2020 Democratic primary: why women candidates are called ”unelectable”
In her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, philosopher Kate Manne defines misogyny not as an emotion men feel, but as an environment women experience, and a way in which they’re judged. It’s a powerful twist, and one that does a lot to help explain the Democratic primary so far.
The traditional definition of misogyny is hatred for women. To Manne, this definition is senseless given the social structures misogyny needs to describe. Take Gilead, the totalitarian world imagined in the novel (and Hulu series) The Handmaid’s Tale. In the story, every woman in the totalitarian society is expected to play a submissive role. If women fulfilled them, what need would there be for the men of that world to hate the women in their lives? Perhaps the women of Gilead are adored by the men they soothe and serve. But would anyone fail to describe that world — one where women are not allowed to read or work — as built atop a powerful, totalizing form of misogyny?
Manne sees misogyny as a social enforcement mechanism “where women tend to encounter hostility because they’re not conforming to gendered roles and expectations.” In her telling, misogyny isn’t about hatred, it’s about protecting an existing social order, and it often works quietly, subtly. It’s why a woman boss is quicker to be judged cruel than a male boss; it’s why a woman running for a leadership position can be ruled out for offenses that would never be noticed if a man committed them.
I spoke with Manne for my podcast a few months ago. It’s one of my favorite episodes; you should check it out. But I’ve been thinking a lot about her work as the Democratic primary has played out, and as a crop of exciting female candidates have struggled in comparison to less experienced, less specific, male candidates. And so I called her to get her take on the race as it’s developed so far.
“Electability isn’t a static social fact, it’s a social fact we’re constructing,” she told me. And “mMy worry is electability is a smokescreen for for this sadly common thing, which is not wanting to support a female candidate.” A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
How is misogyny, as you define it, in evidence in the 2020 primary so far?
Because I think of misogyny as a hostility women face, rather than a psychological property men feel, I think it’s been coming across pretty clearly in the population-level patterns of how much support female candidates are getting compared to white, male candidates. It’s depressing watching the four Bs — Biden, Bernie, Beto, and Buttigieg — rise in the polls and generate enthusiasm beyond the substance that may be there while women trail behind them with no plausible explanation for why we see that striking pattern. It’s always possible it’s just due to the female candidates being less exciting, but I have a hard time believing it in this race.
I’m interested in how the general environment women face filters down into the individual cases. Because there’s always an explanation, right? Warren had the DNA stumble. Klobuchar had the stories about staff mistreatment. How do you trace the linkages between misogyny and these varied campaigns and stories?
Let me give you one specific case. I’d be the last person to suggest we shouldn’t be concerned about Amy Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff. We should take seriously the reports making a case she was abusive. But at the same time, I’ve been concerned since 2016 that Bernie Sanders has a similar staff problem. A former subordinate called him “unbelievably abusive.” There was a piece about his anger management problem.
It’s not that there aren’t serious criticisms of women that should be talked about and debated, but often men get away with similar behavior that doesn’t register as a real problem.
I’m glad you brought up Klobuchar, because I was thinking of your book often as I followed that story. One of the things that struck me was that Klobuchar’s office has one of the highest staff turnover rates in the Senate, so that’s evidence of something real going on in her management. But of the 10 Senate offices with the highest turnover, seven are run by women, despite the fact that there are far more men than women in the Senate.
One way of interpreting that is the women bosses are simply worse. But another way of interpreting it is that, due to the kinds of gender expectations you describe, people experience the same behavior from a female boss differently than they experience it from a male boss. For Rahm Emanuel, a difficult, abrasive management style becomes part of his mythology. For a female boss, that same style might become proof of their villainy. It’s not just the behavior itself, but how we experience it, and what we’re willing to put up with and from whom.
It seems to me plausible that due to our expectations that women will be caring, loving and nurturing , women have a much harder time practicing a tough management style. Even if you assume that style is morally valid, I think it’s likely a women would be considered a bitch for it, while the man would be likelier to have staff think of him as tough. These gendered expectations will inform who’s seen as over the line, and ever where the line is placed.
There’s another part of the Klobuchar story I’ve been thinking about, given your framework. And this is delicate. But Amy Klobuchar had profited from her reputation as the nicest senator. She was really well-liked by her colleagues. She got Brett Kavanaugh to apologize to her. In a way, she had mastered the gendered expectations for female politicians, so then, when it came out that she wasn’t treating her staff that way in private, it was held against her with much more force.
Yes, like she was somehow hypocritical, rather than someone under enormous pressure to perform in a way coded as acceptable for women in public. And it sounds like she would lose her temper, in ways that can be criticized, but could also be judged with nuance. Whereas someone like Sanders, no one is that surprised if he’s difficult to work with because he comes across as somewhat angry and curmudgeonly, and that’s much better tolerated in men.
Do you see echoes of how Hillary Clinton was treated in how Elizabeth Warren has been treated, and the conversation over her “electability”? [Note: I had this conversation with Manne before the CNN town hall where Warren was asked if she was being “Hillaried.”]
I’ve seen echoes. People always say they want substance, but when it’s a women bringing it, it seems unexciting. My worry is electability is a smokescreen for for this sadly common thing, which is not wanting to support a female candidate. It seems to me that the “she’s not electable” excuse could be just that, an excuse.
The argument I hear the most is the DNA thing. But then I think about the other candidates considered electable. Donald Trump does 20 insane things before breakfast. Joe Biden plagiarized a speech from Neil Kinnock. Bernie Sanders used to be a quite radical leftist. Beto had his livejournal period. Buttigieg is a mayor of mid-sized city.
The decision of whether or not something has made someone electable seems really loaded to me. You could imagine saying, “you can’t elect an orange buffoon!” You can’t elect a plagiarist!” But it turns out you can. It seems to me the bar for what makes you unelectable is lower with women.
Thats a really good way of thinking about it, and it brings out this dimension I worry about with female candidates, which is the detection of a fatal flaw comes out early and decisively, I think we see it with Kamala Harris, too, with the conversation over her record as a prosecutor. I take that criticism seriously. I think Warren made a real gaffe with the DNA thing. The question is, are these flaws fatal? Or are they mistakes a candidate learned from? Now we have Biden making jokes about having permission to hug someone on stage, seeming to have learned nothing. The fatal flaw test is more brutal when applied to women.
It’s tricky because often there is a real element of truth to the criticism. It’s just that one often sees men get away with similar behavior and worse without any consequences. It’s really frightening. There’s a culture of canceling women.
If we knew for sure that a candidate couldn’t beat Trump, that would be reason not to support them. But electability isn’t a static social fact, it’s a social fact we’re constructing. Part of what will make someone unelectable is people give up on them in a way that would be premature, rather than going to the mat for them. If you’re really worried that an otherwise excellent candidate won’t be elected, isn’t that a reason to fight if there’s a decent chance that people can be brought around and convinced?
The fact that many people thought Hillary Clinton was a sure thing may be part of the reason she lost the election. Playing an active role in reshaping the political reality we’re confronting and not just taking other’s preferences as given, but seeing oneself as part of a dynamic and evolving political community, that’s what I believe in.