White Knights

"You need a white guy to beat a white guy," and the inevitable, depressing return of patriarchal politics

I was pretty certain that, if Hillary Clinton did not become president, we would not see a female president for generations. It does not make me happy to say I told you so.

This is the outcome people consistently told women not to worry about, right? A woman, but not this woman. I’d vote in a heartbeat for Elizabeth Warren. We were supposed to understand that we could easily vote against Hillary Clinton, without damaging the larger feminist project of putting women in power, because another female president — a better female president! A real, truly feminine, truly feminist, truly female president, who represented all women! — would be along any second now, that we only had to wait our turn. In 2008, the argument was that we could just vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2016, the argument was that a better candidate would come along after the revolution. Everyone was sure that sexism had absolutely no bearing on the outcome of presidential elections, despite the fact that in 2016, Congress was 85% male, only 28 states have ever had female governors, and, unless I’m missing something really important on the fact-check, a woman has literally never been elected President of the United States.

Of course, in an increasingly loud corner of the left, the argument was that we didn’t need to think about voting for a woman at all — that factoring in a candidate’s gender was unserious, frivolous, not indicative of any substantive political agenda, “identity politics” — which, if you followed the line to its logical conclusion, meant it would be perfectly fine if we never voted a woman into the Oval Office. Centuries of unchanged male power would not indicate any bias or injustice whatsoever, as long as all those men came with a stamp of approval from guys who host podcasts about socialism.

Well. I bought the line in 2008 — thought Obama was the better candidate, that Hillary had time to run again, etc. — and by 2016, something had started to smell fishy. Now, in 2020, with the white male backlash in full swing, it fucking reeks.

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For my Medium column this week (which I hope you’ll read) I wrote about the depressing reality of the 2020 race: Both of the Democratic frontrunners, along with the sitting Republican president, are white men over age 70. All of them have troubled records when it comes to women, and have exhibited troubling attitudes toward feminism, to some extent. They aren’t just problematic along one axis. You can just as easily mine their records for horrifying things they’ve said about race: Joe Biden called Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean,” Bernie Sanders sympathized with “a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable… about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” and Trump is, well, Trump.

Still, the gender part of the equation matters. Particularly because, on the Democratic side, these men have been put forward as the best allies women can reasonably expect. Joe Biden has been extremely active in raising awareness around campus sexual assault, and he’s the guy that introduced VAWA. Bernie Sanders has no similar legislative record, but, I am reliably informed, he is a better feminist than any of the women he’s run against.

No-one is praising Trump as an ally to women. (No-one except Trump, anyway.) But what does it say, when even the men we are expected to receive with gratitude are so deeply enmeshed in the patriarchal systems we’ve asked them to overturn? The guy who takes it upon himself to combat sexual violence kisses women without permission. The guy who’s going to lead the revolution reportedly created a culture of misogyny both within his 2016 campaign and — very publicly — within his wider base of supporters. It’s hard to believe Sanders is building a kinder, gentler world for women when criticizing him invariably leads to crap like this:

Why is this woman talking? She must be a housewife! Yikes.

You can argue that every candidate has supporters who are out of line — which they do — but what happens when someone gets screencapped or Reddited by the Bernie folks is fairly specific to his base. I’ve criticized every white man in the running, in equally harsh terms, and only one candidate’s supporters have threatened to shoot me or e-mailed me to call my two-year-old daughter stupid. You can also argue (and many have) that this is a non-substantive argument, unrelated to policy. But Sanders attracts people who think like this because of his core message.

Throughout his time in the national spotlight, Bernie Sanders has done his level best to normalize the idea of power as white and male. When he says that he can represent women’s interests better than women can, when he shrugs off abortion as a “social issue” that is less important or serious than his own priorities, when he suggests that it’s not necessarily racist to prefer voting for white men, he is always making the case for himself, a white man, as the person who should be handed power and allowed to set the agenda. Maybe it’s just that, when he runs against women and people of color, he’s forced to downplay the significance of their candidacies. Nonetheless, that messaging gives people tacit permission to unleash their inner anger toward powerful women. He uses misogyny as a wedge to get votes. Normalizing misogyny, even for purely selfish and circumstantial reasons, always makes life harder for women as a whole. If you want to know where the open animus toward “identity politics” or “culture war” is coming from, a very large percentage of that blame goes directly to Bernie Sanders.

These are the men women are meant to rely on. In point of fact, if the Democratic primary works out as expected, these are the men we will have to rely on to defeat Trump. This is how every previous presidential election has worked out, women being forced to advance their interests by selecting men they hope will be workable proxies — picking “good” men to defend us from “bad” men, even though they are all, well, men, and as such, their power and comfort and status always depends on maintaining patriarchal systems of male domination. In 2019, women are still helpless damsels on the sideline, picking white knights that we hope will do battle for our cause.

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This is the hard, indigestible core of my politics, the thing that routinely sets people on edge or makes them yell at me: I don’t believe the proxy system can work. Men are always implicated in women’s oppression. There is nothing men can do to not be implicated. Of course, this plays out intersectionally; a black man’s experience of patriarchy, or a white trans man’s, will be very different than a cis white guy’s. Many more privileges will adhere to the latter man. White, straight, cis women, like me, will always benefit from other people’s oppression too, and there is no way we can wash our hands of that, no matter how much or how violently we suffer from misogyny.

But I wholeheartedly reject the tendency to treat sexism as just a disembodied set of ideas, a free-floating magical curse that somehow puts women in violent situations or at the bottom of the pecking order, over and over. Someone has to be doing the oppressing. Someone has to be getting something out of it. That “someone” is men — usually white, straight, cis men, like, say, every President we’ve had throughout the history of this country whose name was not “Barack Obama.” And what they get from it is power.

When men’s continued welfare relies on keeping women down, men will keep women down. They are never going to be fully trustworthy proxies for our interests, because at some point, our interests will always come into conflict, and at that point, the vast majority of men will choose themselves. No matter how hard Biden works on VAWA, he’s not going to rethink where he puts his hands in a photo op, because that means losing some portion of his personal comfort in social settings. Sanders supports women’s political representation in the abstract, but we’ve seen several times that when supporting the cause means losing an election — or not running at all — Bernie Sanders will always choose a potential victory for himself over putting a woman in “his” spot. If he comes to a point where advancing feminist interests requires genuine self-sacrifice, Sanders will always choose the thing that benefits him, which is also the thing that benefits men, and most men will do the same.

Do I hate men? No. Not unilaterally. But I know how power works, and I know how people work, and I know that no matter how high-flying our rhetoric may be, we are mostly fueled by self-interest. The vast majority of people will always take a concrete gain for themselves over an abstract gain for someone else — if you were voting to give every person in France free college, you would probably be less motivated than if you, yourself, stood to be absolved of your student loans. I want women and queer people and trans people and people of color in power, not because it’s “fair,” but because I want decisions made by people with skin in the game — because I think, when you put marginalized politicians on the spot, they will decide in favor of their own self-interests, which are closer to ours.

I know there are exceptions. I know that white women, in particular, tend to identify with the oppressor and angle for white privilege rather than boosting women as a whole. I know who Phyllis Schlafly is; I’m not new here. (When patriarchy reigns, women who uphold patriarchal values are making their own form of self-interested decision — it just tends to have a more short-term payoff.) In a competition between women, you should always choose the woman with the most comprehensive and well-thought-out feminist vision.

But we know the proxy system doesn’t work. We’ve proven, over and over, that the Sanders line — that only ideology matters, that politics is abstract and impersonal, that as long as you declare allegiance to the right set of ideas, your lived experience will never inform or distort your judgment — is profoundly wrong.

How wrong is it? Joe Biden is a product of the proxy system — he clearly had huge problems with women. He was “personally” anti-choice, he was touchy, he was paternalistic. Yet women kept voting for him and letting him be the face of their anti-rape initiatives, because he was willing to endorse feminist causes in order to cover his own ass. Bill Clinton is a product of the proxy system. You want to know why older feminists put up with him? It wasn’t that they were bad people. Things were so dismal, after the backlash of the ‘80s, that Bill Clinton was the best they could get. One Bill Clinton gets you one Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and no, it’s not a fair trade, but when men hold a lock on institutional power, women are given no choices that do not ultimately reinforce male domination.

I don’t think voting for one more white man, no matter what he promises me, is going to solve that problem. Call me a misanthrope. You’re right. I do not have stars in my eyes; I do not see any future where we all hold hands and sing kumbaya together. This is always going to be a fight. What I want is a fight where women aren’t outnumbered.

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There are reasons that women are lagging in the polls. Again, sexism is not magic; female candidates are not cursed, and their struggles to break through do not derive from some mystical “will of the people.” Female candidates are straggling behind white men because men are less likely to fund them, a bias which is aggravated by the fact that people within the Democratic party are pushing the line that it takes a white man to beat a white man. This messaging is mirrored by a political media that is up to 74% male, and which either refuses to cover these female candidates, or holds them to a vastly different standard.

Kamala Harris holds at a relatively steady third in the polls, and is near the top in terms of fundraising. Yet a look at her Google News results since the beginning of the year shows that she receives vastly less coverage than her competitors: Joe Biden has been the subject of 14,800,000 stories since January 1 of 2019, Bernie Sanders has 1,240,000 stories, and Kamala Harris has only been the subject of 98,000 stories. Harris receives 7.9% percent of Sanders’ coverage and 0.66% of Biden’s. The coverage she does get, notably, downplays her success compared to white men’s: When Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke raised less money than Kamala Harris, pundits wildly overpraised them for it, while simultaneously downplaying Harris’ numbers, conveying a message that those white men’s objectively lesser achievement was somehow worth more.

Why aren’t women “electable?” Because it is in men’s best interests not to elect them, and those men control the conversation. The only woman who even got close to winning the presidency had to spend decades sucking up to the guys in charge, had to become so deeply enmeshed in these patriarchal systems that she was literally married to another president. (A depressingly common way for women to finagle their way up and out — most of the “first female” something-or-others in American political history inherited their seats from their husbands.) Then, the second she got close enough to win, the entire game changed so that being enmeshed in systems of power was now disqualifying. When you write the rules of the game, you can change them at will to disqualify anyone you like. If a woman gets close enough to success, that itself will be framed as failure.

Men have each other’s backs, and though it may start off as mere selfishness, it looks a whole lot worse by the time it’s all over. If men were going to liberate women or protect us, they’d have done it by now. We wouldn’t be sitting here, in 2019, looking at three white men in their late 70s as the face of power. I don’t think it has to be that way. We have the power to save ourselves, to be players in the game rather than to keep selecting men to fight our battles for us. It remains to be seen if we will.

Mod note: I’ve been telling myself that if we get to a certain number of paid subscribers — not that many; maybe 100 or 200 — I can make this newsletter a weekly commitment. We’re a little past the halfway point on that milestone, so I’m making the subscriptions a bit cheaper. Until April 20, subscribers can get 50% off the first 3 months, so you’re paying $2.50 a month just to see if you like the thing.

I know this is salesy and obnoxious, but I genuinely do just want to make this newsletter cheap, so that when the paywall goes up it’s not a huge obstacle for anyone.

As always, if you know someone you think would like this letter, please forward it — the more the merrier.