Tag Archives: woman politicians

Are powerful women likable?

OK, a lot of people found Hillary Clinton hard to like. But three more women gained the spotlight this week, and guess what? They’re unlikable too. Maybe there’s a problem here we need to look at.


Maybe there really was some unique I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it thing about Hillary Clinton that put people off. Sure, she was whip-smart, had a boatload of executive and legislative experience, could stand up to 11 hours of hostile questioning, and had put forward an impressive collection of policies she wanted to implement if she got elected, but … you know. There was just something about her that made voters uncomfortable.

Maybe it was her voice, or her hair, or the way she dressed. She was just too … something. If that many people had said that many bad things about her over the years, there must have been some fire under all that smoke, right? And behind closed doors, she was supposed to have a temper. I know, John McCain’s temper was part of his charm — he was fiery and passionate sometimes, you know — but Hillary’s temper was so … we can’t say bitchy any more, can we? But you know what I mean. It was different.

OK, let’s give people a mulligan for Hillary. And let’s give another mulligan to the people who couldn’t possibly be racist, but some ineffable something about Barack Obama just felt wrong to them. He just wasn’t like the rest of us — not because he was black, of course. Lots of people are black. But … you know. And if he claimed to be an American-born Christian, didn’t that seem kind of fishy somehow? How could we trust somebody like … well, like that, whatever “that” means.

Honestly, I’m starting to get my own ideas about what sounds fishy here, but let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s talk about now. Let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All three of them have been making news lately, and they’ve all been running into unusual levels of hostility. Each of them, in her own way, has some indescribable quality that raises a lot of people’s ire.

What could it possibly be?

It’s not incompetence. Nancy Pelosi is the most talented legislator of our time. She has no real competition for that title.

When she was Speaker before, the House got stuff done. Appropriations bills got passed on time. She not only saved ObamaCare, but passed a bunch of Obama’s other progressive proposals (most of which died in the Senate).

As soon as the Democrats lost their majority in the House, everybody suddenly realized that the Speakership is a hard job. Even if you lead a partisan majority, holding it together well enough to pass an agenda takes real skill. John Boehner couldn’t do it. Paul Ryan couldn’t go it. Again and again, they would fail to get a proposal to the floor, or miscount votes and see a bill fail unexpectedly. (To this day, a Republican healthcare bill with positive content hasn’t even been drafted, much less voted on or passed.) Deals they thought they had negotiated fell apart at the last minute. Boehner just barely avoided pushing the United States into a self-inflicted financial disaster.

The Speakership is hard, unless you do it backwards and in heels like Pelosi does. Then it looks easy.

When LBJ and Sam Rayburn were the masters of Congress, their skills were appreciated even by many who disagreed with their goals. Phrases like “wheeler-dealer” and “arm-twister” got used with a certain amount of admiration. But it’s hard to imagine applying descriptors like that to a woman. Instead, she (and not Chuck Schumer) was the villain of GOP campaign ads across the country. Her own party seriously discussed not letting her be Speaker again if they regained the majority. (Schumer, meanwhile, lost seats in the Senate and was not challenged.)

It’s not inauthenticity. One complaint about Hillary Clinton was that she just wanted to be president and didn’t stand for anything. But Elizabeth Warren’s political career has a definite theme: Capitalism needs to be regulated to keep big corporations from running over ordinary people.

After the crash of 2008, Warren left a cushy position at Harvard Law School and entered public life because she wanted to protect consumers from the predations of the big banks. She ran for the Senate in 2012 because Republican opposition in the Senate made it impossible to get the job she had wanted: head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (whose creation she had overseen). In the Senate, she has been a leading voice against the concentration of corporate power.

She has the working-class biography to back up her sympathies with ordinary people. Rather than being tracked for high positions early in life (like, say, Brett Kavanaugh), she came from a working-class family and her career developed slowly: She left college to get married, then followed her husband as his career took him to Houston and New Jersey. She finished a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and  taught public-school children with learning disabilities. She interrupted that career to be an at-home mother, then later went back to school in law. She started out doing legal services from her home, then started teaching, and rose in academic ranks as an expert in laws related to bankruptcy. Eventually she got to the top of the academic heap: tenure at Harvard.

When Clinton, a centrist woman, seemed like the inevitable nominee in 2016, there was a groundswell among progressives for Warren to challenge her. Only after she refused to run did Bernie Sanders get into the race and lead progressive Democrats.

So announcing her presidential candidacy for the 2020 nomination raises one obvious question of substance: Just how much regulation does capitalism need? If you’d rather talk politics, you still have a number of interesting questions to choose from: Can she recover the support of the progressives who turned to Sanders in 2016? Can the Sanders/Warren wing of the party win this time? Can she get more support from blacks and centrists than Bernie got in 2016? And so on.

Instead, Politico raised this question:

How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Politically, it’s hard to see much resemblance between Warren and Clinton, except for this: Both of them are women who saw their unfavorability ratings spike when they started to look like serious candidates. Clinton herself explained it this way:

It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up.

It’s not a lack of passion and vitality. Another criticism of Clinton (which sometimes also gets said about Warren, though I don’t understand why) was that she seemed cold. But if you want a politician who is the opposite of cold, I’ve got one for you: new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But strangely, she also has been a target of public ire.

Since upsetting a member of the House Democratic leadership in a primary and then winning his seat in the general election, Ocasio-Cortez has been targeted both for being too poor and for not being as poor as she’s supposed to be. Predictably, the too-rich criticism was based on her clothes: “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

When Paul Ryan came to Congress, he was a “young gun”; his youth was evidence of how extraordinary he must be, to get so far so fast. But AOC’s youth just points to her being a lightweight, because there’s no female equivalent of a “young gun”.

This week, we learned of a new AOC outrage: She and her friends made a dance video in college. Unlike, say, Melania Trump or Scott Brown, she kept her clothes on, but still the video is supposed to be embarrassing for some reason. My main reaction is that this video is a trivial thing that shouldn’t evoke anything more than a trivial response; mine is that college-age Alexandria looks like somebody college-age me would have wanted to go out with (assuming away the time-travel problem). But you can judge for yourself.

Somehow, though, conservatives looked at that video and saw something scandalous. I think this tells us more about them than about AOC. As Paul Krugman put it: “The mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad.”

If just being young and nonwhite were the problem, that would be one thing. But in the context of Clinton, Pelosi, and Warren, we see that being older and white doesn’t protect a woman either. The specifics of a woman’s life and character may shape how she gets disparaged, but her unique characteristics are not why she gets disparaged.

People are starting to notice. Robby Mook may have exaggerated a little about the reaction to Warren’s announcement video, but he wasn’t exactly making this up, either.

Last 24 hours shows Trump’s 2020 path to victory:
-Dem candidate releases video that explains her background, values, vision and policies
-it never mentions Trump;
-Trump responds with childish insult;
-Media only covers insult.
All process, all on Trump’s terms. No Dem message.

Maybe Trump and the press will do that with every Democratic candidate. But I also think it works better, and the media is more complicit, against women.

Peter Beinart, I think, has this right: The facts that an article cites about Warren may be true, but still contribute to a false narrative.

Mentioning the right’s attacks on Warren plus her low approval ratings while citing her “very liberal record” and the controversy surrounding her alleged Native American heritage implies a causal relationship between these facts. Warren is a lefty who has made controversial ancestral claims. Ergo, Republicans attack her, and many Americans don’t like her very much. But that equation is misleading. …

There’s nothing wrong with journalists discussing public perceptions of a candidate. The problem is that when journalists ignore what academic research and recent history teach us about gender’s role in shaping those perceptions, they imply—whether they mean to or not—that Warren’s unpopularity can be explained by factors unique to her. They start with the puzzle of her low approval ratings and then, working backward, end up suggesting that her policy views or (pseudo) scandals explain them.

… Journalists shouldn’t ignore electability. Elizabeth Warren’s comparatively low approval ratings are a legitimate news story. But the bigger story is that Americans still judge women politicians far more harshly than they judge their male competitors. Unless journalists name that unfairness, they risk perpetuating it.

“I would have voted for the woman who isn’t running.” As the 2020 campaign proceeds, other women are likely to emerge as serious candidates. (Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, perhaps.) We can hope that the sheer multiplicity of targets will disperse the misogynistic fire. But here’s a wild guess on my part: Whichever one is polling last will get the most favorable coverage. In 2004, when she wasn’t running, many voices pined for Hillary Clinton, only to turn against her in 2008 and 2016, when she was actually on the ballot. Likewise in 2016, people who were voting against Clinton often claimed they could have supported Warren, if only she had run. But where are they now?

The Republican Party has a similar dynamic around blacks. At some point in the process, there’s a boomlet for a black candidate like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, or Ben Carson. But these waves always fade before any votes get cast. Having given cover to people who will never actually vote for a black, the candidacies have served their purpose.

We can’t let that happen in 2020. “I would have voted for a woman” isn’t an excuse any more. Do or don’t, but what you would have done in some alternate reality doesn’t matter.

For the most part, this kind of prejudice is structural and unconscious. “Woman politician” has become a category in people’s heads; it seems natural to treat them differently than male politicians, as if a political office changes when a woman holds it. (There has been a similar phenomenon in sports: For a long time “black quarterback” seemed to be a category of its own. Any new black quarterback would invariably draw comparisons to previous black quarterbacks, and be judged accordingly. Cam Newton came into the NFL as a tall, strong quarterback with speed and a powerful arm, but somehow John Elway was never the comparison that popped into commentators’ minds.)

As Pelosi’s speakership, Ocasio-Cortez’ congressional service, and the 2020 campaign continue, we’re going to have to monitor this constantly, both in the media and in our own minds.