This week Salon writer Daniel Denvir wrote about how Hillary Clinton “sold out working women” by supporting welfare reform during her husband’s administration. It’s a fair enough claim, even if Denvir overstates her role—it was Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress, not “the Clintons,” who “took welfare away.” What’s interesting about Denvir’s article, however, isn’t its central argument. It is his blithe dismissal of any claims that sexism shapes perceptions of Clinton and his unwillingness to acknowledge that breaking men’s 226-year lock on the presidency could be a goal with any value at all.
“The notion that Hillary Clinton is a feminist choice because she is a qualified woman is a really very caricatured identity politics,” Denvir says. He is not alone in this view. At Souciant, Ari Paul informs us that another Salon writer (and DoubleX veteran), Clinton-defender Amanda Marcotte, is the real sexist: “Ms. Clinton’s sole defining feature is her genitalia in Ms. Marcotte’s world, and such cold reductionism is misogyny defined.” For these men, attempts to advance female political representation appear to be illegitimate on their face. On the blog of the left-wing writer Matt Bruenig, a post Bruenig attributes to “the interns” mocks Emily’s List, the PAC that backs pro-choice Democratic women, as “an organization whose raison d’etre is not to support the best Democratic candidate for office, but the most female one.”* These examples are just from the past week or so.
In general, the Bernie Sanders campaign has been overwhelmingly positive for American politics. It has, however, unleashed a minor plague of progressive white men confidently explaining feminism to the rest of us. Some of them rail against identity politics, while others use the language of intersectionality, a great boon to white men who want to inveigh against “white feminism” without losing their left-wing street cred. Some just sound like surly conservatives complaining that affirmative action is racist. All are united in outrage that anyone could ever see a hint of sexism at work in the intense hatred that Hillary inspires among their ilk.
One needn’t have sympathy for Clinton herself to notice this. The writer Kathy Geier, a Sanders supporter who is contributing to a forthcoming anti-Hillary anthology, tells me that the “sanctimonious, lecturing, hectoring tone” some of her ideological allies take when discussing Clinton and feminism is driving her nuts. “They’re trying to delegitimize any critique of sexist Hillary coverage,” she says. “It’s really hard for me, because my politics are with that side, but this ancient left-wing misogyny has risen its ugly head.”
I can actually sympathize with some of these guys’ exasperation, even their anger. Eight years ago, I was infuriated by feminists who treated Obama supporters like me as traitors. (“[T]he more leaders of the movement insist on conflating their noble struggle for social justice with the fate of an uninspiring and nepotistic candidate, the less relevant it will be,” I wrote then.) Hillary Clinton seemed an entitled anachronism, seeking to block a figure of world-historic importance.
Perhaps if I were younger, I would also see Sanders as such a figure. The movement behind him is certainly astonishing. Coming of age at a time when the mild word liberal was considered a career-killing epithet, I could scarcely have imagined a self-described socialist amassing a serious American following. Today, I can see how an optimistic, idealistic voter would look at the electoral triumph of the left in Greece and Canada and think, Why not here?
I wish I thought it was possible, but I don’t. In the U.S., long-shot left-wing candidates always claim that they will win by mobilizing alienated nonvoters or wooing back the white working class, and it almost inevitably proves to be a fantasy. In the extremely unlikely event that Sanders won the Democratic primary, I’m convinced he’d lose, overwhelmingly, to a fanatical reactionary Republican who would hasten America’s devolution into a third-world hellscape. But if I actually thought that we were on the cusp of a democratic socialist revolution in the United States, then yes, I would feel indignant about anyone who thought that breaking the ultimate glass ceiling was more important.
But it’s a different thing altogether to be contemptuous of the desire to break that ceiling at all. It’s a different thing to act as if women’s weariness at being always and eternally ruled by men is inherently elitist. The problem with the progressive men who’ve lately become experts on feminism isn’t that they won’t vote for Clinton. It’s their defensive petulance at any mention of anti-Clinton sexism. “Are you planning to vote for Bernie Sanders when primary time rolls around? If so, I am discouraged to report that you are a sexist, and also tremendously uncool,” the MattBruenig.com post says with peevish sarcasm. The writer sounds like a conservative grumbling that you can’t criticize Obama without being called a racist.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Sanders was being sexist when he said that “all the shouting in the world” wouldn’t address gun violence, for the reasons my colleague William Saletan has pointed out. But the comments that Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, made to Bloomberg’s John Heilemann were different. “We’re willing to consider her for vice president. We’ll give her serious consideration. We’ll even interview her,” Weaver said with a grin. The condescension was palpable.
Jonathan Chait argues that presidential candidates often seek to undermine one another in this way; he thinks it’s unfair that “when Bernie Sanders did it to Hillary Clinton, Clinton’s surrogates began flipping out and calling him sexist.” One needn’t be a gender studies major at Oberlin, however, to realize that the meanings of words can shift according to the identities of the speaker and the subject; it’s why Joe Biden’s comment about Obama being “articulate” was widely seen as subtly racist. A lot of women had a visceral reaction to Weaver’s words not because they’re trying to gin up outrage—though there was some of that—but because patronizing men have been minimizing their qualifications and offering them subsidiary positions for their entire lives.
Of course, people of good faith are going to disagree about individual examples of sexism. What’s immensely frustrating, however, is to realize how many ostensibly enlightened men think that gender can ever be totally disaggregated from Clinton’s efforts to become the first female president. They seem to believe that their class politics exempt them from taking sexism seriously. They certainly don’t care about female leadership.
I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise; as long as feminism has existed, left-wing men have dismissed it as a bourgeois triviality. Now we know how little things have changed. For that, at least, we can thank these men for educating us.
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.
Correction, Nov. 6, 2015: This article originally attributed a post on MattBruenig.com to Matt Bruenig. Bruenig says that the post, bylined “the interns,” was written by a friend of his who wishes to remain anonymous. (Return.)