vision 2020

The Sexist Myth Behind the Sanders-Warren Spat

So when will America be ready for a president who represents a majority of the electorate? Never? Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

First, let me say that I personally have no idea whether in a private conversation with Elizabeth Warren in 2018 Bernie Sanders did or did not tell her a woman couldn’t beat Trump in 2020, as CNN is reporting. He denies it; Warren disputes his denial, claiming that the Vermont senator “disagreed” with her that a female candidate could win the election. But whether or not Sanders echoed this smear of not just Warren but all the women who chose to run for president in this cycle — which has been circulating for months like a particularly insidious form of swine flu — the story gives us the opportunity once again to expose it and denounce it.

The idea comes up in the endlessly expressed “electability” doubts about Elizabeth Warren, and in vague attributions of sexism to the American public intended to convince Democrats that it’s just too risky to put a representative of a majority of the electorate at the top of the ballot. When “populists” say this is no time to elevate “identity politics” above the class struggle, they are clearly suggesting that working-class sexism is something to be accommodated in a higher cause. When pollsters and pundits suggest that misgivings about a woman becoming president in 2020 are more compelling than the even more widespread misgivings about a black man becoming president in 2008, they validate the idea that sexism is a more powerful, yet somehow more acceptable, vice than racism.

These notions are insidious because those repeating them — including, in my experience, a lot of despairing feminists — are not themselves saying they are “unready” for a woman in the White House. It’s those other people who are at fault — other people who somehow are the key swing voters in the presidential election. And what is the empirical basis for believing that? Not, by and large, any personal experience with swing voter saying they don’t want some girl commanding the armed forces! No, much if not all the fear arises from the unshakable conviction that Hillary Clinton’s gender made Donald Trump’s presidency possible.

Never mind that empirical support for the idea that Clinton’s gender was a net negative at all is, at best, limited. Sexism has to compete with a vast array of other plausible explanations for Clinton’s Electoral College loss, including: status quo fatigue, Democratic overconfidence, Clinton campaign resource-targeting mistakes, the Comey letter, Russian disinformation, voter suppression by Republican-controlled election officials, residual bitterness among Sanders supporters, media “false equivalence” in feeling the need to balance Trump’s moral sins with Clinton’s venial sins, nativist fears, fear of Democrats as the party of minorities, and on and on. Why is gender so often singled out as crucial without evidence? And why, as a 2020 risk factor, is it so often elevated above others like the age of Biden and Sanders or those two gentlemen’s past presidential losses?

Even if you are obsessed with electability, there are other candidate criteria that should matter in terms of getting the country from where it is now to where Democrats want it to be, as as I argued earlier this year:

Democrats need to ask themselves questions like this: Is the historic value of electing an eminently qualified women as president worth boosting the odds of a Trump reelection from, say, 20 percent to 22 percent? How about the value of electing a president who can actually get important things done? Personally, having evaluated the “theories of change” being advanced by the various candidates, I think the two Democrats with the clearest visions of how they will accomplish their policy goals happen to be Warren and Klobuchar.

Perhaps I’m wrong about that, but the point is that presidential politics in this day and age is a risky business all around. Deciding in advance that this is no year to break the glass ceiling makes about as much sense as proclaiming that because tall candidates on average do better than short ones, Democrats should impose a minimum height requirement for their nominee.

They wouldn’t do that, but it’s no worse than declaring women unelectable. And male candidates should go far out of their way not only to disclaim support for this disreputable idea but to attack it.

That this hasn’t happened so far is evidence that Trump has gotten into the Donkey’s head and convinced Democrats to legitimize his misogyny. “America’s too sexist to elect a woman as president” is itself a sexist assumption, particularly if claimed without clear evidence, as it often is. Trumpism cannot be defeated by those who have internalized its pathologies. So whether it’s in a whisper, a shout, or just mumbling in the background, the sentiment currently being attributed to Bernie Sanders needs to go away for good.

This post has been updated to include a comment from Elizabeth Warren on the conversation in question.

The Sexist Myth Behind the Sanders-Warren Spat