Another Post Mortem

When she opened Saturday Night Live last night, Elizabeth Warren pointed out that she’s not dead, she’s merely in the Senate.

Still, Moira Donegan says the Democrats would be more viable for the presidency if:

… if the media and the electorate were less blinded by cynicism, sexism and fear and more willing to see Warren for who she was – the most capable, competent and kindest candidate in the race.

As a woman, the Massachusetts senator always faced an uphill battle of double standards and misogynist resentment. She had to be competent but not condescending, cheery but not pandering, maternal but not frumpy, smart but not haughty. As she rose in the polls last summer and fall, she came under the kind of scrutiny that male frontrunners are not subjected to, and faced skepticism about her claims and character that male candidates do not face.

As she rose in the polls last summer and fall, she came under the kind of scrutiny that male frontrunners are not subjected to.

This is the fate of a lot of women who come close to attaining power, and empirical data backs up the phenomenon: writing in the Washington Post, the Cornell philosopher Kate Manne cited a 2010 Harvard study that found that women are viewed more negatively simply by seeking office. “Voters view male and female politicians as equally power-seeking, but respond to them quite differently,” Manne writes. “Men who seek power were viewed as stronger and tougher, while power-seeking women provoked feelings of disgust and contempt.”

As a result, all of Warren’s virtues were recast as vices in the public eye. Her impressive credentials and superlative intellect became out-of-touch elitism. Her joyousness and enthusiasm were cast as somehow both insincerely pandering and cringingly over-earnest. This kind of transformation of neutral or positive character traits into negative ones is not something that happens to men in similar positions. Sanders can aestheticize his practiced cantankerousness for laughs and sympathy without anyone asking if its a put-on. Biden can use slang from the 1930s without anyone ever questioning whether the ostentatious folksiness of his “no malarkey” messaging might be just a tad affected. But for Warren, every smile was interpreted as a sign of concealed hatred, of secret, nefarious motives.

Her policy efforts, too, were cast as a repudiation of her principles rather than as steps toward realizing them. Her attempt to transform Medicare for All from a symbolic rallying cry into a substantive, workable and affordable policy change that can be made in our time brought, paradoxically, accusations that she was less serious about the policy for trying to make it a reality. Her plans to break up tech monopolies, repair the damage to black wealth done by historic redlining policies and reshape massive federal spending projects to make them environmentally sustainable were all cast as signs of duplicity and lack of commitment to her stated values. Meanwhile, male candidates who did not have substantive plans to implement such policies were believed, largely uncritically, when they told the public that they would put them in place.

In this race, men’s statements – about who they are, what they value, what they would do as president – have largely been taken at face value, even when male candidates have made false or exaggerated claims or contradicted themselves. But Elizabeth Warren was never given the benefit of the doubt. Her flaws and missteps were magnified, and interpreted in ways disproportionate to their significance, while comparatively greater mistakes by male rivals were all but ignored. When she referred to her father as having worked as a janitor, a days–long news cycle asked why, if he was really a janitor, her brother had once referred to him as a “maintenance man”. That these are effectively the same did not matter: the irrelevant non-story was interpreted as a sign of her constitutional untrustworthiness.

Warren was said to be not really running for president, but running as a spoiler; not really happy to meet voters, but shamelessly pretending with her long selfie lines; not really committed to economic inequality, but merely devoting her life to it as some sort of long con. None of these accusations made much logical sense, but that didn’t matter, because they were backed up by the force of feeling – a very strong feeling, held by many men and women alike, that a woman seeking power and status just can’t be trusted.

The epistemic philosopher Miranda Fricker calls this tendency to disbelieve women, and to believe powerful men, “testimonial injustice”: the harm done to speakers when prejudiced listeners discount their credibility. Women face testimonial injustice in particular when they challenge or contradict men, as cultural tropes that depict women as conniving, scheming, and selfish can be mustered to make her seem less credible, him more believable. Fricker doesn’t apply her concept of testimonial injustice to gender conflict exclusively, but it is an obstacle that many women recount in their own experiences of gendered injustice: the sense that they cannot be believed, that they cannot achieve equal credibility and moral footing with men in the minds of their peers, that they will always be assumed to be either stupid or dishonest. Branded as dishonest even as she told the truth, duplicitous even as she kept her promises, Warren faced testimonial injustice on a huge scale, and it ultimately doomed her campaign.

Unquote.

So Long Twitter and Senator Warren

I’ve closed my Twitter account, because I no longer require up-to-the-minute news and commentary on these subjects (and others): 

  1. Joe Biden
  2. Bernie Sanders
  3. House Democrats
  4. Senate Republicans
  5. The Supreme Court
  6. The Department of Justice
  7. COVID-19
  8. Voter Suppression
  9. Climate Change
  10. D—- Fucking T—- and His Crime Family

Here’s the invaluable Paul Waldman of The Washington Post to sum up:

Is it enough, as a presidential candidate, to have smarts and charisma, to have a clear and concise message, to even be the best debater, and most of all to be the best prepared to do the job effectively?

No, it is not. Which is why so often during this primary campaign, we’ve heard supporters of Elizabeth Warren ask plaintively, “Hey, what if we got behind the person who’d actually be the best president? Why not do that?”

They asked because the number of voters willing to do that was not what it might have been, which is why Warren has announced that she’s ending her bid for the White House.

There is a temptation to say the presidential primary process is brutal and unsparing but ultimately fair. It tests you in the way no other campaign can. If you don’t win, it’s because you didn’t have what it takes. Lots of it may be out of your control, but if you were a once-in-a-generation talent like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, you could have overcome any obstacle cast before you. Nobody deserves the nomination; either you win it or you don’t.

Which is true as far as it goes. But we can’t consider Warren’s candidacy without seeing sexism, both in fact and in perception, for the hindrance it was for her.

To be clear, sexism isn’t the only reason Warren will not be the Democratic nominee. There are many reasons. She had a few stumbles along the way, as every campaign does. There were some decisions she could have made differently.

But her campaign and the particular way it failed tell us a lot about how gender operates in presidential politics.

Let’s consider that Joe Biden is the likeliest candidate to be the Democratic nominee, despite the fact that he has run an absolutely abysmal campaign and is so erratic that sympathetic Democrats regularly tell one another, “I saw Biden give an interview, and he was completely coherent!” as though they were praising a toddler. Biden won a sweeping victory on Super Tuesday even in states where he did not campaign for a single day or have an organization. There has never in my lifetime been a winning presidential campaign that was so weak on so many dimensions.

And yet Biden is cruising toward the nomination. Why?

Because of a collective decision among a significant portion of the Democratic electorate that he is “electable,” i.e., that other people will find him inoffensive enough to vote for. As Michelle Cottle noted, one poll last year asked Democrats who they were supporting, and Biden was in the lead; when they asked who they’d rather see as president if they could wave a magic wand, Warren was in front.

You’ve probably heard that again and again: Voters saying Warren is the one they liked the best, but because they didn’t think she was electable, they were supporting someone else, most often Biden.

That perception didn’t just come of nowhere. Yes, people might be thinking of their sexist uncle or their “traditional” parents, but they also heard it again and again from the media, creating a self-reinforcing loop. Sure, Warren can put policy issues into terms people can understand like no other candidate; sure, she has thought more seriously about the powers of the government than anyone else; sure, her anti-corruption message resonates with all kinds of voters. But she just can’t win.

Then there are all the people who said they didn’t like Warren but couldn’t quite put their finger on why. Maybe it was her voice, or that she seemed too aggressive, or that she wasn’t “authentic” enough. Not because she’s a woman, though! I’d support a woman, I would! Just not her.

Throughout the campaign, Warren tried to find subtle ways to deal with a problem she couldn’t have been more aware of (just as Obama carefully crafted a strategy to deal with voters’ reaction to a black candidate). But nothing seemed to work in the face of the relentless obsession with electability.

Late in the campaign, she reacted to the question of whether sexism was hampering her by noting that just answering the question put her in an inescapable double bind:

“And, you know, there are only two answers and they’re both bad. The first one is, ‘Uh, yeah,’ in which case everybody says, ‘Oh, whiner.’”

“The second is to say, ‘Oh, no,’ in which case, at least every other woman looks at you and thinks, ‘What planet is she living on?’”

Yes, female candidates have been more and more successful at running for all levels of government; this was particularly true in the 2018 midterm elections. But the presidency is different. It’s about authority, and power, and command. And still, in 2020, millions of Americans simply cannot wrap their heads around the idea of a woman in that job.

So unlike Biden or any other male candidate, being better wasn’t good enough. Warren had to be perfect, and of course she wasn’t. As writer Jill Filipovic asked:

How many times, in how many contexts, have we seen a smart, competent, dynamic woman who is so head & shoulders above everyone else in the room get ignored or pushed out? How many times have we wondered – was I that woman?

Think back to Hillary Clinton, who after a lifetime of being bludgeoned and battered by every sexist preconception, trope and backlash, finally got within reach of the ultimate reward and opportunity only to have to face her exact opposite, an utterly unprepared buffoon and raging misogynist who was literally on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women with impunity. And even after getting 3 million more votes than him, she still lost.

Four years later, we had a presidential field full of talented and accomplished women, and surely, so many of us thought, one of them might prevail. Yet they fell, one after another, until only the most talented and accomplished among them was left. And in the end she too was judged inadequate….

Unquote.

The title of Waldman’s column is “Warren’s Wrenching Downfall Says Something Terrible About 2020”.

It’s many of us who were inadequate. Not her.

It’s Not Because She’s a Woman

I sure hope more voters see former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the normal, competent, trustworthy one by the time we get to November. She seems that way to me already. I mean, compared to you know who, there’s no contest at all. 

But here’s an example of what she’s up against (from The Guardian):

“I think Trump is nuts, but I’d love to have him as a president to see what happens,” says Edward Tucker, a 68-year-old retired carpenter from Steubenville [Ohio], who says he has no regrets about twice voting for Barack Obama in previous elections.

“I wouldn’t want to end up in some kind of war or anything,” he adds hastily. “But something is going to change if he’s president; we just don’t know what”….

Standing outside a Lowes DIY store in Steubenville, Edward Tucker acknowledges a personal distrust of Hillary Clinton too, although he denies any suggestion of sexism.

“I like Trump, and Sanders. I don’t like Hillary Clinton at all. I never did like her. It has nothing to do with her politics, I just never liked her. I don’t like her attitude,” he says.

“It’s not because she’s a woman; I think she’s arrogant. I don’t know, she might be just fine, but she comes across as arrogant.”

Right, it’s not because she’s a woman. Of course not. For men like these, that has nothing to do with it at all.