The Perils of Patronization

That was quite the brouhaha during the Democratic presidential candidates debate the other night, when Elizabeth Warren mounted a seemingly choreographed attack against Bernie Sanders in response to a CNN report released a few days before the debate. In it, Warren alleged that Sanders had told her during a 2018 meeting that a woman could not be elected president. That led to the CNN panelist’s no-doubt eager follow-up question, given Sanders’s vociferous denials that he had said any such thing.

Oh boy, the prospect of fireworks and sniping, sneers, shouting and clenched jaws! (The entire series of debates having been entirely too civil for most media observers’ tastes.)

Warren didn’t disappoint, either during the kerfuffle over the Sanders comment or in the moment’s immediate aftermath. Quickly moving beyond the question posed by the panelist, Warren pretended not to want to get into any he-said/she-said with her “friend” Bernie, instead pivoting deftly to the carefully prepared riposte about all the males on stage having lost a combined 10 elections while both of the females (herself and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar) sport flawless electoral records.

This caused Klobuchar to erupt in delight, with her and Warren then launching strenuous, passionate, well-reasoned—and completely superfluous—arguments on why, gosh darnit, women can too become president, yes they can!

A point which absolutely no one on the stage was arguing against in the slightest, as would no reasonable person in the wider world who has functioning gray matter in his or her noggin.

I know, I know—we have yet to inaugurate a female president in this now nearly 244-year-old country, and it will be a triumphant day indeed when it finally does happen. And it remains a very big deal that it has not happened yet. Not minimizing that here at all.

Women in business! Wow! There are women working successfully in businesses! Who knew? This is amazing! 

But really, does anyone besides the most intractable misogynist still hold to the notion that a woman could not be elected president? Let’s have a show of hands and at least one chant of “Hillary + 2.7 million votes” please, as we lay the mere idea of that absurdity to rest. (While also cursing the electoral college and the Clinton campaign’s curiously half-hearted effort in the midwest.)

I, along with the two ardent feminist women I was watching with the other night, mostly groaned through the whole imbroglio, as the two female candidates implored their blankly staring and baffled male counterparts and the watching millions about the rightness of their cause. It felt demeaning, if anything, that they were using the oxygen in the hall to make such an overwrought and unnecessary argument to an entire audience that could not have agreed with them more (and which sprang from a Warren claim that felt suspiciously like a staging device so she could mount her rhetorical horse in stoking concerns about Sanders’s alleged sexism while also disparaging her male opponents’ electability).

It all brought to mind my media days when I would get annual notices from local publications trumpeting a “Special Women’s Issue!” that would “highlight the many contributions of women to local (business, arts, winemaking,” etc).

Business publications in particular latched avidly onto this marketing device and made plentiful financial hay from it, and for a while, a long time ago now, such events were important and affirming in noting the inroads women were finally making in the business world.

Thing is, it’s still going on decades later, and still with the same implicit message it was conveying in, like, 1980: “Women in business! Wow! There are women working successfully in businesses! Who knew? This is amazing! Read these inspiring stories about them! You go, Ladies!” (And make sure you pay attention to the costly vanity ads highlighting their businesses and careers…)

Again, none of this is to say we have yet achieved complete gender parity in business, politics or anywhere else. If only.

But in pursuit of that goal, it’s important that we ask the right question and debate the right issues, and that we avoid the bloviations and reductionism that suffuses our politics and makes them the dismal spectacle they often are.

In this matter under discussion, it smacks of patronization to train a special spotlight on and persist in arguing a point whose counterpoint shouldn’t even be granted the dignity of rational argument. Should we really be wasting our time and oxygen trying to convince a dwindling band of misogynists that women are capable of all manner of professional endeavor, very much including the presidency, rather than simply assuming every civilized and informed person shares that view?

Why not debate truly debatable matters and just show and emphasize qualifications, grit and initiative rather than lapsing into now outdated rhetorical skirmishes?

The answer, at least insofar as “Women can too be president!” and celebrations of “Women in Business” and such are concerned, is that there are cheap political points and money to be made in belaboring the matter.

Politics is all about power and possibility, and women these days, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, the serious candidacies of Warren and Klobuchar themselves, and the 75 countries (29 currently) who have had female heads of state across the globe, have amassed far enough credentials not to be creating fake arguments on matters we have long moved on from.



A similar question of patronization affected the lead-up to the most recent debate when it became evident that of the 13 Democratic candidates still officially in the race at the time, only six would meet the party’s increasingly stringent criteria for participation. Unfortunately (at least from a certain frame of reference), that meant none of the remaining candidates of color (Cory Booker, Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard) could participate, leaving the proceedings to four caucasian men and two equally white women. (Nope, there was not even a decent tan evident up on that stage.)

This led to some calls in the weeks prior to the debate to consider changing the criteria so that Democrats, who take great pride in (and make nearly a fetish of) their diversity, would not face the potentially embarrassing specter of being reduced to an all-caucasian field of contenders before even the first vote was cast in the Iowa snows.

The argument went something like this: Structural residues of racism still linger over every aspect of American life, so candidates of color are disadvantaged in finding adequate numbers of donors, dollars and poll results at this stage of the race that would hoist them onto the debate stage.

So they needed, to put it in the baldest possible terms, a little affirmative action boost.

Now: Has affirmative action and other efforts to broaden access to minorities across various swaths of our political, economic and business life had vast benefits in righting some of the grievous wrongs still percolating through society from our racist past? Undoubtedly.

But at this point in 2020, many months into a campaign whose debate qualifications have necessarily become more stringent to avoid the unwieldy size of the early debates, would such an affirmative action approach be a good and worthy idea?

No, no no.

For Exhibit A in that argument, see: “Obama, Barack…”

Neither Booker (who dropped out last Monday) nor Yang, for their parts, asked explicitly for any backdoor dispensation to include them in the debate, though both did raise substantive points about various less-than-perfect selection criteria, given the time constraints for determining debate eligibility.

But a number of voices in the party did raise objections to the mere specter of an all-white debate cast, lobbying for a DNC change-of-mind in the matter (which did not come).

Among the problems if it had: It would have reeked of patronization, special allowance, changing the rules midstream, all manner of fat, juicy targets for Trump & Co. to make hay with this year in painting Democrats as hopelessly beholden to identity politics, all too ready to bend and even break their own rules in order to keep their self-image of diversity intact for public consumption.

Personally, I missed the hell out of Booker and Yang (Gabbard, not so much…), having enjoyed them greatly in previous debates and of the mind they added a lot to the discussion. (Not because of their race, but because of their vigor and ideas. Oh—and their humor! No small matter, humor in our politicians; no small matter at all…)

But: National polling has consistently shown Yang and Booker in the very low single digits nationally, and early this week, on the same day Booker dropped out, a “Washington Post” poll showed him with just 4% support nationally from African Americans, one-twelfth of Biden’s 48%. Who’d’ve thunk?

Love ya man, would happily vote for you in the future, consider you a strong vice-presidential prospect, but there’s not much to say when the white guy leads you by 44% even among your fellow African Americans. Except for the salutary fact, when one really thinks about it, that African Americans obviously don’t vote strictly on the basis of race.

And isn’t that, in an ultimate, ultimate sense, exactly what we have all been hoping for on some far-off day (that seems to have arrived already, at least to some degree), when African Americans, along with all other voters diverse in gender, race, socio-economic standing and education, vote for candidates not on the basis of those characteristics, but instead on the basis of their policies, experience, and the content of their character?



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7 comments to The Perils of Patronization

  • Jay Helman  says:

    The most disturbing aspect of the Liz/Bernie issue for me (and it is continuously so) is the media need to find a juicy piece of meat that will pit candidates against one another; irrespective of relevance or debatability. It plays to the lowest common denominator of citizens viewers. My wish is that these otherwise thoughtful and intelligent TV journalists would consider that many people watching the debates are informed, thoughtful, and interested in matters of importance. Instead, they drum up disgusting reality television material, hopeful of skirmishes to appeal to the masses. Televised debates can be of value, but sadly miss the mark with the kind of nonsense brought forth in the Liz-Bernie spectacle.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      The whole emphasis on “winners and losers,” instant analysis, who had the best “Gotcha” moment: all of it so dispiriting, meaningless and fleeting. Plus: 10 “expert” pundits, 10 different opinions, picking through torrents of words, inflections and expressions to find something purportedly important. And in the end, very few voters are watching at this stage anyway…

      Remember Kamala Harris’s well-rehearsed turn to Joe Biden to call him out on the busing question? Pundits fell all over themselves to cite it as a breakthrough, and it actually shot her up in the polls, suggesting she was a serious candidate who would take it to Trump in the same way. Formidable! That lasted about a week (and I exaggerate only slightly). Now she is gone.

      I guess my strong preference is to let voters decide and create the “momentum” that will last the duration—and not just the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire!

      And thanks for “the kind of nonsense brought forth in the Liz-Bernie spectacle.” Perfect description…

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    One has to question the efficacy of the debates altogether since they seem to have little impact on voters. Take a gander at the Republican debates of 2016. Trump’s descent into juvenile tirades and one humiliating statement after another (Cruz’s wife is ugly and Rubio has a small dick), though disgusting, did little to move the needle one way or another. Trump was popular throughout. To worsen matters,the majority of the media’s post-debate commentary focused on idiocy rather than policy. In fact, when one looks back at our debate history, non-policy moments receive the most airtime. Kennedy’s good looking. Nixon sweats too much. “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Scolding a woman for calling Obama an “Arab.” It’s a sad footnote on our political discourse. Finally, debates that revolve primarily on demographics (gender, race, sexual preference, religion, or marital status) detract from the issues at hand. Buchanan’s a bachelor. Kennedy’s Catholic. Hillary’s female. Mayor Pete’s gay. Biden stutters. Trump’s an idiot. While truthful, they have nothing to do with political philosophy or visionary concepts. And remember, above all else, Kenya is one of the Hawaiian islands.

  • Mary Graves  says:

    I agree ! And I appreciate your courage to mention it ! Good job.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Robert, I thought just the other day of that missile Lloyd Bentsen sent Dan Quayle’s way (“You’re no Jack Kennedy”). I hooted with all the rest of my Democratic pals and Quayle belittlers at the time, Bentsen being “on my side,” after all. But still: One could easily envision Bentsen’s advisers prepping him on that attack, relishing the mere thought of it, given Quayle’s customary defense of his age and thin resume by referring to himself being the same age as Kennedy when the latter became president. The media went bonkers over the episode, with many reports of its being a “defining moment,” blah blah—and Quayle’s running mate George (H.W.) Bush won the election anyway, giving us four years of nervousness as a manifestly unqualified man was one Bush heart attack or assassination away from becoming leader of the free world. (Of course, in comparison to the current administration, Quayle looks like a statesman of very high rank and dignity…) So yes, one wonders indeed about the true value of these debates as anything besides a convenient forum for bloviation by the candidates and their colluders in the media, focused on all the wrong things, in the wrong way.

    Mary, thank you, but I’m just trying to survive here with some dignity and open eyes—not easy in this fractured world! “Through a glass, darkly,” to quote a famous existential philosopher… I do appreciate your writing in, though, so thanks again.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    H Andrew,
    I’m chiming in late, and I’ll be the minority opinion here, but:
    * I think a huge swath of the US really does think a woman cannot be president. And if not totally consciously or with those words, then beneath the surface of, “Yes, a woman, just not *this* woman.” The debating women may not have helped their cause, but I think having some time to crow about one’s abilities is generally offered unstintingly to the male candidates; I myself enjoyed the few moments the women had to enjoy being a woman, Not so often does that happen.

    * You missed Booker and Yang (as I did, sorely), “not because of their race, but because of their vigor and ideas.” Those things are not to be separated out, Andrew – I believe that part of their appeal is that their experiences are different than the white candidates’, and that is all of a piece (along with many other things) with their vigor and ideas. Booker and Yang are so authentic, comfortable in their skin, and willing to draw on their full, flawed selves with humor as well as sincerity – and I for one think it is not a coincidence that they are men of color.

    I agree, the debates add little value to getting to know some of the candidates, although I do find them interesting and entertaining. Judy Woodruff and her panel were by far the most thoughtful in their questions and their follow-ups. I have enjoyed watching longer interviews in other venues (WaPo, NYTimes but also Trevor Noah, David Axelrod, among others) to really hear in-depth discussion, ideas, reflection. Unfortunately, one of these candidates will have to go up against the Perp-in-Chief after the primaries, and the debates may give us some sense of how someone can keep their balance in the shifting sands of what promises to be a revolting, alienating campaign.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hey Jeanette, wrote a long deliberative response two nights ago to your fine thought-provoking note, and since it had been some months since this program had swallowed my note upon my hitting the “Post Comment” button, I was lackadaisical and did not perform my usual due diligence in saving the text block in case that bad, bad thing happened. So of course, it did, and bye-bye deliberative response.

      I’ve gotten over it now, though, so let me see if I can recapture some small portion or other:

      Aside from maybe changing “huge swath” to “substantial number,” I take your point that there is still resistance in part of the population to the idea of a woman president. My point is that rational argument won’t do much if anything to change their resistant minds, and if we’re still giving that question even the dignity of argument—ESPECIALLY during a Dem debate, where everyone already agrees—we are playing on the resistance’s turf, giving a long-decided question (among most people and ALL thinking people) undue time and attention, and thus pushing aside other more pertinent and undecided issues. I felt a sense of sadness hearing Warren and Klobuchar going on about that point, as if they had been reduced to pleading for entry to a meeting any half-aware person already knew they belong in and had already invited them to.

      I think if the Republicans were smart, they’d have nominated (and probably elected) someone like Condoleeza Rice or Jeanne Kirkpatrick a long time ago, thus getting to thump their chests and accuse the Dems of talking a good game while the Repubs were standing up for and electing women in the real world. Perhaps fortunately, Republicans are not that smart, and almost gave us Sarah Palin a heartbeat from the presidency instead…

      For sure, Booker’s and Yang’s color and ethnicity are indelibly woven into them, so to the degree I like them as human beings as I do, that is part of the package. But there’s lots else going on with them as well. It makes me appreciate how much basic “likability” factors into our decision-making. I think we need to feel a certain level of comfort with our leaders, and assuming there’s more or less alignment on policy, a lot hinges on that sense of comfort. Some of that we can identify (humor, intelligence, curiosity, etc.), others are more subtle but no less influential.

      I know it’s a sore point with women candidates when consultants tell them they should “smile more,” but jeez, if I’m a consultant, I’m telling EVERY candidate to smile more (except Booker, who has that piece covered…). That’s because smiling—sincerely, with delight in life and people—makes everyone more likable and reduces tension and makes politicians far more approachable and relatable to voters. And that’s always a good thing.

      Biden, Klobuchar, Booker, Yang—all smilers. “Brights.”

      Warren: Strained. Too busy talking about “fighting, fighting, fighting.”

      Mayor Pete: Too earnest too much of the time to really light up.

      Bernie: Hard to smile when you’re yelling yourself hoarse and pointing your fingers at your listeners every broadcast moment.

      And then, Trump: Smiles only tightly, in derision, when he is being cruel, urging his listeners to laugh at someone else’s expense and dignity. That’s the only time the merriment flows.

      All right, this turned out far different (and longer) than I wrote the other night. Oh well… :-)

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