Politics

Why Can’t Democrats Get Angry?

I think it’s because our misogynistic society has pushed them into the same corner women have been forced into. But there’s a way out.

A stomping elephant towering over a donkey.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Spencer Watson/Unsplash, David Clode/Unsplash.

The salient feature of now-seated Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony during the hearing that was intended to assess whether he had committed sexual assault in his youth was, as many have noted, his anger. It was anger that made him lash out inappropriately, anger that contorted his face in a way that made many viewers feel sick. He thought this anger would substitute for integrity, and he was right, or right enough anyway; he didn’t fool everyone, but he did at least shout them down. Meanwhile, the salient feature of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was her calm, measured, deferential demeanor, complete with tension-defusing apologies and jokes. I am not the first person to point out how heartbreaking this was to witness: that even while talking about an experience that traumatized her for decades, she obeyed the unwritten cultural injunction that women must manage not only their own feelings but the feelings of everyone around them. This has been laid bare in the past few weeks in America, even as it’s a replay of something we’ve all seen before.

What I haven’t seen discussed, though, is the way these same restrictions have constrained the entire Democratic Party. The left—even the moderate left—is feminized in this country to a degree that I have come to believe actually restricts its avenues for acceptable self-expression.

Our weird cultural commitment to the gender binary goes way beyond actual living men and women—if it didn’t, people wouldn’t freak out so badly when someone declines to choose. Masculinity and femininity are concepts we layer on top of everything from people to pens to political parties. Sometimes there’s a middle ground, but often we seem lost without our familiar patterns; it’s the confused hetero doofus asking a gay couple “which one’s the woman,” except for the entire world. Take any opposed things—Democrats and Republicans, cats and dogs, even the sun and the moon—and you’ll find one of them associated with physical strength, action, and domineering behavior, and the other associated with emotion, reticence, and calm. That’s not just descriptive; it’s prescriptive, and proscriptive too. If we could judge the moon for yelling, we would.

“Everyone is mocking Lindsey Graham for expressing the kind of outrage Democratic Senators should’ve been expressing daily over Merrick Garland,” tweeted writer Isaac Butler after the hearing. He’s not wrong, but it’s worth imagining a similar tweet reading, “Everyone is mocking Brett Kavanaugh for expressing the kind of outrage Christine Blasey Ford should have expressed daily since this debacle began.” What would “should” even mean in this case? She would have been justified, yes, but she absolutely never, ever could have. Crying, screaming, blaming, complaining—Brett Kavanaugh can get away with it. She can’t. This thought experiment isn’t just sophistry; the pressures are the same on the party at large, and for similar reasons. Lindsey Graham can get away with it; Kamala Harris would be pilloried. Even Chuck Schumer would be pilloried. The gender of the legislator is significant, but so is the gender, if you will, of the party. And though we don’t really discuss it, the Democratic Party is a girl.

This isn’t just about who’s allowed to scream without consequence; it’s also about who’s expected to be reasonable and who gets to be stubborn, who keeps the peace and who advocates force, who makes compromises and who makes demands, who can and can’t successfully run a human tantrum for president. It’s also about ideology. Democrats’ concerns are those that are cast as feminine: justice, feelings, women’s bodily autonomy, children, the ability to keep a family provided for and alive. Republicans’ concerns are those considered masculine: money, business, repelling those seen as intruders, the wielding of physical and economic brutality. It’s not an accident that people who are deeply invested in the sanctity of masculinity—the right of men to power, violence, and control—tend to vote GOP. It is not an accident that these same people tend to denigrate the other party as womanly. (They think it’s a denigration, anyway.)

Take the now hotly contested race in Texas between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke. Even though Ted Cruz is clearly 3,000 bees in a rubber suit, Cruz and Texas Republicans seem to think the grander insult is to imply O’Rourke is ladylike. The Texas GOP tweeted a picture of Beto in his alternative rocker days wearing a dress and being extremely cool, à la the cover of that James album (a cool band). Cruz spoke scornfully of “tofu and silicon and dyed hair” as the main concerns of O’Rourke supporters—silicone (apparently what Cruz meant by “silicon”) as in what you use for breast implants, tofu as in the 2000s equivalent of quiche, which real men don’t eat. (I say 2000s because Cruz, like his ideological kinsman Mike Huckabee, has a sense of humor that is permanently a decade behind.) These are not, in an objective sense, insults. But they are intended to link O’Rourke firmly to the feminine—which is enough, in many people’s minds, to paint him as weak, subservient, and unfit to lead.

The feminization of the party also restricts how much anger, outrage, and general disgruntlement Democrats are “allowed” to express; they are the party that has to be fair, that has to maintain its commitment to the principles of equality and reasonableness. Somehow, at the same time, every trivial emotion of the right is valorized. This is why Mitch McConnell can whine that Democratic nominees never suffer this kind of scrutiny while ignoring his own refusal to even consider Merrick Garland. Of course, this has to do with his undeniable personal hypocrisy, but it is also indicative of his absolute buy-in to, and utter trust of, the cultural restrictions on what’s allowed for liberals versus conservatives. Men can howl about a man’s “life being destroyed” by being subjected to scrutiny for an almost unimaginably prestigious (and lucrative!) job; women are expected to suffer with equanimity through death threats, cruelty, and trauma. Republicans can pitch a fit about the outrageous treatment of the screaming, sniveling liar they’ve thrown in with; Democrats are expected to calmly present their objections, then gracefully accept it when nobody cares. Deviation from this expectation is possible—but it’s also punished.

The problem with misogyny in this country goes beyond the oppression of women—although that alone should be a reason to shatter the patriarchy where it stands. It’s also the oppression of anything seen as feminine: those who show “weakness,” which is defined in our patriarchal system as anything outside the two acceptable masculine modes of brutish violence and cold indifference. Even cisgender men suffer when they are not able to convincingly perform this twisted vision of manliness. One of the automatic black marks on your masculinity performance grade is caring too much about anyone outside the male/straight/white/able ideal (i.e., the people allowed into our toxic masculine vision of strength). The practical upshot of this is that the entire left wing—yes, even the socialist irony bros—is, on a metaphorical level, a bevy of maidens. Our culture is dominated by men, yes, but more than that, it’s dominated by masculinity. No matter how much male privilege you have and regularly wield, going up against cardinal masculine virtues like violence, wealth, and the unchecked use of power taints you with a feminine stain, and in our society, femininity is disdained.

This is not to excuse the men, or indeed the women, of the Democratic Party for the times they are mealy-mouthed or cowardly. Eventually, everyone who cares about pushing the world forward has to navigate the gulf between what is right and what is allowed and decide to hedge toward the former. It’s worth noting that many of the lawmakers who have recently been most courageous (or anyway least craven) in standing up against unacceptable miscarriages of power have been not only women but women of color, despite the fact that they have to contend with multiple layers of cultural disapproval for doing so. But there are constraints on how Democratic lawmakers can express themselves without repercussions, just as there are similar constraints on women—constraints that their colleagues across the aisle just don’t face. That doesn’t mean it’s correct to be diffident and polite; it just means doing otherwise comes at a cost.

It also, to be clear, does not mean the answer is for everyone to become a pushy, whiny, hypocritical liar, even though they can get away with it. There’s a simplistic strain of feminism that holds women should be as demanding, rude, selfish, loud, and thoughtless as men because they’re never punished for it and we are. But this isn’t a situation in which one side should level up (if that even is “up”); it’s more about questioning the bigger picture and finding new rules. It’s more accurate to say that in most cases nobody should be an asshole, regardless of whether it’s expected—that, indeed, allowing half your members to be unchecked assholes is no way to run a society, never even mind letting everyone do it. Should Ford have thrown a fit? Should Senate Democrats have? They have cause, for sure, but it’s an ugly way to behave—one look at Brett Kavanaugh’s twisted mouth should tell you that. There need to be other considerations besides “well, he did it.” Among those considerations: Is it possible to get an equal or better effect without being a jerk about it? Can you trust the people around you to hold up their ends of the social contract? If so, for God’s sake do; we live in a dang society. Politeness and reasoning may be modes that women (and feminized groups) are constrained to, but that doesn’t make them worse—in fact, accepting the idea that politeness and empathy are fundamentally weaker modes than violence means accepting the patriarchal axiom that anything coded masculine is superior. In a functioning society, gentleness can and should rule.

But we are not in a functioning society right now. Christine Blasey Ford certainly showed that she could get her point across without stooping to Kavanaugh-level hysterics, and it probably wouldn’t have gone better for her if she’d pitched a tantrum; that was the right call. But the reason women are being so widely called to access their anger right now is that politeness has become a room we’re banished to. The same applies to Democrats in Congress and anyone looking to replace our failed government in the future; they may have had no good option but to meet pigheadedness with the same. In this case, then, the path forward for a feminized group has already been laid out by the third wave: Learn to be a bitch. Be angry, even if you aren’t allowed. Be ruder than you think you can be (without losing your principles). If they say feelings don’t matter, turn your feelings into a weapon. Never shut up. Never stand down. This is not ideal; it is functionally a commitment to escalation, when in fact everyone should take a damn seat. But it’s one of the only options available when there are two rigidly outlined groups, and one of them has written the rules so that the rules don’t apply to them.

Beyond that, it’s worth considering that our commitment to binaries is outdated in every aspect of our lives. Both the gender binary and the two-party system are susceptible to being layered on top of other opposed pairs: winner and loser, master and servant, loud and quiet, good and bad. Perhaps it’s time to learn to count to three.