February 8, 2016 at 2:33 PM
In the annals of history, nothing said this weekend about the duties, obligations or habits of young women and politics will rank among the most egregious public comments made about women during the 2016 race. But they do merit mention.
Just in case you missed these not-at-all-auspicious weekend moments, what we are referring to here is the decision of feminist activist and cultural icon Gloria Steinem and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright — a woman regarded as the embodiment of female ability, know-how and grit — to essentially reprimand and ridicule women who do not plan to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Their logic differs slightly and yet seems to grow from the same diseased tree. But take just a few steps back here, and there is almost no one involved in this story — not those who made the comments, not those who have expressed outrage, not those who insist that their Democratic presidential candidate is better for women than the other — who really has much room to brag, boast or lambaste.
Steinem essentially told HBO host Bill Maher that young women are throwing their support behind Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) because this is where politically active, progressive young men can be found in a social life-enhancing cluster. Steinem's comments were, to say the least, just a bit dismissive about the sound political reasons that some young women — and to be clear, the numbers indicate that we are talking about young, white women here — prefer Sanders over Clinton.
There is also little evidence that this strategy has been employed and/or works. Frankly, if winning young women's votes was really as simple as finding an attractive group of young men to staff a campaign, it's pretty clear that just about every campaign would do just that.
What we do have, though, is evidence that married women — particularly women who do not work outside the home — are more likely to vote in ways that mirror their husbands. There are lots of data to show married women — particularly stay-at-home moms — vote more conservatively than single women. And this offers a pretty strong counter to Steinem's attempted young woman dis. Married women, who are also more likely to be white women and, in this country, in their mid-20s or or older, are not exactly a reliable part of the Democratic coalition at all. In 2012, a majority of white women and white married women, in particular, voted for Romney.
Now, back to this weekend's list of interesting ideas expressed about young women.
At a Clinton campaign event in New Hampshire, Albright was actually repeating something she has said so often that it once appeared as a pre-printed statement on Starbucks coffee cups. Albright said there was a "special place in Hell" for women who do not support other women or, worse, stand in their way or feel some duty to make other women's lives hard to test and season them. That's a set of ideas that may be almost always applicable in the office, or worth considering in the conduct of other portions of one's life.
But when it comes to politics, Albright and anyone else who agrees with this idea may need to remember that young female voters are like all others: Their votes must be earned. And that's done by understanding their political needs, embedding policy proposals and ideas that address and prioritize those concerns at the center of a candidate's platform, and being mindful of not just what is said in the course of a campaign, but how it is said. One needs to actually listen to the groups of voters with which a candidate is doing well and those with which a candidate is not. And a campaign that wants to move people out of the latter group and into the former can't be dismissive about what those people who aren't backing their candidate have to say. All of that is so very basic to the idea of campaigning and democracy that it's actually rather sad that it must be said.
But it boils down to this: Votes have to be earned. And any sort of entitled claim that certain votes belong to certain candidates is inherently disrespectful and opens the people and campaigns that lean upon them to reasonable ridicule. It's also a tactic that Clinton and her supporters already tried in 2008 when Clinton was trying to defeat Barack Obama. It did not work well then, either. This lesson really ought to have been learned.
That, of course, is exactly what Sanders's almost-gleeful supporters have said everywhere and anywhere they could in the hours since Steinem and Albright said what they did. Several have been so bold as to profess to having a more-sophisticated view of women and their political views and obligations. And that, quite frankly, is also laughable.
The weekend collection of comments about young women and what they "ought to do" in relationship to Hillary Clinton is, no doubt, insulting. Still, no one who has had any kind of contact with more than 10 Sanders supporters will deny this. The Sanders camp — be it the campaign or the campaign's rabid and vocal supporters — can not be described as particularly respectful of those who do not agree with them completely. (Witness the "Berniebros.")
As an at least partial result of this, the Sanders campaign has a notable demographic problem with voters of color — including young women of color. When this matter is raised, the most frequent responses often seem to center around the idea that these people "ought" to support Sanders and need to educate themselves. The Sanders campaign and many of its most rabid supporters seem quite dismissive of the idea that the campaign may need to actually do or say anything different to win those votes.
Sanders's pitch to women is largely about young white women whose primary political concerns may include things such as college debt load and costs. These are legitimate issues that the Sanders campaign has long put front-and-center in its platform and campaign appeals. But Clinton has put different issues or different frames on issues that have helped her do well with women of color — across the age spectrum. An example: Clinton has talked about the essential role that raising the minimum wage could play in lifting more women of color and children living in single parent homes out of poverty. Interestingly, Clinton's plan calls for a $12 minimum wage. Sanders' calls for a $15 wage floor. His is clearly higher. But she's done a better job, it seems, selling it to the women who disproportionately work minimum wage jobs.
So you see, if Sanders fans want to argue that the Clinton campaign should be respectful of the legitimate political concerns of young (white) women, that's fine. But they also have to accept that same truth about the concerns of young and older women of color.
Then there is this: One of the many reasons (and there are several) that the feminist movement has long struggled in its effort to speak for and to women — to become a kind of powerful and sustained organizing force in the political activity and lives of women — is the failure to first acknowledge and then address the very different social and economic positions of white and non-white women. These differences begin to explain why white women have, in more than a few recent presidential general elections, actually backed Republicans rather than any Democrat.
Take a moment to look closely at the chart below, pulled from a 2015 report compiled by the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics and the Higher Heights Foundation. Note the fact that a majority of white women — and white women alone — have backed the Republican presidential candidate each election since 2000.
And that's a reality that really ought to humble every single person, campaign and campaign supporter mentioned above.