Sexism Is Other People

‘Electability.’ ‘Likability.’ ‘Authenticity.’ The 2020 Democratic primary has found many canny ways to make misogyny plausibly deniable.

Elizabeth Warren greets a supporter on Super Tuesday, two days before she exited the Democratic primary. (M. Scott Brauer / Redux)

In January 2019, more than a year before the first vote would be cast in the 2020 Democratic primaries, the humor site McSweeney’s published an essay that was narrated by an unnamed husband and father of daughters. The essay’s headline: “I Don’t Hate Women Candidates—I Just Hated Hillary and Coincidentally I’m Starting to Hate Elizabeth Warren.” Its conclusion:

I’d love to see a female President. Just not Hillary Clinton. Or Elizabeth Warren. I am totally open to all other women leaders, but I have to admit that Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar are beginning to make me angry and I’m not sure why yet, but I know the reason will become clear soon …

This was a joke that was also deeply unfunny, and the essay, written by Devorah Blachor, was widely circulated in the year that followed. I saw it pinging around Facebook and Twitter and my group chats, month after month, its URL often punctuated with a 😂 and/or 😭 and/or 😠 emoji—one of those pieces of writing that isn’t shared so much as it is invoked. It was McSweeney’s most-read article of 2019, and for good reason: It captured the despairing absurdity of a situation in which democracy itself is the feminist backlash.

The essay was also prophetic. Over the course of 2019, the slate of Democrats competing for the party’s nomination—the most diverse group of candidates in the nation’s history—steadily constricted toward whiteness and straightness and maleness. The women whose candidacies had once been heralded as new convergences of hope and change (“the new face of the Democratic Party,” went a 2017 assessment of Elizabeth Warren) failed to gain traction. Kirsten Gillibrand left the contest in August. Kamala Harris suspended her campaign in December. Marianne Williamson departed this January. Amy Klobuchar did so on Monday. Warren, after a Super Tuesday showing so unexpectedly poor that it found her placing third in her home state, announced her campaign’s suspension on Thursday. Only Tulsi Gabbard, who has no mathematical path forward, remains in the race.

“Maybe Next Time, Ladies,” the headline of a New York Times opinion piece put it this week, after it became clear that the 2020 Democratic primary would likely end with two straight, white, septuagenarian men vying to wrest the presidency from another straight, white, septuagenarian man. Is this outcome due to sexism and racism? Yes. Is it also due to other factors? Yes. The fact that both can be true at once—elections have a way of mingling prejudice with legitimate matters of policy and performance—lends galling currency to self-laundering lines like “I’d vote for a woman, just not that woman,” and “I’d vote for a person of color, just not that particular person.”

These explanations carry their own camouflage. And they are adjacent to another idea that has been wielded in the 2020 primaries: “electability.” “Electability” claims to be a benign and objective concern. It is neither. It merely outsources biases, rationalizing them by appealing to the moral failings of imagined others. It talks about neighbors, and “other people,” and “what the country is ready for.” It throws up its hands and washes them at the same time. And it suggests an especially insidious strain of sexism. The sexism of the political past has often been blunt and unashamed in its expression (“Lock! Her! Up!”/ “Iron! My! Shirt!” / “She-devil”). The sexism of the political present, however, is slightly different: It knows better, even if it fails to be better. It is a little bit cannier. It has lawyered up. It is figuring out, day by day, how to maintain plausible deniability.

“It’s impossible to know the degree to which gender factors into a candidate’s political appeal, or lack thereof, especially at the presidential level,” Michelle Cottle, a Times editorial-board member, wrote in her “Maybe Next Time” column on Thursday. The Rolling Stone writer Jamil Smith explained Harris’s departure from the contest in December like this: “I cannot fully explain the collapse of a campaign that, as recently as four months ago, was shooting to the top of the polls after a uniquely vulnerable moment involving her personal history with race occurred on a national platform.”

Those assessments are refreshingly, and productively, honest. Punditry values stridency; when it comes to the ways that bigotry inflects itself on electoral politics, though, it is often most accurate to punctuate analysis with question marks rather than periods. The mechanics of American presidential politics will always be, in some sense, unquantifiable. “Political charisma” is a form of magical thinking. “Momentum” is a matter not merely of physics, but of myth. The question marks cast long shadows. Did Harris’s campaign end the way it did because of poor messaging, or because of her history as a prosecutor, or because she was a woman of color who was overly optimistic in her assessment that the nation was ready to be led by someone of that identity? Can Warren’s showing on Super Tuesday—which was foreshadowed by her lackluster results in earlier states—be explained by sexism? Or was it more that her Medicare for All plan had not been enough, or that her Medicare for All plan had been too much, or that she had taken that ill-advised DNA test? Was it something else entirely?

You can’t fully know. You can’t fully say. What you can do, however, is point to the woman who said of Warren, “There’s just something about her that I just don’t like. I just don’t feel like she’s a genuine candidate. I find her body language to be off-putting. She’s very cold.” Or you could point to the cable-news pundit who said of that candidate, “Do we want to invite her into our bedrooms and living rooms every day for four years?” Or to the journalist who mused that she “sure does lie a lot about her background.” Or to the accusation that she has projected “a ‘holier than thou’ attitude that her colleagues find irritating.” Or to the comment that her anger is “unmeasured and almost unhinged.” You can note that the first question Kirsten Gillibrand received at the first news conference she gave as a presidential candidate was about her likability. You can reference the time Harris was asked by a high-profile pundit, on Twitter, whether she had slept her way to the top.

While you’re at it, you can also point to all the studies that have highlighted the ways women politicians are punished for their ambition. You can point to the countless examples of women in public being told to be quieter, to be more accommodating, to take up less space. You can mention so much more.

And, still, you won’t be able to prove it. The thing about internalized misogyny is that it is internal. “Likability” is in a very broad sense a foundational requirement of any candidate. So is that other deeply subjective data point, “authenticity.” The plausible deniability is baked into the logic of campaigning. Sexism, like racism, is both exhausting and exhaust-like: It is so common that people sometimes forget to be indignant about its presence. “Electability” finds refuge in the fog. Instead of a woman, just not that woman, its explanation of things is I’m not sexist; other people are. Did they not vote for the woman because they have low opinions of women, or because they assume that other people do? You can litigate the question endlessly. That is, in some sense, the point.

In late 2008, the researchers David Paul and Jessi L. Smith published an article examining what happens when women run against men for the presidency. “Although some polls indicate that 81 percent of Americans would personally vote for a qualified woman candidate from their party,” they wrote, “other [2005] polls imply that nearly one‐third of Americans believe their ‘neighbors‘ are unwilling to vote for a woman.” And in a poll conducted in June and published in The Daily Beast, 74 percent of independents and Democrats claimed to be personally comfortable with the notion of a female president. Only 33 percent thought their neighbors would be similarly open-minded. In a New York Times article last summer, a voter said about Warren, “I love her enthusiasm. She’s smart, she’s very smart. I think she would make an amazing president.” The voter added: “I’m worried about whether she can win.”

“Electability,” used in that way, suggests the politics of game theory. But it also treats the theory itself as a form of absolution. The method is familiar. “Other people” have been used to rationalize conspiracy theories. (A recent book about conspiracies in the age of Trump is titled A Lot of People Are Saying.) “Other people” have been summoned to argue that #MeToo—according to groups of unnamed others—has gone too far. Those same, spectral others now help to explain why, for the foreseeable future, Americans will be governed by a man.