the body politic

The Bernie Bros vs. the Hillarybots

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Photo: David Becker/AP Photo/Corbis

Bubbling intra-left conflict over Hillary Clinton has washed over the internet, with the most recent fracas concerning the cover art for a new anti-Hillary book by left-wing writer Doug Henwood. The book, which will be published in January, is an expansion of Henwood’s anti-Hillary broadside for Harper’s in 2014. Its cover is a noirish painting of Hillary, arm raised, gun pointed at readers, under the title My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency.

From one angle, the image is a hilariously kitschy take on an ambitious, tenacious politician long bedeviled by an American reluctance to admire tenacity and ambition in women. Painted by a Hillary superfan who describes her depictions of the candidate as “libidinal,” it works as an over-the-top riff on the way Hillary (and other powerful women) are seen as emasculating and dangerous. The painting recalls the “Texts from Hillary” meme that made Clinton briefly cool, as well as “Notorious RBG” iconography that resonates around fiercely brilliant bubbe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In other words, it kind of makes Hillary look like a badass

But since the book is far from an ode to Clinton’s moxie, the image takes on a different cast, conveying the grotesque degree to which a competent professional woman, history-making presidential candidate, policy nerd, and grandmother can be so intimidating that her menace is best portrayed as violent threat. It’s imagery that mirrors right-wing conspiracy theories about Hillary as a murderous Lady Macbeth. But remember, this book comes not from the right but from the left. Henwood goes after Clinton as a hawkish corporatist, beholden to Wall Street; he includes Clinton’s feminist shortcomings in his critique. 

This is the fractured, maddening dynamic in play in a far corner of the American left, as Hillary Clinton continues to square off against her progressive challenger, Bernie Sanders. Her critics, some of the loudest of them progressive men, are struggling to communicate the intensity of their distaste for her and for her supporters. But in their efforts, a few are reaching for the communicative weapons usually wielded by their ideological foes — those who diminish, demean, and infantalize women. These lefty guys are reminding their feminist peers that misogyny and bitter gender resentments are not — as they have never been — the sole province of the American right. As Michelle Goldberg points out in her piece about these tensions, “as long as feminism has existed, left-wing men have dismissed it as a bourgeois triviality. Now we know how little things have changed.”

The skirmish over Henwood’s cover is but one in a series of recent progressive kerfuffles. Past weeks have also involved disagreement over whether Sanders’s reference to Clinton shouting during their first debate could reasonably be heard as reflecting gender bias and aggravation over Sanders’s advisers’ suggestion that Clinton would make a great vice-president. Then there is the criticism that Hillary can hardly be hailed as a feminist hero when, among other things, she so vocally supported her husband’s welfare reform initiative, legislation that caused disproportionate harm to poor women and their families.  

And while Democratic enmity is much milder this season than in 2008 (when it was set to “Historically Over-Determined Agony”), the fact that the two candidates on offer are again figures without presidential precedent — a white Democratic woman and a Jewish Democratic socialist man — means that the fights we’re having with each other are again clouded by complicated impulses and hang-ups related to identity, power, and representation. 

Officially, the debate about whether to support Clinton or Sanders is not so different from debates Democrats have during many presidential cycles. It hinges on the relative merits of taking a big risk on a more radical candidate in the hope of revitalizing the left, or taking a safer path in hopes of protecting (and perhaps modestly expanding) what meager progressive infrastructure we have in place. This is a serious debate; none of us really knows which path is smarter or will benefit or harm more Americans, but many of us have strong opinions about it, and have participated in versions of it before, when we’ve tussled over other candidates. 

But when Clinton is in play, so is her gender, working both for and against her. To some portion of her progressive supporters, Clinton’s femaleness is regarded as a positive in their overall political calculus. It seems reasonable to argue that it would be good for the country to elect its first female president (especially since the woman in question is not a Thatcher-esque reactionary, but a strong Democrat), just as it was good for it to elect its first black one. But to admit to a consideration of her gender, even when it is so clearly not the only consideration, means your opinion risks being laughed off as infantile, simplistic, girlish. Some left-wing Clinton critics accuse her defenders of “voting based on that alone,” or with an eye only to “vulgar identity politics,” as Henwood puts it in My Turn. With a few simple turns of phrase, legitimate arguments over presidential candidates and representational inequities get reduced to insinuations that women have no head for politics and are just concerned with seeing their own image shining back at them from the Oval Office.

I recently published a lengthy piece about my own conflicted feelings about Clinton, in which I acknowledged an investment in electing a qualified Democratic woman as one of my (serious) considerations. Despite the fact that the piece also detailed my qualms about her, it was derided by some lefty men (and Clinton critics) whose work I respect. That’s fair enough; we disagree. But I was struck by the way in which they voiced their objections, portraying the piece, which was published in Elle, and the feminist argument it put forth, as fundamentally unserious, self-interested, vain, and illegitimate. “600,000 Iraqis died because of the war Hillary enthusiastically supported but you’re a ‘hot mess’ so that settles it,” quipped blogger Freddie deBoer, making reference to the hyperfeminized phrase “Hot Mess” that appeared in the headline of the story, though not in the text. Matt Bruenig, a writer with whom I agree about many things, summarized his view of the essay: “a highly educated rich white woman says she really wants a highly educated rich white woman to be president”; his later blog post about it was called “The Presidential Mirror.” Progressive writer Zaid Jilani refused to even acknowledge any specifically feminist argument for more equal representation, explaining instead that “Ppl voting for Hillary for this reason are like southern GOP neighbors wanting GOP for culturally affirming reasons.” As if the concerns of people who have never had representation in the White House were equivalent to people wanting to vote for candidates they’d like to have beers with.  

In several places, including Henwood’s book, Hillary critics perform a neat but dishonest elision, placing arguments set forth by some feminist Hillary defenders (including me) next to those made by a British writer named Daisy Benson, who wrote a column earlier this year bearing a headline about how the Labour Party should support a female leader “regardless of her policies.” But no one I know or respect who is writing about American politics has made any such suggestion; many feminist journalists have been more than explicit about their opposition to female candidates whose policy ideas they deplore. The acknowledgment that Clinton’s platform isn’t perfectly aligned with a progressive and feminist agenda doesn’t distinguish her from previous presidential candidates or even from Bernie Sanders, whose positions on guns and foreign policy are far from progressively perfect. But somehow the admission of gender as a factor in support for her creates an opportunity to dismiss not only enthusiasm for Clinton as feminized and thus silly, but also a whole body of feminist argument that concerns itself with the underrepresentation of women in politics. It allows a young man like Ben Norton, a staff writer at Salon, who regularly refers to journalists who have written anything positive about Clinton as “Hillarybots,” to authoritatively explain to “bourgeois feminists” that their lack of commitment to dismantling systems of oppression invalidates their feminism. “Clinging to your identity group,” writes Norton, “‘regardless of its policies’ is not politics; it is high-school clique drama.” 

Of course, an insistence on policy purity as the only respectable measure of presidential worth is conveniently blind to one of the factors that has shaped who in American politics even gets to present themselves as, you know, a candidate who would dismantle systems of oppression. It lacks any acknowledgment that figures already perceived as disruptive based on their identities alone have far less freedom to adopt or run on radical policy platforms. Hillary Rodham, the public defender who filed a brief in 1976 to save a mentally handicapped man on death row and worked for years for the Children’s Defense Fund, was never going to be president; America practically suffered a collective aneurysm when she became First Lady. That neither excuses nor fully explains her contortions since then — and I respect those who find them simply too unpalatable to justify a vote for her — but let’s not pretend that they were undertaken outside of a gendered context. Dynamics that restrict the progressivism of non-white-male candidates are real; they’re why John Edwards, who, with his unassailably white-guy claim to presidential plausibility, was able to run a far more progressive campaign than either his female or black opponents in 2008. 


To be clear, anti-feminist condescension does not come from the majority of Hillary Clinton’s critics or Bernie Sanders’s supporters. While summer polls showed a big gender divide between Bernie and Hillary fans, that gap has become pretty negligible. Plenty of women (including me) are Bernie fans, and some are as vivid in their loathing for Hillary as any man. Likewise, there are plenty of guys capable of engaging in reasoned discourse about Clinton’s shortcomings and Sanders’s strong points without descending to disdain for feminist concerns they don’t agree with.  

But there is a particular strain of gendered animus that comes from a small group of writers — perhaps only, as deBoer has written, “a few dozen people on Twitter!” But those people have big voices and impassioned followers, and their disregard for their feminist peers packs a particular wallop because many feminists regard them, usually, as the good guys — men with whom we see eye to eye. Recently, some of these men have themselves become the butt of identity-based derision, labeled “Berniebros” by The Atlantic and described in another piece as “flustered, shouting white guys.” These loose, careless characterizations, sometimes made without specific reference to individuals or acknowledgment that Sanders fans and Clinton critics are far from all-male or all-white, may be annoying and unfair. But they exist because they describe a dynamic — sexist condescension and dismissal of feminist argument — that is happening online. 

There is a tendency to discredit Hillary supporters/defenders by feminizing or sexualizing them, whether they are women or men: In response to one tweeted observation that “overly enthusiastic male Hillary supporters want to marry their moms,” Jacobin contributor Connor Kilpatrick replied, “their preferred cologne smell is ‘mom’s purse.’” Feminist critiques of either Sanders or his supporters are met with overblown mockery, an internet-shouted “WHY DO YOU HATE WOMEN?” joke. Elsewhere, in a nasty satirical response to accusations of “Berniebro”-ishness, the “interns” posting on Bruenig’s personal blog have jeered EMILY’s List for its mission to support Democratic pro-choice women candidates and the “several hundred little girls” whose interest in seeing a woman run for president they presume to come second to their Katy Perry fandom. 

It’s not just what the progressive guys say about Clinton, her supporters, or feminism itself, it’s also what they don’t say. Where are the fierce male Hillary critics grappling with any anxiety about two centuries of all-male executive power in a country that is 51 percent female and in which women’s bodies are heavily patrolled by federal and state legislation? I get that they think that a male candidate, in this case Bernie Sanders, would be as good or better on these issues — and maybe they are correct, maybe they are not — but where is the accompanying acknowledgment of how fucked up this is? Where is the reckoning with the fact that the dearth of female leaders in America isn’t just some quirk of electoral politics, but a reflection of long-standing economic, political, social, and sexual inequities on which this country was built and which current representational inequity further exacerbates? 

Are any of these guys, so sure that a feminist argument for Clinton as a qualified woman is “really very caricatured identity politics,” troubled enough by the fact that women make up only 20 percent of Congress to consider what to do about that? How do the men who confidently disqualify Hillary as a meaningful history-maker on account of how she’s a wealthy white woman explain that we’ve never had a female president of any race or class? When they say that Hillary defenders are simply eager to look in a mirror and see themselves, have they considered turnout as a deciding factor in crucial state and local races that determine voting rights, Medicaid expansion, and access to abortion and contraception? Do they know that there’s been just one African-American woman in the Senate’s history, and only one other woman of color? Have they considered the impact that having Clinton at the top of a ballot might have not only on nonwhite Senate candidates Donna Edwards or Kamala Harris, but on congressional races in which many women who are neither white nor wealthy are running, including Nevada’s Lucy Flores, California’s Nanette Barragan, Florida’s Annette Taddeo, and Maryland’s Joseline Peña-Melnyk? Do they know about the 2013 polling that found that minority voters, women, non-college voters, and unmarried women — in other words, America’s rising electorate — were “all more likely to engage” in the political process “with a woman at the top of the ticket”? Do they care? 

And spare me the wistful paeans to Elizabeth Warren. I too wish that Warren (and others) had challenged Clinton, but citing a fondness for her as a get-out-of-sexism card is a dodge. Interest in electing a woman president isn’t really best embodied by a devotion to one lone woman you can think of, a woman who happens not to be in contention. More pointedly, one of the things that makes Warren so appealing is the fact that she shows no sign of wanting to run for president. This is a fine quality in a human, one that makes her more comprehensible and comfortable to us, as a woman, than Clinton who, like her male counterparts, has strategized and made compromises in the service of her presidential ambitions.  

These guys don’t like the woman — one specific woman — who has done those things, and that’s fine. But how they say that they don’t like her, and how they treat the people — the women and the men — who do like her, should make progressives a bit uneasy. 

Perhaps we are supposed to accept on good faith that their belittlement and derision toward women don’t reflect actual sexism or low estimations of women or total lack of concern for majority-male representation of a majority-female country. Maybe this is just hipster racism’s wacky cousin, socialist sexism! These are guys who believe in expansive state benefits and worry about economic harm done to single mothers and poor women of color — how could they be sexist? I mean, sure, their vision of a Nordic-style socialist revolution bringing years of paid parental leave has zero chance of coming to fruition in our lifetime, but they’d really like it to, so how could their case for it rely partly on their scornful dismissal of women who disagree with them about how to get by in the meantime? They’re progressives, feminists! They are, they’ll be happy to tell you, smarter feminists than the feminists with whom they butt heads. So, like the kitschy painting of Hillary and her gun, their disdain for feminist argument (that is different from their own superior feminist argument) is like a joke! Any humorless grunt who tries to hold them accountable for it is obviously some kind of bot whose points can be boiled down to “WHY DO YOU HATE WOMEN?” Which is very funny, because these guys clearly don’t hate women … right?

Tell that to the bitch with her gun pointing straight at them

The Bernie Bros vs. the Hillarybots