Friday, May 03, 2019

Ruthlessness in American Politics: A Vice or A Virtue? The Kamala Harris Case. has a new piece on Kamala Harris, one of the women among the contenders for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential elections. 

The title of the piece:

'Ruthless.'  How Kamala Harris Won Her First Race

My summary of the whole piece:  

Yes, Harris was clearly very competent, but she slept her way to the top*.  Yes, Harris was clearly very competent, but she re-interpreted her prosecutorial history to look more lefty than it really was (something no other politician has ever done).  Yes, Harris was clearly very competent, but her campaigning was extremely ruthless.

And then there are the detailed quotes from one person, about the ruthlessness of Kamala Harris:

Gary Delagnes, a former president of the city’s police union who would later have a falling-out with Harris over her refusal to seek the death penalty in the case of a young police officer who was shot to death while on patrol, recalled a party where Harris approached him to ask for his support. “I was standing in the corner,” he said. “I didn’t know who she was … and she came up to me and she put her finger in my chest and she said, ‘You better endorse me, you better endorse me. You get it?’
“I took it as almost half-kidding, but also very serious, that, ‘Hey, I’m going to win, and you better endorse me,'” he said, the implication: “I’m a player and I’m going to be a player and you better get on board or get out of the way.”
“I never forgot it,” Delagnes added. “She’s an intelligent person. She is a—let’s see, I better pick this world carefully: Ruthless.”

So.  The sample size here is one, and that one person had had a falling-out with Harris before he made these comments.  Yet they seemed worth publishing in Politico!

Now, you might think that being ruthless in politics is a good thing.  Biden has been accused of not being ruthless enough, for example.  Politicians tend to be ruthless, right?  It's not a bad thing, right?

But that is not my take-home message from this article, because "ruthlessness" can be a positive characteristic for male politicians (though not always), while it's far more likely to be seen as a negative characteristic for female politicians. Acting ruthlessly clashes with the traditional gender norms for women but not for men**:

Ruthlessness is bad in women.  It turns them into vampire queens from the coldest hell and also into entitled bitches. 
Ruthlessness is good in men.  It turns them into more efficient warriors, politicians and leaders.

A quick Google search tells me that Hillary Clinton was often called ruthless in the media, and not as praise for her political chops.  She was also called "entitled" by many in the media and in various political blog comments threads (It's My Turn, she is usually portrayed as saying in those, with an arrogant hair toss).  Being "entitled" is a terrible thing, in general, but more so in women.

Given that, this bit in the Harris article looks a little like a part of a pattern:

Harris asked Fazio in late 2002 if he was going to run for a third time against Hallinan, he said. When Fazio replied that he was, she told him she had decided to run, too.
Fazio recalled her saying, “I think it’s my time.”

Such fun and games, these kinds of articles are**.


*  And Hillary Clinton climbed up Bill's body to get to the top, and so on. 

Whether there is any truth in the claims the article about Harris mentions (i.e. whether her path was smoothed by her private relationship to Willie Brown), historically the only way for women to get political power has been through family connections to powerful men.  Widows might be elected as the symbol of the dead husband, daughters might be inherited to continue the dead father's work, and so on.

But it's also true that wealthy families and Old Boy Club connections have always made politicians' paths easier.  The Kennedys benefited from coming from a rich and powerful family, and so did the two Bush presidents (and one governor).  Yet it's the former shortcut that is more criticized than the latter.

**  The only exception to that I can think of now is that mothers are allowed to be ruthless in the defense of their children.   

*** I don't mind severe criticisms of the politicians running for office.  Rather, I demand them. 

But different politicians should be held to the same standards and possibly unconscious gender biases should be brought to the surface so that they are not used to create a Catch-22 setup for women who want to enter politics.

And because this article doesn't seem to do that, it becomes part of the trend which turns female politicians into unelectable politicians.