Did Bernie Sanders tell Elizabeth Warren that a woman couldn’t win the White House, and does that make him a sexist bastard? Or did he not say that—which makes Warren, who says he did, a lying liar and bitch?
The media, at least, is overjoyed: Finally, we can talk about something that matters instead of fluff like climate change and health care and whether presidents can just murder leading figures of sovereign states. After all, it could not possibly be that Bernie said one thing and Warren heard another. That never happens. Nor could it be that he said it but doesn’t remember saying it—because that only happens to people like, well, me, who doesn’t remember writing things that are right there in print, or reading books I have actually reviewed.
In fact, there could be dozens of ways for whatever was said, or not said, to have subtly morphed into something much blunter and cruder, or something so delicate and elusive it can hardly be apprehended by anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime immersed in the later novels of Henry James.
We are now in round 5,624 of “Can a woman be elected president?,” and I can’t begin to tell you how demoralizing it is. For Warren-supporting women, this tiny incident looms large because it mirrors what men have been saying for centuries: “Women can’t write, women can’t paint,” as the obnoxious young philosopher Charles Tansley tells the artist Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. We are fortunately far from the day when M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr in the early 20th century, summoned up the example of Sappho to persuade herself there was such a thing as a female genius. Still, every woman alive has heard many discouraging words and predictions of inevitable failure.
Sometimes these statements come as a flat, stated fact; other times, regretfully; other times still, as a kind of weird joke, the way Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens used to bring me tidbits about the latest misogynistic fatwa.
Have you heard about the imam who banned women from riding bicycles because it put something between their legs?
Well, have a nice day.
In the January 14 debate, Bernie denied he’d said it. He’s long pointed out that he himself urged Warren to run in 2016; he claims no one believes a woman can’t be elected. That’s easy to say when you aren’t subject to sexism on a daily basis. Besides, I know dozens of people who love Warren and fear she can’t be elected. I am one of those people myself. Even if you think she can, you’d be a fool not to worry about it.
Bernie has pooh-poohed those fears, noting that Hillary got 3 million more votes than Trump. That’s true, but Hillary is not sitting in the Oval Office today because we do not live in a popular democracy and her majority was racked up in feminist-friendly blue states like California, where she got 4 million more votes than Trump.
She could have gotten every single vote in every state she won and still lost, because (whatever her oft-noted flaws and mistakes) she fell short in reddish swing states full of rural voters, white retirees, anti-abortion Christians who think God wants women to submit to male authority, and ordinary men and women who, for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on, are suspicious of women’s ability to wield power responsibly.
We’re supposed to be comforted by a May 2019 Gallup poll that showed 94 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman (up from 92 percent in 2015—progress!), but even assuming no one was fibbing, and even leaving aside the many ways gender plays out differently for men and women in practice—“I’d love to vote for a woman, just not that scheming schoolmarm with the shrill voice”—that’s a stone 6 percent of voters whom Warren won’t get. As anyone who spent time talking with voters in 2016 can tell you, not all of them are Republicans and not all of them are men. In a close election, that could hurt.
It’s fashionable now to say Twitter doesn’t represent Real America—that using tweets to reflect public opinion is like Thomas Friedman relying on the world’s cab drivers for information. But conversations that take place on the platform aren’t entirely meaningless when many people, both on the right and on the Bernie left, mock Warren for dancing to “Respect” at a rally in Brooklyn as awkward, inauthentic, or pandering.
No one said that when Bernie danced onstage in 2016. Cory Booker put it best: “Raise your hand if you know why people are trolling Elizabeth’s dance moves and not my dad jokes.”
The hashtag #refundwarren, which trended after the debate, urges Warren donors to demand their money back from ACTBlue—because the best way to prove a woman can win in 2020 is to try to defeat her and call her a liar over something that you don’t even know isn’t true.
I suppose the next step will be for the Bernie Bros, who keep insisting they don’t exist, to call Warren supporters vagina voters. But this time round, that might not be the silencer it was last time. Whatever else this episode of he said/she said may show, it demonstrates to anyone without testicles for brains that the playing field is not level, the double standard lives and what’s a molehill for a man morphs into a mountain for a woman.
It’s unfortunate that these two very experienced politicians didn’t manage to defuse the incident before the debate, or indeed, during it. After all, whatever their partisans say, they are close to each other politically (especially when you consider that neither will be able to bring their more ambitious plans to fruition, given the nature of the House and Senate). Neither has a really great chance of winning the nomination, let alone the general election. After all, 6 percent told Gallup won’t vote for a woman and only 47 percent in the same poll said they would vote for a socialist (even hypothetical atheists and Muslims polled better).
It’s encouraging to see that some 18 progressive groups have called for a truce between the two camps in the interest of defeating corporate Democrats. Because if enough people give up on the left because of this squabble, the big winner may turn out to be Biden—or Trump.