Vice President Pence’s Blatant Display of White (Male) Privilege

Vice Presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Vice President Mike Pence, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)
Written by Guy Nave

It took everything in me to watch Wednesday night’s Vice Presidential debate without turning off the television before the debate was finished. While there are so many things about the debate that troubled me, the thing that bothered me most was Vice-President Pence’s blatant display of white (male) privilege when he criticized Senator Kamala Harris for not answering a question that he posed to her.

In case anyone is unaware of how Vice Presidential debates work, the moderator asks the participants questions that the participants are expected to answer. It is the moderator, not the participants, who poses the questions.

Vice President Pence illustrated the old rule of debating: you answer the question you want to, not the one asked. As a result, many post-debate analysts identified Vice President Pence’s performance as “masterful.”

While the practice of answering the question you want to, not the one asked is not unusual, what was somewhat unusual was Vice President Pence’s expectation that Senator Harris was obligated to answer his question while he blatantly disregarded questions asked by the moderator.

Vice President Pence frequently engaged in pro forma thank-yous of Susan Paige, the debate moderator, as he consistently ignored her questions and exhibited a blatant disregard for debate rules.

In one segment of the debate, Susan Paige asked Pence to explain how “specifically” the Trump administration would protect Americans with preexisting conditions who lack access to affordable health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is struck down.

Rather than answer that question, Vice President Pence resorted to talking points defending his pro-life position and criticizing the Biden/Harris pro-choice position. He then defended Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the Supreme Court. While this display of answering the question you want to rather than the one you were asked was frustrating, what Pence did next was even more frustrating.

Ignoring the question posed to him by Susan Paige, Pence turned to Senator Harris and said, “the American people deserve an answer, Senator Harris. Are you and Joe Biden going to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed?”

Vice President Pence then attempted to mansplain to Senator Harris the history of presidential appointments of Supreme Court Justices and the long history of nine Justices serving on the Court. He concluded by reiterating his demand that Senator Harris answer his question regarding whether or not Joe Biden and she would try to increase the number of Supreme Court Justices in an effort to pack the court if Judge Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed.

When Senator Harris began to respond, the Vice President interrupted her and demanded she answer his question, as though Senator Harris was obligated to answer him. After Senator Harris’s response, the moderator thanked her. Vice President Pence, however, continued to demand that Senator Harris answer his question, even though he failed to answer the question posed to him by Susan Paige regarding how the Trump administration would protect Americans with preexisting conditions if they succeed in striking down the Affordable Care Act.

Finally, when Susan Paige attempted to move on to the next question, Pence interrupted her and asserted, “I just want the record to reflect she never answered the question.”

What the record will reflect is that the moderator never asked Senator Harris that question and Senator Harris was under no obligation to answer a question posed by Vice President Pence. Vice President Pence’s request to have the “record reflect” that Senator Harris never answered his question reveals Pence’s underlying sense of white male privilege that allows him to ignore the question posed to him by Susan Paige while demanding Senator Kamala Harris answer his question.

Let the record reflect that the rules of the debate are clear: it is the moderator, not Vice President Pence who poses the questions. Senator Harris was under no obligation to answer Vice President Pence, despite whatever demands the Vice President felt he had the right to make.

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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