You don’t need to be an anti-feminist to think this column from Allyson Hobbs on Hillary Clinton is pretty far-fetched. Hobbs wants to peg our flagging enthusiasm for Clinton to sexism. But there are better explanations.
Hobbs’ argument is this: in 2008, we elected the first black president, and everyone was thrilled. Now, we have a good shot at electing the first woman president, but no one seems thrilled at all. Since Barack Obama is a man and Hillary Clinton is a woman, the difference must come down to misogyny, right?
This is identity politics at its most caricaturish. Surely we can recognize that sexism and racism exist without reducing public figures to sample platters of skin tones and genitals. When it comes to differing perceptions of these particular two candidates, the obvious explanation is the best one. And it has less to do with gender than with, well, everything else.
Even by the standards of identity politics, Hobbs’ argument is a stretch. She points out that Clinton, as a powerful public woman, is compelled to give a performance molded around gender norms. “Women, unlike men, are rarely perceived as warm and competent.” Quite true, and deeply unfair. But it’s not as if Barack Obama sashayed into office without carefully constructing a story around his race–struggling, at times, to strike a balance between conflicting stereotypes. Black men, it might be said, unlike white men, are rarely perceived as powerful and unthreatening. Obama had to work hard, and sometimes swallow his pride, to present himself to the public as a post-racial candidate: a black man who was open to the needs and views of white voters, who understood the suffering of the oppressed without feeling resentment toward the oppressors. That’s a tough part to play: how can a black man in America not be angry? But even if Americans didn’t quite believe the fantasy, they wanted to believe. And Obama, thanks partly to his unique background, partly to his extraordinary talents, managed to play the role. It was this saintly posturing, bolstered by his astonishing rhetorical talents, that earned him, in the early years, such unreserved adulation.
Still, the main thing Obama had on his side, and that Clinton now conspicuously lacks, is novelty. Presidential elections have increasingly come to be, in addition to popularity contests, populism contests. Candidates struggle to present themselves as politically savvy without coming across as Washington insiders. Obama came out of nowhere and took everyone by surprise. He was able to tell a good story about himself chiefly because no one had told his story before. That couldn’t be less true for Clinton.
Interestingly, Clinton seems to understand the problem facing her better than her defenders. Hobbs links to her much-mocked “Face the Nation” interview, in which, challenged for the millionth time to define herself, Clinton responded: “I’ve been in the public eye for so long that I think, you know, it’s like the feature you see in some magazines sometimes, ‘Real people actually go shopping,’ you know?” Garbled language aside, that says it pretty well: is anything Clinton does these days a revelation? Is she a person we really need to get to know? In a political culture based on wild hopes and unrealistic promises, all career politicians share one big problem: the only news we ever hear about them is bad news. If it weren’t for Clinton’s email scandal, what would anyone have to say about her?
For all that, I’m optimistic about Clinton’s chances–and, for that matter, about her campaign. What would it mean to have a female candidate who pulled off an Obama-like performance? Obama dazzled white voters with a promise of racial reconciliation. “Sure,” he effectively said, “America has a racist history, but let’s focus on the future, not the past.” Could a woman make a similar, post-feminist appeal? Should she? It would mean wooing leery male voters with a message of accommodation: “Yes, we’ve all been guilty of sexism, but let’s put that stuff behind us, now.” Personally, I think such a candidate is more likely to emerge on the Right: a stronger, smarter version of Sarah Palin, perhaps, with an empowering attitude but a feminine manner, a doting family, an impressive career, a commitment to “traditional” values. Someone accomplished but casual, competent but welcoming. The Cool Girl of Washington. Yikes.
So, yes, Americans are sexist, but I don’t know if we’re much more sexist than we are racist. And frankly, I’m not sure I’m ready for another Obama moment. Anti-establishment sentiment has gotten so violent on the Right that Donald Trump can now dominate polls by presenting himself as the exact opposite of presidential material. Bernie Sanders is the Left’s rising star, the “outsider” candidate, formerly unknown to the public, whose relative obscurity gives him the space to craft a narrative of national renewal, radical transformation, and cultural change. Seems to me we’ve heard that one before. When the furor of primary season is over, Clinton will still be what everyone already knows she is: a capable, well-connected career politician with a narcissistic husband, an irritating laugh, a ton of experience, and a level head. We could do a lot worse.