Now that the 2018 midterm elections are over, it is time to assess what American voters have learned since 2016. Here are three things that I have learned.
- Misogyny is stronger than most of us would like to think, or used to believe. It has shown up in many forms, from many people we might have thought to be beyond it. But the culture is no more post-misogynistic in 2018 than it was post-racial in 2012.
It was most obvious in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald J. Trump, and was equally manifest in subsequent interpretations of the election’s outcome. We saw it in voters’ and pundits’ outrage at Clinton’s use of a private email server (particularly when contrasted with pundits’ and voters’ lack of response to the information, in a recent New York Times front page article, that the president has been using an insecure cell phone that is known to be under Russian and Chinese surveillance, and further that the president is aware of this fact and doesn’t care). In Clinton’s case, FBI chief James Comey expressed great indignation and public opinion swung strongly against Clinton: even usually rational sources condemned her use of the server as possibly “criminal,” or “treasonous,” despite no evidence that any emails Clinton had sent on that server had been compromised. My assumption is that, very rationally, the Secretary of State (who traveled extensively) found it easier to use the private server on her travels and thus do all aspects of her job more efficiently. But the cry persists to this day: “Lock her up!”
Is it possible that railing against Clinton for using a “private email server” is just a novel way to condemn a woman for speaking in public at all, especially when she was speaking on her own behalf and running for president, to boot? That seeing her behavior as “criminal” or “irresponsible” is just a handy way of expressing discomfort with the very idea of a woman president, or presidential candidate? In other words, misogyny.
Likewise the public’s willingness – nay, eagerness – to believe the scurrilous stories about Clinton: her “illness,” the peculations of the Clinton Foundation, pizzagate, bizarre accusations going back to her alleged murder of Vincent Foster in the early ‘90s…. all are really about a woman’s illegitimate access to public utterance, and thus and worse, to power.
The fact that these narratives are still, to this day, being bandied about suggests that altogether too many people find them persuasive. Then too, the invocation –even by her alleged supporters — of Hillary Clinton as Villainess #1 because she lost tells us entirely too much about American attitudes toward women. Americans continue to treat the Clinton candidacy as anathema two years after its demise – despite the fact that Clinton won the popular vote and might have won the whole contest, were it not for interference by a foreign power as well as the head of the FBI — interferences wholly beyond her power to prevent or undo.
Americans have historically dealt quite differently with a losing presidential candidate. For a few weeks after an election, the pundits speculate about what the candidate did wrong, why he lost, how he might have won. Then both topic and candidate vanish, usually never to surface again. The loser may vanish into obscurity, but does not become the object of vilification.
It has been otherwise for Clinton. Since her concession, her loss has been blamed almost unanimously on her, and not only by Republicans or male Democrats, but by lots of liberal, even allegedly feminist, women. She ran a “flawed” campaign; she was a “terrible” candidate.
Such accusations have been endemic since November 9, 2016.. And yet, at least according to my recollection, none of them are true. She ran an unexciting campaign, yes; her opponent provided all the excitement anyone could have desired, and sucked up all the media attention. It is hard to know how his opponent could have done anything to stop it, particularly since she was female. Trump, as a man, could go to every emotional extreme: anger, sarcasm, bullying, stalking, nastiness, personal attack… the list goes on. He received some criticism, to be sure, but his bizarre and intimidating behavior did not lessen his approval. But if his Clinotn had run a more “exciting” campaign, she would have been lambasted and pilloried as “hysterical,” “angry,” and “out of control.” Her loss would have been resounding, and all women would have been tarred with the same brush.
And “flawed”? Yes, admittedly, she was flawed. She lacked what we now know to be essential for any U.S. President, and you know what that is. Women never have one.
And finally, there is the problem of “false equivalence,” manifested in current anti-Clinton harangues in so many ways: yes, Trump behaves execrably, but she’s just as bad. But she isn’t.
Take a recent case, an “editorial observer” column in the Times (with friends like this, who needs enemies?). There has been a lot of discussion about how the Democrats should behave in the future (see point #3 below): should they be perfect ladies (or even gentlemen?), or should they hit back, even going below the belt? Both positions are tenable, but in this column its author (Michelle Cottle) went with special ferocity after Clinton, for daring to suggest even a modest version of the second position.
Cottle gets sarcastically personal, fast: In the first paragraph Clinton has “been on a bit of a media tear”; she has been “holding forth”; to save her party, “someone needs to perform an intervention.” And on it goes.
And why? Because she has remarked that, “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.” It’s not as if she was advocating assassination; she is merely suggesting that nice isn’t working any more: when the other side has raised the acoustic level by many hundreds of decibels, a ladylike murmur not only won’t be effective, it won’t even be heard. We are at this moment in a political (and discursive) situation that has not been seen since the period just before the Civil War, and we desperately need to find a way to be effective against inflammatory Republican rhetoric. Michelle Obama’s advice to go high when they go low sounds good but seems ineffectual. When the other side is not only lying, but destructive of democracy, a different strategy may be essential for our survival. But because Clinton is female, the Times feels that it needs to tell her what to do and what not to do, because she cannot possibly get it right on her own. Whatever she is saying, it must be wrong because she is saying it.
- The unpredictability of current U.S. politics (as manifested in the many surprises of November 6, 2018) makes our usual source of information, polling data, highly fallible. But the point goes further: any political statement couched in the future tense should be discarded: no one knows what will happen tomorrow, or how what happens tomorrow will affect what voters do next week, let alone two years hence. So poll results are untrustworthy not only for what they purport to tell us about what “we” are thinking right now, but even more for what that conclusion means for what “we” might do at a later time as a result. And anyway – the reason for my scare quotes – it is not at all clear that there still exists a cohesive and determinable “we”: Americans have become so diverse in so many ways, for better or worse, that a sampling that is the basis of a poll is a source of reliable opinion. Diversity of all kinds is infinitely to be preferred to a monolith, but it makes predictions based on assumptions about cohesiveness highly questionable. “Carpe diem,” (seize the moment) says the poet, as we all know; but less well known is the rest of his sentence, “quam minimum credula postero”: putting as little faith as you can in what comes next.” Those are words we must currently live by.
- As loathsome as current Republican behavior is, Democrats might try to emulate them in one way: keep that lip zipped. Loose lips sink ships and electoral hopes. But Democrats seem to have an unconquerable urge to spill the beans.
I have suggested more than once that the Republicans are the guys of U.S. politics, and the Democrats the girls. That is not due to the ever-widening gender gap; if anything, causation goes the other way: women flock to the Dems because that party operates in traditionally, even stereotypically, feminine ways. (And, by the way, there is nothing wrong with that.) It is a platitude that Democrats are concerned with “women’s issues,” if that phrase can even be uttered without condescension: health care, childcare, education, food safety.
But there is another way in which the Democratic Party, for all its attempts to wriggle out of the female miasma that distresses them so ( for instance reflect on their post-election treatment of Clinton, their dumping of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Donna Brazile from influential party posts, their installation of males in those women’s places), still behaves like girls by talking about themselves and their feelings. Outsiders play into this habit by explaining to Democrats why the way they are behaving is wrong (even though it seems to have worked very well), and what they should do instead (even though there is no evidence that that might work as well, let alone better).
It is the losers who normally lick their wounds with woulda, shoulda, coulda. But the Republicans, though soundly defeated, have (as they always do) maintained a manly silence on the question of how they should behave in the future. And the Democratic victors, who might be expected to gloat and otherwise be silent, cannot say enough about what they should have done and should do. So, for instance, there is already a lot of free advice being dispensed: should the Democrats’ efforts in 2020 be devoted to attacking Trump and the Republicans, or to putting forward their own, positive, programs? A recent article on page 1 in the Times stresses the internal arguments the Democrats are having on the topic. In the first paragraph, they are in a “debate”; they are “arguing”; further on they have “disagreements”; there is a “dispute”; a “schism”; there are “internecine tensions.” And this article appeared on November 10, after the Democrats’ major victories. Usually, the winners are not immediately thereafter seen as scrapping amongst themselves, uncertain as to how to act. They strut, they brag – they do not whine.
But the Democrats are doing just that and their mansplainers, the media, are responding appropriately to the Democratic girly-men. The Democrats present themselves as unable to use language properly (just like a girl!). They need help and men will provide it. The article concludes with just that: helpful advice from a (male) South Caroline state legislator:
The party, he says, needs a candidate “who understands battling Trump. It’s not about the best policy or the best story. It’s about who can sell the best story.”
Arguably, what the Democrats really need is a solution to the real (not narrative) problems they continue to face: gerrymandering, voter suppression, outside interference, scurrilous fake news, and oh yes – misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, climate change denial, and racism. But let’s not worry about that. That’s girly stuff.