Elizabeth Warren’s loss — misogyny or red panda?

Photo by Ritchie Valens on Unsplash

In 1978 a red panda escaped from the Rotterdam Zoo, and an appeal went out for the public to report any sightings. Hundreds of good faith sightings were reported — all of them after the red panda had died on the roadway. Hence the phenomena psychologists call the “red panda effect,” the mind’s tendency to see what it is looking for.

The past few days have brought forth an avalanche of articles about Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the race, many of them expressions of grief and outrage at the misogyny that brought it about.

The grief I understand. The analysis of misogyny as the cause of her loss, I believe, is as groundless as those red panda sightings.

Warren’s entry into the race was a bit of a political long shot. Her positions are on the left, but Bernie Sanders had retained from 2016 a hard core of dedicated followers. With a strong group of moderate candidates, Warren’s potential lane of support was a narrow sweet spot between Sanders on the left and the crowd of Biden, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and others in the middle. Nevertheless, she did well. Her early fundraising was strong, and she built support among college-educated whites who were impressed, as was I, with her many thoughtful and specific policy positions. By October her poll numbers had grown. But others began doing better, Bernie bounced back from his heart attack, Warren stumbled on the single-payer issue, and she began to slip. Her attempts to broaden her appeal beyond college-degreed whites were not successful. She had poor showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. South Carolina was a disaster.

Are we now to conclude, as many have stated, that America is not ready for a woman president?

Hilary Clinton ran for President in 2016 and won the popular vote by 2.8 million — far exceeding the popular vote victories of JFK in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Carter in 1976, and Bush in 2000 (who actually lost the popular vote). Due to the distribution of Clinton’s votes (and her campaign’s shockingly low-effort campaign in the firewall states!), she lost the electoral college vote, and Trump became President. But Hillary Clinton’s popular vote victory of 2.8 million should put to rest forever the idea that women candidates cannot win.

Further evidence of the electability of women can be found in the large number of female winners across the country in 2018, in offices from county sheriff to Congress. And a June, 2019, study by Reflective Democracy, a project of the Women Donors Network, looked into the women’s electability issue and found that “while white men may still have a monopoly hold on elected office, they do not hold a monopoly on electability. In 2015, our research found that when they’re on the ballot, women of all races and men of color win elections at the same rates as white men. Running the data on the 2018 elections confirms it: white men’s electability advantage is a myth.”

This is hard data. What has stunned me about the articles claiming Warren lost due to sexism is their lack of evidence for that conclusion. Instead of data, there are unsupported assertions of what voters think and why they think it. For example, Elie Mystal, writing in The Nation, asserts that the Democratic Party “is never going to fully get behind a woman candidate, because no real woman can match the pubescent fantasy of a woman Democrats seem to want.”

Another argument being made is that women are deemed unlikeable for qualities tolerated in male candidates. Several commentators have contended that Warren was rejected for her sometimes professorial persona, that people resent smart women. But Adlai Stevenson failed to win the Presidency in 1952 and 1956 in part due to his deeply thoughtful, erudite manner that hurt him among non-college educated voters. He was called an “egghead” (which also played to his baldness), a label that followed him through both campaigns. Like Warren, he was favored by academics and intellectuals. As for the supposed sexism that condemned Warren for being sometimes “shrill”, do commentators not remember that a single exuberant scream effectively ended Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy in 2004, and that “shrill” was exactly the word used? And in 1964, Goldwater (who had all the political winds blowing against him anyway) was hurt by being regarded as gruff and grumpy (as in “grumpy old men” — was this sexist?). So voters do sometimes make decisions about a candidate’s persona, but their harsh judgements fall equally on women and men.

In any truthful analysis of why voters vote the way they do, there is always an irrational element, a gut-feeling factor. I have it, too. This season I felt especially positive toward Kamala Harris, whereas I found Beto O’Rourke off-putting. I can’t explain why. I simply felt drawn to Harris and repelled by O’Rourke. Can one find voters reluctant to vote for a female? Of course. Can one also find voters reluctant to vote for a male? Yes. But studies seem to show they cancel one another out. Otherwise, Hillary Clinton and her poorly-run campaign would not have won the popular vote by 2.8 million.

My own sense is that after the terrible turmoil of the Trump years, voters are seeking not someone feisty, but a calming influence, someone to tamp down the acrimony. Warren does not fit that description and neither does Sanders — which may explain his failure to grow his support left over from 2016. This may be Sleepy Joe’s year. Time will tell.

God knows there is still too much misogyny in our world, but it is also true that some look for it so intently they find it where it does not exist. False sightings ultimately hurt the cause. To conclude that sexism explains the failure of Warren’s candidacy is to see a red panda. And it’s not just a false belief, but a dangerous one as well. If people believe women have an electability liability, that could lead to women not running, or to voters not supporting them.

I teach in the Prison University Project at San Quentin Prison. I am the author of Conversations with Great Teachers and a novel, Love: A Story.

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