Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Brilliance. A Gendered Concept in American Politics?

This TPM piece casts light on a very interesting phenomenon in American presidential politics:  The desire to elect a king, a figurehead, a meaning,  rather than a manager for our shared and complicated affairs.

By a "king" in this context I mean someone who stands as a symbol* for something important, someone who has charisma, someone we would like to have a beer with and so on.  It's not the only thing which matters in presidential elections, but anyone following US elections for a few rounds knows that such things matter.

Now, Buttigieg is not described in quite those terms in the linked article by John Judis, but he is certainly the new darling in much of the media, bringing in fresh winds, new ideas, and the kind of charisma some remember from the Kennedy times.

The article lists five features which might attract voters to Buttigieg, including the fact that he is a millennial.**  It's the first of those features that I want to discuss, from a feminist point of view.  I quote:

What accounts for his popularity?  I’ll list five factors.   First, he is the smartest person in class.  New York Magazine’s profile of him is titled, “Pete Buttigieg is a gay Harvard alum, fluent in Gramsci, Joyce, and Norwegian.”  Being thought of as brilliant is a plus in elections.  It helped John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008.  It contributed to the rise of Emmanuel Macron in France and is probably a factor in the popularity of super-reactionary Thierry Baudet in Holland who touts himself  “the most important intellectual in the Netherlands.”
Fascinating stuff!  Note that all those brilliant people are men.  That may simply reflect the scarcity of women in politics more generally, but I still refuse to accept that Barack Obama was viewed as more brilliant than Hillary Clinton.  They are both pretty damn brilliant, but it just might be the case that being brilliant is not such a boon for a female candidate, what with the complicated gender steps the political dance assigns them.

Judis continues:

I’m not sure why Warren’s campaign seems not to have taken off.  She certainly could challenge Buttigieg for being the smartest person in class. And she has real accomplishments in Washington to boast of.

Hmm.  Thinking, thinking.  No, I can't figure out what the difference might be***.

That was sarcasm.  But it's worth noting that I have read countless articles about Elizabeth Warren and don't recall a single one telling us, as a positive characteristic,  how brilliant she is, even though one doesn't become a professor at Harvard University without brilliance, to teach those Harvard graduates such as Buttigieg. 

Indeed, I have observed a slight online tendency not to credit women with brains or genius as often as men are credited with them.  This may be because those boobs make the brains harder to spot.


*  Trump stood as the symbol of the Angry White Man, making America Great Again by stomping on all other demographic groups, to take the country back to the 1950s power structures and social norms. 

Barack Obama stood, for some voters, and at least partly, as the symbol of a correction in the country's racist history, but he also showed oodles of personal charisma and smarts, as Judis points out.

Buttigieg may stand as the symbol of generational change, of the flyover America, of justice for the GLBT people, of smartness (of renewed value in the Trump era) and so on.

And such symbolism isn't bad in the way it's used in the two last paragraphs above.

But the same symbolic value is not, in general,  attached to the idea of electing a female president, even though this country has had exactly zero female presidents and even though more than half of all Americans are female.  That's worth some introspection.

**  Read the list at the source.

My intention is not to criticize Buttigieg as a candidate, but to criticize the coverage of elections as horse races.  Well, perhaps not even as horse races, because in that coverage at least the past statistics of the horse would be mentioned more often, rather than just its beauty or shiny coat or whatever.

Neither am I necessarily criticizing this whole approach, except to the extent that we wouldn't use it to pick a surgeon to remove a tumor from our brain.  But many do use it to pick a president, as the Trump election demonstrated.

** I have read that she is too professorial (so much for brilliance!), too hectoring, not charismatic enough.  Not a good figurehead, in other words, especially in a country which doesn't have the custom of having female figureheads in the first place.

This post does NOT mean that Warren is necessarily a better candidate in all respects than Buttigieg or that I wouldn't like the latter's policies once I learn more about them or that Warren doesn't suffer from problems of her own making.   Rather, this post is about the odd way the media frames these issues and how that particular framing hurts female candidates of all types.  Do a gender reversal on Buttigieg, leaving everything else the same, and then consider if that candidate would have become the media's new sweetheart.  I doubt it, personally.

It's sometimes stated that in business men are judged on promise and women on experience.  In politics, as probably in business, too,  this means that by the time the women have acquired the necessary experience they will also look stale and old and part of the previous wind,  And everyone needs a fresh wind to blow in and to blow away one Donald Trump.

All this may be changing for the youngest women in politics now, such as  for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though the jury is still out on that, given the too small sample.  But it does apply to the older generations of female politicians in the US.