The Inherent Misogyny of Sanders' Antiestablishmentarianism

[Content Note: Racism; misogyny.]

So, for awhile, Bernie Sanders' "establishment" line of attack on Hillary Clinton, and the organizations and people who support her, has been bothering me, for reasons on which I couldn't quite put my finger. I've written about some specific instances, but something about the overarching approach was itching at the back of my brain.

This morning, while reading this terrific Storify (which I highly recommend reading in full) by @docrocktex26, I came across this article (which had been highlighted by @eclecticbrotha) that begins thus:
The Sanders campaign is finalizing plans for its alternative route to the Democratic nomination, a classic insurgent strategy that is heavily reliant on the limited number of states holding caucuses.

The idea is to take advantage of the caucus format, which tends to reward campaigns with the most dedicated partisans. The caucuses play to Sanders' strength in another important way—they are largely held in states that are heavily white, which helps Sanders neutralize Clinton's edge with minority voters.

With a dozen such contests coming before the end of March—and Clinton expected to perform well on March 1, the first big multi-state primary day—the caucuses are emerging as an integral part of Sanders' long-shot plan.

"Caucuses are very good for Bernie Sanders," explained chief Sanders strategist Tad Devine, likening the 2016 strategy to the one he deployed as Mike Dukakis' field director in 1988. "Caucuses tend to be in the much-lower turnout universe, and having people who intensely support you in events like that makes a huge difference."
Emphases mine.

The Democratic primary system is about as establishment as it gets. White supremacy and segregation are about as establishment as it gets. And Bernie Sanders' campaign is unabashed about saying they are exploiting the caucuses, and the primary schedule, which puts early caucuses in disproportionately white states, in order to try to win the primary.

In order for Sanders to win the office of the President of the United States of America. Which is about as establishment as it gets.

Which is reflected by the fact that, despite rumors of former presidents who weren't quite straight or weren't quite white, the first 43 of the nation's presidents were publicly viewed as straight white men.

President Barack Obama broke into that straight white boys' club. And while many of his policies uphold "the establishment," as it's defined by Sanders—enough that Sanders suggested that President Obama should be primaried in 2012—the establishment represented by the US presidency is not defined exclusively by economic privilege. It's also been long defined by the privileged identities of the people who held it.

The men who have held it.

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.

This little black girl losing! her! shit! in the most adorable way about getting to shake the hand of a President (then candidate) who looks like her is more than a symbol.

The fact that there are children old enough to understand the basics of a presidential election who have never known anything but a black First Family is more than a symbol.

These images challenge the white supremacy inherent to the establishment.

Inherent to it, and a key tool in facilitating and upholding it.

These images, and the very existence of a black president, convey a possibility to young nonwhite people with a concreteness that can serve as the foundation of an achievable dream.

Paths littered with obstacles are always easier to traverse if someone has tread them before.

In this way, President Obama's presidency has changed the establishment forever.

A Hillary Clinton presidency would change the establishment forever, too.

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.

In this country, we tell little girls, at least the decent among us do, that they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, but there are still so many spaces which women have never inhabited. And the most visible of them all is the presidency.

Because of an "establishment" that keeps us out.

And this is what bothers me, this is the thing that has been itching at the back of my brain, about Sanders using this particular line of attack against Hillary Clinton. To continually assert that she is representative of "the establishment," into the highest echelons of which women aren't even allowed, is a neat way of obfuscating the fact that she is, in her very personhood, a challenge to the establishment.

Let me say that again, plainly: Sanders calls Clinton emblematic of an establishment that has never even allowed a woman to be seated at the head of the table.

And the only way that argument works is by saying that Clinton's gender doesn't matter. Which is always, always, an inherently misogynist and dehumanizing line of attack. During the 2008 campaign, I wrote, in response to a commenter saying he wanted to "punch Clinton the person, not Clinton the woman":
Hillary Clinton can't escape the context of womanhood by wishing it away, and you can't wish it away, either. She can't wave a magic wand and erase it to her benefit, and you can't declare it irrelevant while discussing how you want to pummel her. She doesn't get to say, "I'm not running for president as a woman; I'm running for president as a person," because being a woman still matters in this culture; womanhood still precludes full personhood. You don't get to pretend that's not the reality in which we live to declare you're punching "Hillary Clinton the person," not "Hillary Clinton the woman."

Consider what it means, just for a moment, that we are still meant to regard those as mutually exclusive concepts.
Earlier today, on Twitter, I was recalling when I went to see Clinton speak at a local union hall in '08, and the man who introduced her said she had "testicular fortitude." When she took the mic, she said that both women and men could have fortitude of their own—and she has it! That got lots of applause, especially from women. Because Clinton wasn't just defending herself against misogyny masquerading as a compliment, but every woman in the room who was hit with the rhetorical buckshot.

I will never forget having to see a female president start her campaign event by addressing misogyny, intended as a "compliment."

I will never not understand that Hillary Clinton is not allowed to forget her womanhood for a moment, even if she wanted to, while she is running for president, and what it means that Bernie Sanders' primary line of attack against her depends on treating her womanhood like it doesn't matter.

This, of course, is indicative of Sanders' entire campaign, where gender, or any identity, isn't what's important; the issues are. And no wonder: If Sanders actually embraced an intersectional approach that detailed how marginalized people are disproportionately and differently affected by economic, social, and political injustice, it might become abundantly clear how absurd it is to continually suggest that a woman is representative of the establishment.

And oh how absurd it is, truly, when one takes a long gaze at the uninterrogated misogyny that is being lobbed at Clinton, even by ostensible progressives. (That link shared with Erica's permission.) If gender really didn't matter, then it wouldn't matter to Clinton's opponents, either.

But it does. Clinton's womanhood matters. Her clothes matter. Her hair matters. Her voice matters. Her tone matters. Her likeability matters. Her emotions matter. Her "murderous cackle" matters.

The thing about "the establishment" is that it's impervious to such demeanment.

It sets the rules by which Hillary Clinton is judged ever wanting, by virtue of metrics that are inextricably tied to womanhood.

There is a person in this Democratic primary who can be visibly angry, who can shout, who can use any tone and show any emotion, who can show up to campaign events looking like they just rolled out of bed after a bender. Who can coast by on the double-standard defined and enforced by the establishment.

It is not Hillary Clinton.

All the things I am admonished to admire about Bernie Sanders, that he is passionate, that he is unpolished, that he is impolitic, that he doesn't give a fuck, are things that the very establishment he allegedly wants to dismantle do not afford his female competitor.

And it would be possible, eminently so, for Sanders to make the case for economic justice that didn't rely on calling Hillary Clinton the face of the establishment. But he has chosen a different path.

Thus have I.

And I hope, I genuinely do, that Sanders supporters will hear what I'm saying and reconsider replicating this line of attack. It is not helpful. It is not even neutral. It is harmful.

One might reasonably ask if I imagine that Hillary Clinton, with all her privilege, is really some sort of definitive challenge to the establishment. No. That is not what I imagine. What I imagine is that her being a woman matters.

Because paths littered with obstacles are always easier to traverse if someone has tread them before.

What I imagine is a future in which there are so many women with influence, multiple female presidents with ideas more radical than Hillary Clinton can even conjure, that to suggest a woman is representative of the establishment might be more than a mirthless punchline regarded as fact by people who think gender is irrelevant.

[Related Reading: Ha Ha But Seriously Who Cares If You're a Woman.]

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus