Not everyone who criticizes Hillary Clinton is a sexist

In Features by Jamie Peck / February 4, 2016

The other day while walking to work from the subway, I saw a bus ad for Samantha Bee’s new comedy talk show “Full Frontal.” Just above the show’s logo, it bore the admonition, “Watch or you’re sexist.” This was obviously meant to satirize the way charges of identity-based bias are wielded by megalomaniacs against anyone who doesn’t support them in achieving their career goals. (See also: Lena Dunham.) And yet, I’ve heard some sincere rhetoric from Hillary Clinton supporters in the recent past that hews dangerously close to this line of reasoning.

It seems like everywhere I look online, I see writers — mostly white, neoliberal feminists — waxing disingenuously about how anyone who dares to criticize Clinton is a rabid sexist. They speak of how “Bernie bros” have poisoned this race with their gendered, ad hominem attacks to the point where it might (or, as is often the implication, should) pose a problem for Senator Bernie Sanders.

Exhibit A: A blog post currently going around titled “An All-Caps Explosion of Feelings Regarding the Liberal Backlash Against Hillary Clinton.” (You’re welcome for my resisting the urge to write this post in all lowercase.) At first I was trying to ignore it because it lacks any substantive arguments in favor of Clinton’s candidacy. It is, as it says, a declaration of emotion. But with the personal passing for the political more and more these days, and considering how much it’s been shared, it exemplifies some worrying trends that bear closer examination.

“For me, the backlash against Hillary Clinton feels very, very personal,” begins writer Courtney Enlow before launching into all the unjust demands placed on women in prominent positions:

Can you imagine how absolutely infuriating it must be for Hillary to have to work so hard to be likable, but strong? Hip, but above the need to be seen as cool? For everything she says to be perfect because she’d be crucified otherwise, meanwhile Bernie Sanders could say pretty much anything he wants and it would be seen as the goddamn revolution? I’m so infuriated on her behalf.

As a woman who blogs about controversial topics for a living, I don’t have to imagine what it’s like to be the target of sexist attacks and I don’t doubt that Hillary’s fielded a lot of them. But here’s the important part: Just because I empathize with Hillary Clinton (or Megyn Kelly, or Sarah Palin) as a target of sexism doesn’t mean I have to support her garbage politics. Enlow continues:

Because what you like about Bernie, what they like about Trump, she doesn’t get to do that. She doesn’t get to be all wild hair and yelling.

FIRST AND FUCKING FOREMOST, COOL, YOU LIKE BERNIE’S WISHES AND DREAMS APPROACH TO POLITICS. “FREE COLLEGE FOR EVERYONE AND A GODDAMN PONY.” YES, THAT SOUNDS FUCKING WONDERFUL BUT DO YOU THINK HILLARY COULD EVEN SAY THOSE WORDS WITHOUT FOX NEWS LITERALLY BURYING HER ALIVE IN TAMPONS AND CRUCIFIXES?

Leaving aside the condescending characterization of Sanders’ common sense reforms as a bunch of commie madness, this argument is fallacious. To imply that Clinton would be a real progressive if only those nasty sexists would let her is a bizarre hypothetical that ignores Clinton’s own statements to the effect of “I’m a moderate.” If the only thing keeping Clinton from democratic socialism was her gender, one can imagine her husband and close political ally would be far to the left of her, but he’s not.

YOU DON’T LIKE THAT SHE HAD CERTAIN NOW-UNACCEPTABLE POLICIES BACK IN THE ’90S? HEY, I GET THAT THAT SHIT SEEMS LIKE LAST WEEK, BUT IT WAS ANOTHER GODDAMN WORLD ENTIRELY

This is probably referring to Clinton’s support of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law signed by her husband that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage. In fact, Clinton opposed same-sex marriage until 2013, which is hardly “back in the ’90s.”

Unlike some left-critics of Hillary, I’m sympathetic to her evolution on this issue and believe her strong Methodist beliefs (which, unlike most things, she seems not to be bullshitting about) caused genuine inner conflict. But I won’t begrudge those who’d prefer to vote for someone with a better record on LGBT rights.

That said, DOMA was hardly the only “unacceptable policy” Clinton helped shape and justify. The pernicious effects of Clintonian welfare reform — which gutted assistance for poor families and introduced work requirements that trapped them in minimum wage, non-union jobs — and “tough on crime” measures are still being felt to this day, primarily by black and Latino populations. Among other things, the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act expanded the death penalty and the mass incarceration of black bodies by private prisons for profit, and Clinton had ties to private prison companies until Black Lives Matter pressured her to sever them in 2015. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to say shit like this about urban youth:

“They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called ‘super-predators.’ No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about how they got that way but first we have to bring them to heel….”

Or demonize single mothers on welfare as “deadbeats” who were “sitting around the house doing nothing,” and expect people to forgive and forget because it was “another goddamn world.” Come on, white feminists. It was the 1990s, not the 1890s.

And let’s not forget about the unacceptable foreign policy Clinton has supported throughout her career. Am I supposed to overlook the lives of uncounted numbers of Iraqi women because I want one American woman in the White House? This is by no means an exhaustive catalog of the blood on Hillary’s hands; I encourage everyone to research it for themselves.

YOU DON’T LIKE THAT SHE PLAYS THE GAME? THAT SHE HAS TIES TO THE ESTABLISHMENT? FOR ONE THING, THAT’S HOW SHIT FUCKING GETS DONE.

It’s true that that’s how shit currently gets done. But does that mean we should roll over and accept it? That Sanders has raised almost as much money as Clinton without the help of Super PACs or large corporate donors shows that people are not only desirous of change, but willing to help affect it.

FOR THE OTHER THING, THE BIGGEST THING, A WOMAN DOESN’T GET THE FUCKING OPTION *NOT* TO PLAY THE GAME. NOT NOW. NOT YET.

See previous argument.

AND THESE NEW BERNIE VS. HILLARY MEMES. WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN DOING?

meme

SERIOUSLY? THAT’S YOUR LINE? SHE’S NOT COOL ENOUGH? WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU PEOPLE EVEN WANT FROM HER? WOMEN HAVE TRIED FOR YEARS TO “HAVE IT ALL” AND THEN WE GET YELLED AT FOR TRYING TO HAVE THE IMPOSSIBLE “ALL” BUT THEN IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH WHEN WE DON’T HAVE THE “ALL.” IT’S FUCKING BULLSHIT.

This isn’t the first person who’s taken that meme way too seriously, and she certainly won’t be the last. (If you want a headache, read this arduous screed on how this stupid meme exemplifies the same kind of music industry sexism that allowed a prominent publicist to sexually assault numerous women.) At the risk of killing the joke further, it’s not about how Clinton is uncool because she’s a woman and Bernie is cool because he’s a man. On a very basic level, it’s about how people like the way Sanders answers questions and dislike the way Clinton does. She is canned and pandering, while he is genuine and thoughtful. It’s also just funny to imagine the culturally illiterate, single-minded Sanders talking about anything other than how to un-fuck the country. But, again, even if this meme were super-sexist, it would not then follow that people should vote for Clinton.

I’M NOT SAYING THERE AREN’T REASONS SOMEONE SHOULD DISLIKE HILLARY OR PREFER BERNIE. THAT IS FINE. THAT IS YOUR JOURNEY. BUT LET’S NOT PRETEND FOR A SECOND THAT THERE WOULD BE *THIS MANY* ISSUES WITH HILLARY IF SHE WAS A GODDAMN MAN.

Maybe there would not be *this many* issues with Hillary if she were a man. But all the ones that matter would still exist.

I LIKE HER! I LIKE HER POLICIES, I LIKE HER PLANS, I LIKE WHAT SHE STANDS FOR, I LIKE THAT SHE’S GROWN AND EVOLVED AS A HUMAN AND POLITICIAN!

You’re allowed to like what she stands for, and I’m allowed to explain why the things she stands for are very, very bad. If we couldn’t debate this like rational human beings, what would be the point of having a political system at all?

I LIKE THAT SHE WAS FOR MANY OF US MY AGE ONE OF OUR FIRST ROLE MODELS OF A SMART, PROFESSIONAL, KICKASS WOMAN AND THAT SHE ISN’T AFRAID OF THE WORD “FEMINIST” AND I’M SICK OF HAVING TO APOLOGIZE FOR LIKING HER, FOR HAVING TO QUALIFY AND SEE YOUR SIDE AND RESPECT YOUR OPINION WHEN I FUCKING DON’T AND YOU FUCKING DON’T RIGHT BACK. I LIKE HER!

Here’s where I tell you I like those same things about her. Honestly. As I’ve said before, I respect her as a strong, kickass woman who gets things done. It just so happens that the things she’s gotten done include things I could never in good conscience support.

AND MOST OF YOU LIKE HER POLICIES AND PLANS TOO BECAUSE A) THEY’RE BASICALLY FUCKING OBAMA AND B) THEY’RE NOT THAT FUCKING DIFFERENT THAN FUCKING BERNIE.

A) is as sure a sign as any that I will not like someone’s policies and plans, and B) is a straight up falsehood.

Then there’s the idea that representation at the top of the American hierarchy is important enough that it should factor into people’s decisions on equal footing with more immediate, material concerns. While they stop short of the absurd proclamation on the part of UK neoliberal Daisy Benson that “If it’s truly progressive, Labour will have voted in a female leader — regardless of her policies,” many prominent Clinton supporters have argued that it’s fine to vote for Clinton at least in part because she’s a woman. Writes Melissa McEwan at Shakesville:

Like Obama, Hillary Clinton supports a number of policies that uphold “the establishment.” But also like Obama, Clinton would be more than a mere “symbol” for people who share her identity if elected.

This little black boy touching the President’s hair and discovering it feels like his is more than a symbol.

Certainly I’m not saying that policy doesn’t matter. Nor am I suggesting that there are not legitimate reasons to oppose Clinton’s candidacy. There are. And no one should feel obliged to support her just because she’s a woman — although no one should be shamed if they’re supporting her for that reason, either.

But her presidency would be more than symbolic, just as President Obama’s has been. And her presidency would be a challenge to the establishment, sheerly by virtue of her gender. And the gender of literally all of her predecessors.

Sady Doyle takes it further and says that, despite being a socialist, she won’t vote for Sanders because some of his supporters have said sexist things on the internet. As Amber A’Lee Frost writes at The Baffler:

Are feminist pundits really saying they won’t vote for Bernie Sanders because he (and apparently he alone) has sexist followers? (You see, dear, I’d like to end French monarchy, but all those cartoons of Marie Antoinette ogling an ostrich penis were so horribly sexist!) Sanders’s suggested policies are better for the struggling people of this country, particularly women. So why throw the most vulnerable populations under the bus for Hillary Clinton? Because some boys were shitty on the Internet?

Some years back, in an earlier stage of my political evolution, I posed the representation argument to a black leftist feminist. She shot back, correctly, that it doesn’t matter how much the president looks like you if you can’t put food on the table, afford to pay for college, or obtain adequate healthcare. (I’m paraphrasing.) And that, in fact, having a few black faces at the top of a super shitty establishment perpetuates that conservative old Horatio Alger myth: That anyone can succeed in America if only they try … and by extension, if they fail, they probably just didn’t try hard enough. Lean in until your back breaks, etc.

These identity-based arguments effectively move the conversation from a substantive one about the issues to one where Clinton’s supporters pretend all attacks on her are misogynistic and hence invalid. (Note: I am not saying misogynistic attacks on her don’t exist and in fact, I wish people would stop making them so that this elision gets harder for her camp to make.) This falls within the grand Clintonian tradition of discrediting anyone who doesn’t like the things they’ve done as part of a sexist, right-wing, or otherwise bad faith conspiracy. (See also: How the Clintons used this tactic very effectively to discredit women claiming to have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted by Bill, a tactic which finally seems to be coming back to bite them in the ass.)

It also does the neat trick of erasing critiques from intersectional leftist feminists, because anyone who dares attack Hillary for any reason must be a sexist. I’ve seen the term “female Bernie bro” sincerely used on social media, as if there’s something so inherently male about Hillary hate that it literally turns you into a man. As Amber A’Lee Frost writes at The Baffler:

The danger here is that in erasing left feminism, consciously or not, progressive media is pitting class against gender — making socialism (or Cold War social democrats, whatever) look sexist to feminists, and making feminism look fucking bourgeois to working people.

Once more for the cheap seats: I’m not saying there are no sexists among the millions of Sanders supporters. We live in a sexist society, and left-populists are not magically exempt from this. And I’m not saying gender should not rate at all. All things being equal, it would be cool to have a class-focused candidate who’s also not a straight, white, cisgender man. (This is called intersectionality.) But faced with the choice between a white man with progressive, redistributionist politics that will unite and uplift millions of people (a disproportionate number of whom are women and minorities) and someone who looks like me, I’d be a real, privileged, narcissistic asshole to choose the latter.

[photo: Simon & Schuster]