Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former US Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have revealed plans to work together to help increase the participation of women in politics and public leadership.
Why the hostility toward Hillary? Those who know her personally often remark on the “gap” (as Ezra Klein calls it) between the flesh-and-blood woman and the demon with her name who lost the election. If that dissonance had abated after the election, it might be chalked up to the particularly vicious and unimpeded tactics of her opponents (and, as we now know, the Russians). The fact that Hillary is still being scolded and dismissed from the room, almost a year after the election, suggests the need for deeper reflection.
It’s hard to think of another politician whose career has been as challenged by the quakes and shakes of social change—and the resulting vicissitudes of expectations—particularly as concerns gender
A full analysis of Hillary-hate would require peeling back layers of cultural as well as political history. Clinton has been a public presence and symbol of female progress, and thus a flashpoint of both admiration and resentment, for over two decades. It’s hard to think of another politician whose career has been as challenged by the quakes and shakes of social change—and the resulting vicissitudes of expectations—particularly as concerns gender.
In this past election, they came full circle with cruel irony. In 1992, when being a First Lady with her own prominent career and independent views was seen as a revolutionary threat to the image of the First Family, Clinton caught fire from traditionalists. Skip to 2016, and for a generation of white, middle-class women used to seeing their mothers with briefcases and business suits, Clinton’s hard-won accomplishments could be made to appear as an alliance with the “establishment.” To be branded as a threat to the established order in one decade and its friend in another—while her own basic political commitments had changed very little—was a whiplash that neither Clinton nor her supporters were prepared for.
This kind of crude, historically uninformed branding— based less on fact than on cultural story-telling and tribal lore—has become an increasingly potent force in contemporary politics. As Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels point out in Democracy for Realists, it’s an outmoded, romantic notion that policy, experience, and wisdom guide voter’s choices in elections.
We like to think of ourselves as rational; in fact, it appears that much electoral decision-making is herdbased and highly influenced by irrational attachments and unconscious biases
Rather, partisan loyalties and social identities are much more powerful forces in contemporary politics. Partisan loyalty, for example, is responsible for the GOP sticking by Donald Trump throughout the election (and even now) despite the fact that they were continually appalled and embarrassed by him. A sense of social identity is arguably behind resistance to gun regulation much more than any reverence for the Second Amendment. And many of the younger voters who adored Sanders and despised Clinton were animated less by a well-thought-out understanding of the history of progressivism or the two candidates’ place in that history than by a desire to be “with” the tousled-hair, “revolutionary” grandpa rather than the neat, composed, seemingly conventional woman who reminded them of their own mothers—or the kind of “establishment” woman they didn’t want to be. We like to think of ourselves as rational; in fact, it appears that much electoral decision-making is herdbased and highly influenced by irrational attachments and unconscious biases.
In an image-dominated, highly mediated age, these group-based attachments and biases are often based on the flimsiest, most misleading of perceptions. Trump’s supporters, I believe, were snookered by their candidate’s seemingly straight-talking, screw-them-all performance, indifferent to both political correctness and English grammar, into a sense of class identification with the man they saw as a “real guy” despite his enormous wealth (and the fact that he was actually much more the sleazy politician than any of his opponents.)
Intelligence, articulateness, politeness, a wealth of knowledge had come to be seen as elitist and vaguely phony to voters
Clinton, in contrast, suffered from all those qualities— intelligence, articulateness, politeness, a wealth of knowledge—that once might have been required of a U.S. president but had come to be seen as elitist and vaguely phony to voters. How could you trust someone who spoke so carefully? She had to be lying.
As a woman with those qualities, she also had to be taken down a notch or two—and not just by men, but by those women who resented what they saw as her haughtiness. Since the election, the word “misogyny” has re-entered the cultural bloodstream. In my opinion, however, it is not precise enough an answer to the resentment directed against Hillary. Yes, we saw its manifestations all over the T-shirts, posters, and memes. But Clinton Derangement Syndrome, like Obama Derangement Syndrome, is not the result of anything as simple as hatred of women or hatred of blacks. More specifically, it is fueled by anger at those women and blacks who refuse to behave according to the expectations of a culture that hasn’t yet processed the deeper recesses of its racism and sexism, a culture that can go through the motions (elect a black president, nominate a woman candidate), but still requires a certain amount of deference—obedience—to The Man.
We’re used to male politicians shouting at us, but whenever Clinton raised her voice it was “screeching”
French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir called this normalization of male behavior and singling out of women for special notice (whether condemning or revering) the “woman as Other”—and it’s especially pronounced when it comes to our norms, visual images, and expectations of the head of state. We’re used to male politicians shouting at us, but whenever Clinton raised her voice it was “screeching”. Looking “presidential” is marked by male standards of dress—so Clinton’s adoption of a pantsuit was something to remark on. Obama’s wonkiness and occasionally professorial discourse was accepted with affection; Clinton’s made her “cold” and “uninspiring.” The female in charge is still so remarkable— even, apparently, in countries that have had leader Queens for centuries—that women who aspire to or hold higher office tend to get glommed together by virtue of their sex.
In assessing the sources of cultural antagonism toward Clinton, it’s also important to remember that Hillary is not just a woman, but a feminist—who for better or worse has represented a particular generation of feminists for decades. As an avowed feminist, Clinton’s confidence and commitment to the rights of women and children has been admired and continues to be a source of inspiration for millions of progressive women. But from the beginning of her public life it has also fed the antagonism of traditional men, for whom she is the Platonic form of the ball-busting wife no one wants to be married to, and of their wives, who (particularly during an election that branded her as a witch and a bitch) were anxious to distance themselves from her.
So far, only Australia’s Julia Gillard was able to denounce the sexism of her opponent Tony Abbott, as well as deliver a forthright attack on misogyny in public life
This need to dis-identify—which black women, admiring of her strength and resilience, didn’t share—was never mentioned as a possible reason for Clinton’s disappointing showing among white- , middle- , and working-class women. But history shows us that the perception of a female politician as feminist—which Clinton has never denied—does make a difference. Those women who have managed to get themselves elected to higher office have either disclaimed the label of “feminist”—Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher—or equivocated, as Merkel has, acknowledging “common ground” but not wanting “to adorn myself with these feathers.” So far, only Australia’s Julia Gillard was able to denounce the sexism of her opponent Tony Abbott—as well as deliver, as Alison Rourke noted in The Guardian, “a forthright attack on misogyny in public life”—and receive widespread acclaim. (Theresa May wears the “This is a what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, but as male supporters constantly point out, she’s “a Tory first.”)
“She gave us Trump,” Clinton’s enemies like to say. No. Trump’s win is the culmination of many things, and we would do better to try to unpack those with precision and a view to complexity rather than scapegoat Hillary or her campaign. Hillary Clinton may have been a special kind of lightening rod, but the elements that brought her down are still bristling in our atmosphere, and we need to face them. The fact is that is it only when we’ve done that that we will truly be able to “move on.