Klobuchar and Warren drop out, Gabbard's chances dim and 'electability' rears its ugly head again

There is absolutely a bias against female politicians. But in order to stop making assumptions about women, we also need to stop making assumptions about men.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar spends the day in Iowa before the impeachment trial
An audience member showed off his copy of the New York Times endorsement of Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren on Jan. 21, 2020 in Mason City, Iowa.Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune via Getty Images file
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By Liz Plank, author of "For the Love of Men"

UPDATE (March 5, 2020, 11:10 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect Sen. Elizabeth Warren suspending her presidential campaign.

Today, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced she was suspending her presidential campaign. Warren's announcement follows the news Monday that Sen. Amy Klobuchar was dropping out of the presidential race. Assuming Rep. Tulsi Gabbard does not prevail, we can bet that a lot of 2020 will — once again — focus on the question of female electability. After all, this primary started with the most diverse slate in history and yet here we are with two old white men now on top.

As we delve into the gendered nature of America's presidential politics, we must avoid perpetuating the narratives we seek to highlight.

Electability is an important question, but as we delve into the gendered nature of America's presidential politics, we must avoid perpetuating the narratives we seek to highlight. There is absolutely a bias against women operating in the world of politics (and every other sphere for that matter). But it turns out women are just slightly less sexist than men when it comes to women in politics. While 49 percent of men say they would be comfortable with a female president, women aren’t far behind — with 59 percent of them saying the same, according to a 2019 global survey. It’s shocking that half of men seem to hold sexist views about women in leadership. But what do we do with the fact that almost as many women feel the same way about their own gender?

And when we constantly worry about men’s inherent sexism, ignoring the biases we all hold by virtue of growing up in a culture where most leaders are male, we actually can help create conditions in which women in fact become less electable.

This is evidenced in the data showing that voters say they are ready for a female president but think their neighbors aren’t. One survey showed that only 1 in 3 Democratic and independent voters believe their neighbors would be OK with a female president.

So the question remains, do women have an electability problem because we think they do, or do we keep sexism alive by reaffirming the very biases we are afraid to have? In other words, when we draw attention to the electability of women, do we in fact make them less electable, especially during an election year when winning trumps any other actual issue?

I've spent a good amount of time talking to male voters this primary season. And one thing that I think hasn't been discussed enough are the men who found female candidates not just likable, but eminently electable, too.

“Once you’re in love with this person, you’re in love with her forever,” Wilfred Boucher, a Klobuchar supporter in his early 80s told me as he came out of a small polling station in Manchester, New Hampshire, in February. “Once in love with Amy, always in love with Amy,” he sang, serenading me with the words to Frank Sinatra’s 1948 song “Once In Love With Amy.”

“I like her style,” Boucher said. “She doesn’t say grandiose stuff. She just says ‘I got your back,’ so to speak."

But can she win? Boucher, a disabled veteran who served in the military for 34 years (and has been married to his wife for 55), laughed when I asked him that particular million-dollar question. “That’s baloney,” he scoffed.

“In the military they were the best in sharp shooting," he said of women. "They have a steady finger.”

New front-runner Sen. Bernie Sanders has, for better or for worse, his Bernie Bros. But Klobuchar had her own diehard male fans — Klobros? Klobubros? Although women would be forgiven for assuming, especially after 2016, that men are generally more reluctant to support female candidates, the gender ratio I witnessed at Klobuchar’s events told a different story, at least earlier this year.

Indeed, according to exit polls from Iowa, Klobuchar outperformed Sanders with men age 45-64 in Iowa. And with men over 65, the contrast was even starker. In this demographic she outperformed every single other candidate with the exception of former Vice President Joe Biden. (Klobuchar did extremely well with white educated women in New Hampshire.)

Warren, the only viable female with any chance left, is also bringing her own boys to the proverbial yard. I myself was surprised to see so many young men show up to her events on the trail, despite her female support only outnumbering her male support by about 4 percent in Nevada exit polls.

One reason we did not hear as much about these “bros” is because while we expect women to support women (and are baffled when they don’t), we don’t have the same expectation for men. Old white men are a very important part of Trump's base, but we need to stop believing that men are biologically programmed to hate women. We perpetuate the idea that men don’t buy books by women (they do) or that they don’t enjoy TV shows or films about women (they do), often without very much evidence.

While we assume that women are interested in stories about men, we don’t have the same faith in men.

While we assume that women are interested in stories about men, we don’t have the same faith in men, at least in part because our lazy definition of masculinity still defines manhood as a complete repression and rejection of the feminine. Since masculinity requires constant surveillance and active validation, men are taught (and in some instances policed) to prioritize things that men traditionally like, which to be clear are not biologically determined but rather culturally agreed upon. Those faulty expectations then end up becoming reality.

For example, male executives who watched the 1994 version of “Little Women” reportedly ended up in tears. And yet they still worried that the film wouldn't have widespread appeal, especially with husbands. History repeated itself in the head-scratching snubbing of Greta Gerwig’s adaption of “Little Women” this awards season — after it was leaked that several male academy voters reportedly never saw the movie because they thought it was just for women. In the words of one of the cast members of the film: “I just can’t believe we’re still having this f------ discussion.” It’s a vicious cycle, as narratives about what men should and should not like or respect or watch become reality.

Admitting that we’re all a little sexist doesn’t mean that we’ll never have a female president. In fact, it’s the only way we’ll have one. While we’re all pressured to outperform each other in the race to be pure and woke, running another race (the one to admit our biases instead of deflect from them) might get us closer to actually solving sexism. As Ibram X. Kendi writes in his book “How to be an Anti-Racist,” when it comes to racial stereotypes, “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify it and then dismantle it.”

Gender stereotypes work the same way. The only way to move past beyond them is to acknowledge they exist. That’s what Jennifer Palmieri, the former communications director for Hillary Clinton, told me in New Hampshire. “We are roaming around the mock of gender bias,” she said. “So it doesn't mean everyone is sexist and doesn't like women, but the models we hold in our head of what a model looks and sounds like is very male — and it goes way back.”

And what about the men who didn't vote for Warren or Klobuchar despite them being a woman, but rather, because they are women. “For me that’s a positive,” Robert Power told me at a Klobuchar rally in Nashua. Although he also expressed support for Warren, he said that Klobuchar “hit all the boxes.” In his mind, only a woman could stand in the right contrast against Trump. “With this guy, [being a woman] is not a negative, it’s a positive.” He noted the midterm election — when a record number of women were elected — as evidence that in the current political climate, women can’t just run, they can win.

One way to counter the electability question is to replace it with actual reporting on the size, variety and gender diversity of support we've seen for female candidates. But in order to stop making assumptions about women, we also need to stop making assumptions about men. As of last fall, around half of Warren’s donations have come from men; almost 80 percent of Tulsi Gabbard’s donations came from men. Perhaps if we heard more from these men, our idea of who looks like your Klobuchar or Warren supporter might not be so warped.

We know that women don’t make worse leaders (in fact data shows that according to several metrics, they’re more effective politicians than men). And we love that old adage that behind every great man, there’s a great woman. Perhaps we should also remember that often behind great women, there are several men supporting her, too.