I got to spend last week in France talking—and not writing—about the 2016 presidential election. It turned out to be a gift: a week of distance from the feverish, trashy tumult of American politicking on the eve of the first vote in Iowa. I hate this point in our election cycle, when pundits fill up the silence compulsively, anxious to get in as many misguided predictions as possible while no actual voters are available yet to prove us wrong.
Invited by the French Institute for International Relations to join its Annual Conference on the United States in Paris, along with my new friend Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, I went on to address several classrooms of university students in Toulouse. I got the most questions about Donald Trump, of course, but the Hillary Clinton–Bernie Sanders race was a close second. French students are excited to know there’s an actual socialist in the race; female French students are worried that Clinton could lose, yet again. “Do you think women—especially women—are ready to vote for a woman?” a young woman in Toulouse asked me nervously.
“Yes,” I told her. Then I added, reassuringly: “Yes, we are.” Faced with her anxiety—and I admit I could be projecting across cultures here—I did something in France I don’t often do at home: I came out of the closet as a full-fledged Hillary Clinton supporter. And this time, as opposed to 2008, I’m backing her without apology, as the right and even radical choice. More than without apology; after 40 years of voting for male presidents, I’m supporting Hillary with excitement, even joy.
Had I not declared myself last week, in a Toulouse university lecture hall, I’d have probably done it here anyway, after watching the CNN Democratic presidential town-hall meeting Monday night. The town hall itself was great; Clinton, Sanders, and Martin O’Malley all looked admirable and presidential, in contrast to their awful Republican rivals. Democrats have a lot to be excited about this year.
But one moment got me particularly excited, and not in a good way. It came when a young white man—entitled, pleased with himself, barely shaving yet—broke the news to Clinton that his generation is with Bernie Sanders. “I just don’t see the same enthusiasm from younger people for you. In fact, I’ve heard from quite a few people my age that they think you’re dishonest. But I’d like to hear from you on why you feel the enthusiasm isn’t there.”
“I’d like to hear from you on why you feel the enthusiasm isn’t there.” I’m not sure I can unpack all the condescension in that question. I heard a disturbing echo of the infamous 2008 New Hampshire debate moment when a moderator asked Clinton: “What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight, who see a resume and like it, but are hesitating on the likability issue?” Yes, the “likability” issue. I found myself thinking: Not again. Why the hell does she have to put up with this again?
My problem wasn’t merely with the insulting personal tone of the question. It was also the way the young man anointed himself the voice of his generation, and declared it the Sanders generation. Now, I know Bernie is leading among millennials by a lot right now in the polls. Nonetheless, millions of millennials, including millions of young women, are supporting Hillary Clinton. And my daughter, as Nation readers know, is one of them. I find it increasingly galling to see her and her friends erased in this debate.
When I’ve disclosed that my daughter works for Clinton—in The Nation, on MSNBC, and on social media—we’ve both come in for trolling so vile it’s made me not merely defensive of her. It’s forced me to recognize how little society respects the passion of the many young women—and men—who are putting their souls into electing the first female president. It’s one thing to note that Sanders is winning among millennials; that’s true. It’s another to impugn the competence and dignity of the literally millions of millennials who support Clinton. Social-media trolls have had several fascinating and stunningly sexist reactions to the news of my daughter’s position. Obviously, she can’t be competent; I must have gotten her the job (in fact, she got it through a high-school friend who worked for Clinton and recommended her.) Obviously, she can’t think for herself; I must have indoctrinated her to support Clinton over Sanders. Or the flip side: Obviously, I have no integrity, and I support Clinton over Sanders only because my daughter is on her payroll.
Watching people trash your daughter on social media isn’t fun. It got worse when Hillary Clinton’s Twitter account retweeted her, and worse again when she tweeted about Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards, a woman she admires, in the wake of the group’s controversial decision to endorse Clinton. It turns out Richards’s daughter works for Clinton as well, and that began a new round of insults to both our daughters. Either they were beneficiaries of our nepotism, or they somehow used their influence to corrupt their dimwit mothers into ignoring Sanders’s obviously superior feminist qualifications. It is interesting to me that none of the ladies—not Clinton, not me nor my daughter, not Richards nor her daughter—are credited with competence or integrity when the Berniebot keyboard warriors break it all down.
Which brings me to another reason I’ve felt compelled in the last week to come out publicly and forcefully for Clinton, which is Sanders’s dismissing Planned Parenthood’s endorsement (and that of NARAL Pro-Choice America) by labeling them part of the “establishment.” I appreciated Sanders supporter Kathy Geier’s acknowledgment here in The Nation that her candidate once again came off as tone-deaf on an issue of gender. Yet Geier seconded Sanders’s assertion that these two groups fighting for reproductive justice deserve to be termed “establishment”—and therefore unfavorably compared to the upstart, grassroots, and genuinely radical groups that back Sanders.
I just don’t see it that way. I think there are few issues as radical as advancing the reproductive autonomy of women. And I think it’s hard to be truly establishment when dangerous men are shooting up your clinics, and the Republican Congress is persistently voting to strip you of your funding. Yes, Planned Parenthood and NARAL have worked hard to become respected political players in the last 30 years, because the women they represent need political clout, not just services. But I’m old enough to remember when feminists were told that our issues—“cultural” issues like abortion and contraception—were costing Democrats elections, so couldn’t we pipe down for a little while? Now we’re the establishment?
Just like my lefty friends who praise Sanders for loudly promoting the single-payer solution to healthcare because it’s important to raise the issue’s standing and profile, I praise Clinton for making repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which bars Medicaid from paying for abortion for poor women, a major public campaign issue. I acknowledge Sanders has voted the right way, and I’m grateful for it. But Clinton is leading on it, the same way she brought up the vile Planned Parenthood video hoax in the very first Democratic debate. That leadership matters to me. Also: Cecile Richards is a longtime progressive activist who won the 2010 Nation/Puffin prize for creative citizenship; NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue is on The Nation’s editorial board; before she joined NARAL she was director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org, one of the Sanders-supporting organizations that’s being promoted as more authentically progressive than the “establishment” NARAL. These women are now supposed to be our establishment enemy, according to Sanders partisans? This is getting silly.
Finally, I’m struck by the insistence among Sanders supporters that Democrats who support Clinton—and right now, we are still the majority—are doing so joylessly, like party automatons. On Monday, on my Facebook page, where a lot of my close friends are supporting Sanders, three people I love shared the same op-ed by Republican operative Alex Castellanos, which purported to explain why Clinton’s campaign “sags” (get it?) while Sanders “surges.” This is the same Castellanos, by the way, who defended calling Hillary Clinton a “white bitch” during the 2008 campaign, when Jeffrey Toobin complained about it. “Some women, by the way, are named that, and it’s accurate,” he said smoothly. Trust me: If Castellanos had used a racial slur against Obama eight years ago—”Some black men, by the way, are named [N-word, or your slur du jour], and it’s accurate,” for instance—no progressive would be enthusiastically touting his views on the 2016 Democratic campaign. Not one. Could I really be the only one who remembered his ugly sexist attack on Clinton?
Eight years ago, I found myself drawn into the media vortex, standing up for Clinton in the face of extraordinary media bias and sexism of the type Castellanos typified. I styled myself as a Clinton defender, not exactly a supporter, partly for journalistic reasons, and partly because I was genuinely torn about not supporting the amazing African-American senator running in the primary against her. This time, I feel a slight twinge of regret that I’m not supporting the socialist in the race—I want to do it for my old friend Jimmy Weinstein, the late founder of In These Times, where I once worked—but it’s not at all the same. Yet I’m being told it should be, that once again the historic quest of the first front-running female presidential candidate should take a backseat to another historic crusade, that of our first Brooklyn-born Jewish socialist.
I’ve always admired Sanders, but I happen to think he has more than a tin-ear on gender. He routinely talks about “mothers” needing family leave, and he doesn’t even seem to try to substitute the now-customary (on the left, anyway) “he or she” or “him or her” into his speeches. I noted that Monday night, when he declared “I believe that every kid in this country who has the ability and the desire should be able to get a higher education regardless of the income of his family.” For making this observation, I’m still being told I’m a PC shrew on social media two days later. Bernie is building a movement, we’re told (with little evidence of lasting organization, by the way), but it’s a movement whose loudest advocates are entitled young men who heap the vilest abuse on women who don’t deign to join it. To his credit, Sanders rapid response director has seen the online abuse, and warned on Twitter Monday night: “If you follow Bernie Sanders, please follow the senator’s lead and be respectful when people disagree with you.” Still, the larger message to Clinton supporters is that our demand for equal representation at the highest level of government at last, by a supremely qualified woman who is thoroughly progressive if not a socialist, must sadly wait. Again.
I won’t wait. I’m supporting Clinton, joyfully and without apologies. That’s not the same as without reservations; I continue to wonder whether she’ll be more hawkish on foreign policy than is advised in these dangerous times. I’m concerned that she’s too close to Wall Street; I really wish she hadn’t given those six-figure talks to Goldman Sachs. But I genuinely believe she’ll make the best president. My colleagues at The Nation know this, and when the editors decided to endorse Sanders, I was graciously offered a chance to write a brief for Clinton. (We have also agreed that I won’t cover the Clinton/Sanders race in Iowa, or anywhere my daughter works next.) I declined to respond to the endorsement; after all, I contributed to the magazine’s excellent “Who’s Ready For Hillary?” feature last year; our readers know what I think.
But then I reread that piece and realized: No, they don’t. I was actually kind of horrified at my careful, qualified quasi-endorsement. I wrote it much the way I wrote about Clinton in 2008: defensively. Here’s the gist: “My willingness to accept Clinton as a Democratic presidential nominee doesn’t stem from any great passion for Hillary herself—though I respect her—but from my aversion to the impotent game of ‘Let’s find an insurgent candidate who will topple a centrist front-runner!’ played by the left every four to eight years.”
I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve come to feel passion for Clinton herself, and for what I see as a movement that supports her, even though only Sanders is judged a “movement” candidate. I believe she’s evolved back to be the progressive Democrat she used to be, more progressive than her liberal husband. Some of my feelings remain defensive, but in a warmer sense: I really don’t want to see her abused again. I’m tired of seeing her confronted by entitled men weighing in on her personal honesty and likability, treating the most admired woman in the world like a woman who’s applying to be his secretary. I’m stunned anew by the misogyny behind the attacks on her, and her female supporters, including my daughter. I’m sick of the way so many Sanders supporters, most of them men, feel absolutely no compunction to see things through female Clinton supporters’ eyes, or to worry they might have to court us down the road, take special care not to alienate us lest we sit the race out in November, if our candidate loses.
Of course we won’t do that; we’re women! We’re trained to think about everybody else’s needs first. It’s not just that: women will be hurt the most by a GOP presidency. Naturally, I will back Sanders if he’s the nominee. I promise I’ll eventually feel joy about it—after grieving, if Clinton were to lose again. But if that were to happen, it wouldn’t be because I was too busy protecting my lefty bona fides to say I support her, enthusiastically, this time around. I stand with a lot of women who feel the same way, including my daughter, and we won’t be erased.