When the dust settles on the 2020 Democratic primary season, it may well serve as a guide for deciphering the limits and rigidity of mainstream gender discourse. We saw, in Barack Obama’s 2008 fight for the Democratic presidential nomination, a similar test of permissible utterances from a Black candidate on racial controversies—most notably in Obama’s Philadelphia speech distancing himself from what he described as Jeremiah Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country.”
In the 2020 cycle, we’ve seen the steady retreat of a once-crowded field of women candidates, so that Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar were the last two viable women standing. And in a fraught dispute over the electability of a woman presidential hopeful that broke out between Warren and Bernie Sanders just prior to the Iowa caucus, we got an edifying glimpse of the broader fatalist worldview that has rapidly overtaken the Democratic Party’s discursive mainstream on the crucial question of gender equality.
To grasp the basic structure of this latest foray into elite-level debate paralysis, it’s first necessary to revisit the short, ill-starred reign of post-racialism during the early days of the Obama age. Post-racialism was a hipper variant of the longstanding conservative doctrine of racial color blindness. And like that earlier effort to evade substantive questions of racial justice and reparation with anodyne rhetoric, post-racial discourse grew mostly out of a species of magical thinking that soon became conventional wisdom within a white-dominated punditocracy.
Like the color-blind thesis on the right, the liberal romance with post-racialism doubled as a self-administered sort of historical amnesia. Under its ahistorical sway, breathless political observers were able to declare generations of civil rights leaders and other critics of a racialized social order as simply misguided. At long last, America had rapidly outgrown the horrific legacies of white supremacy and the faintly embarrassing politics of Black protest.
Fast-forward to the 2020 primaries, and we see much the same foreshortened and self-insulating logic of political retreat largely enveloping the question of gender equity in presidential politics. In the January Sanders-Warren showdown over the advisability of putting a female nominee at the top of the ticket, a similarly revealing moment of strategic elision came into the foreground. In fighting off the Warren charges, Sanders partisans moved swiftly to lock down any substantive debate on the question of how and whether a woman candidate might be elected, by echoing the candidate’s own view that the position ascribed to him was essentially unthinkable: He hadn’t said what Warren claimed he said. This position effectively conflated the recognition of a patriarchal power structure with its de facto approval. And this rhetorical maneuver almost perfectly parallels the devious end run at the core of right-wing color blindness orthodoxy. In that world, the first one to mention race is the racist—just as Sanders could not afford to be seen as though he were endorsing a sexist status quo in the act of calling it by its true name.
There is of course one signal difference to keep in mind here: As daft and premature as the pronouncements of a post-racial dispensation circa 2008 had proved to be, there was still a momentous political and cultural breakthrough at the foundation of such talk. There’s no comparable anti-sexist triumph, even in the age of the #MeToo movement, to hypnotize the mainstream consensus into a symmetrical “At least that’s over with” reaction as the country is governed by a self-confessed repeat sexual assaulter.
The core disagreement here, as Warren summed it up, was simple, even mundane. “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate,” Warren said. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”
But from this terse summary, a veritable firestorm of claims, counterclaims, and soul-searching pundit panels ensued. And in all the sound and fury that followed, there proved little room to question just what the intent and implications of Sanders’s alleged assertion might have been in the event that he did in fact say it.
Instead, we witnessed a steady barrage of non sequitur defenses from the extremely online Sanders camp. Bernie supporters tirelessly reposted a video from 1988 showing him confidently predicting the rise of a woman candidate to the presidency. Here, the clear implication went, was smoking-gun proof that Sanders was telling the truth, and Warren was lying. In reality, of course, one could simultaneously hold both positions—Bernie circa 1988 and Bernie circa 2018—at the same time. Women clearly can smash the Oval Office glass ceiling at some point, without the cycle in which Trump seeks reelection being the most propitious moment to test the hypothesis (particularly since said hypothesis was tested in 2016, with disastrous results). What’s more, any commentator would have to be utterly disconnected from today’s deranged and diminished political climate not to realize that what seemed possible at the time of Sanders’s interview appears to be much further out of reach in 2020.
None of these complexities or qualifications entered into the reams of analysis obsessively parsing the Sanders-Warren dustup. We were instead marshaled in one fell swoop onto the pundit-friendly terrain of the he-said, she-said chronicle. The public evidently needed to know only whether Sanders expressed this skepticism at all, as opposed to the far more consequential matter of why it would be distasteful if he did.
This unsightly stampede toward a post-gendered consensus disarmed thoughtful commentary in much the fashion that disbelieving Black Americans saw the farcical post-racial discourse overtake any other left-leaning position on race more than a decade ago. In both the post-racial delusion of the early Obama years and the abortive gender-and-the-presidency battle that took place in early 2020, the same rules of engagement held: Anyone who acknowledges a problem by definition perpetuates it. By these lights, to see gender is to be sexist.
But this Kabuki-style dance of evasion is at least as absurd as it was in its post-racial guise. Even in the early phases of the primary, it’s abundantly clear that voters see and act on gender in politics—both explicitly and implicitly. And it’s just as clear that they see gender as a key determinant of electability in this year’s contest. A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll conducted in April 2019 indicated that 18 percent of New Hampshire Democrats who did not identify as Warren supporters were put off because they didn’t think she could beat President Trump.
So what is it, exactly, that makes the obvious invisible and unspeakable in contexts like this? Caution against playing “the woman card”—a term that once evoked bad-faith accusations of sexism to score political points—seems now to foreclose any consideration of gender’s possible relevance at all.
In addition, there’s a sense in which the rhetoric around gender issues tends to artificially constrain, rather than extend, the terms of debate. The casual absorption of terms such as intersectionality, diversity, and feminism into mainstream culture can short-circuit the analytical work those terms typically perform in more considered discursive compasses. In an age of pop wokeness—which has provided cover for politically apathetic corporations keen to align their brand identities with consensus progressive stances—the invocation of feminism does not always carry with it a rigorous critique of patriarchy. And that means, in turn, that we’re left guessing just how and where we can summon the necessary intellectual rigor and energy to mount a serious challenge to the many social forces that perpetuate and profit from rampant gender blindness.
Many postmortems on the 2016 election suggested that the focus on electing the first female president had placed disproportionate emphasis on a cursory, identity-based affinity between women and Hillary Clinton, and generally bypassed any substantive vetting of her politics. This interpretation stood out in stark contrast to the generosity extended to white working-class voters. In this set of ongoing 2016 postmortems, observers consistently presumed that these political actors embraced a plutocratic brand-dynast candidate like Trump to give vent to their economic anxiety—as opposed to the far more persuasive argument that such voters were going to extremes to preserve the psychic wages of whiteness.
The notion that gender is more often a red-herring issue, calculated to divide rank-and-file coalitions on the left, commands wide assent among critics seeking to uphold class as the sole variable of political identity possessing true political consequence. And that position is a common refrain among Sanders supporters. This haste to blame shallow identity politics for intraparty dissent only deepens and prolongs genuine divisions based on identity. And more than that, it dismisses any effort to examine with any rigor just when, where, and how gender functions as an axis of disadvantage and disempowerment alike—the unfortunate and enduring legacy of this winter’s Warren-Sanders imbroglio.