,” rather than pausing over the contradictions inherent in pursuing gender equality in a society that is divided into bosses and underlings, where women are far more likely to live in poverty and perform low-wage or no-wage labor than are men. In Feminism for the 99%, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser describe this as:

…a remarkable vision of equal opportunity domination: one that asks ordinary people, in the name of feminism, to be grateful that it is a woman, not a man, who busts their union, orders a drone to kill their parent, or locks their child in a cage at the border.

Such a maneuver allowed Madeleine Albright to claim during the 2016 primary that women who don’t support other women are reserved their own “special place in hell” (though she did not elaborate on whether it is located in a separate section from the one reserved for war criminals).

As the Veep-stakes heated up in July 2020, Kamala Harris was subjected to an effort to try to derail her chances as Joe Biden’s running mate, calling into question her ambition. Harris’ ambitions had already been processed through the discourse mill in early 2019, but were renewed for interrogation because of her willingness during the campaign to attack Biden’s record on school desegratation and school busing. Having set aside such differences in order to ride with Biden on the campaign bus, Harris may indeed break a glass ceiling this fall.

Her potential Vice-Presidency has a symbolic importance that may resonate with some voters, but it is by no means a guarantee to boost turnout. It is also an error to substitute it for progress. Her rise will not automatically translate into an agenda that benefits the vast majority of Black women or other women of color, or millions of others in our society facing various forms of oppression and exploitation. It is here — rather than in talk of her ambitions — that any true critiques belong. To take the analogy a step further, when a glass ceiling breaks (be it with Vice President Harris or future President Ocasio-Cortez) what about the people whose job it is to clean up the broken shards? What about their ambitions?

Ultimately, my biggest beef with the discourse surrounding “political ambitions” is that it is focused on the wrong kind of ambitions: substituting speculation about what politicians aspire to become for what they aspire to accomplish, focusing psychoanalytically on what drives them to seek a particular office as if they were characters in a stage production. (And even if they were, we might point out that landing a leading role is only one step — the audience still demands a performance.) We ought to pay closer attention to what they are ambitious to achieve, which opens a useful frame of analysis into who they feel accountable to (that is, who they represent in the actual event, beyond the symbolic level).

Synchronous with the virtual electioneering of the last few months, we have seen massive protests (possibly the largest ever) in the streets of the United States, demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and asserting the value of Black life amidst a plague of death at the hands of police and COVID-19. Along with the overall upsurge of other social movements — climate change, #MeToo, striking teachers, and more — these actions should give us hope. Ordinary people are aiming to reshape the world and ensure that everyone not only has bread, but also clean air and water, and maybe even roses too.

Their ambitions are not audacious. They are long overdue, and they allow us to conceive of progress not as a vertical and competitive climb over one another towards the top, but instead as a march that we all are on together towards a common horizon, where we can all breathe free.