The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Warren vs. Sanders totally misses the point about sexism in politics

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) exchange words after last night’s debate as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Elizabeth Warren’s biggest applause line at Tuesday night’s Democratic debate had all the road-tested messaging appeal of a pink-pussyhatted women’s march. Gesturing to the male candidates on the stage, she whipped out some math: “Collectively [the men] have lost 10 elections. The only people who have won every election . . . are the women!”

The audience ate it up. The future is female! Nasty women! Nevertheless she persisted, and so did Amy Klobuchar!

Surely the moment was planned. Memorizing each of your opponents’ loss records could be read as petty, but it got the job done. It dispensed with the sexism question the way we like to see the sexism question dispensed with onstage: breezily, and with a girl-power flourish.

Many female candidates have a go-to line, something capable and Annie Oakleyish that they can pull out for such an occasion; Klobuchar likes to say that of course a woman can beat Donald Trump, “Nancy Pelosi does it every day.” What else are the candidates supposed to do? In debate after debate, moderators wedge sexism somewhere between Medicare-for-all and the Iran nuclear deal, then set their timers. In 45 seconds or less: Is America ready for a female president?

As if that question could be answered in 45 seconds, or 75 seconds. As if we haven’t been trying to answer it for years.

Perspective: Can a woman be elected president? Let’s put that silly question behind us.

The hook this time around was a Rashomon-like conversation that took place between Warren and Bernie Sanders more than a year ago as both were considering White House runs, and which CNN had revealed on Monday. Warren says Sanders told her that a woman couldn’t win in 2020, and “I disagreed.”

In the debate, Sanders denied he’d ever said such a thing, highlighting his track record for supporting female politicians, including Warren herself. Earlier that day, his campaign had outlined his version of the conversation in a statement: “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could.”

Pundits had teed this up as a conflict, as if one of the candidates were lying. In 45 seconds or less: how quickly can you throw your longtime friend and colleague under the bus?

It’s entirely possible that both of them were telling the truth, though. It’s possible Sanders believed he was merely warning Warren that the race would be even harder for her, and it’s possible Warren believed he was saying something more forceful: that President Trump’s skill with weaponizing misogyny made Sanders doubt a female candidate’s viability.

It’s possible we still prefer our discussions of sexism in politics to be peppy, upbeat one-liners, because the alternative is for them to be messy rehashings of “whether a woman can be president.” That question isn’t ever about the woman but about her potential voters and the moral fantasies we spin about ourselves.

Presumably, whatever Bernie Sanders said or didn’t say, he wasn’t trying to imply that a woman wasn’t good enough to win — which would be a judgment about women — but rather that any woman running for president would face a country that wasn’t good enough to vote for her. Which is a judgment about society.

In that case, Sanders wasn’t saying anything that worried Democrats, including many women, haven’t said for months — the “electability” argument via which hordes of voters apparently plan to vote for Joe Biden not because they like Joe Biden but because they think their neighbors do. That argument says: I’m not sexist, but in order to defeat Donald Trump, we have to live in the real world, which is.

That argument is reasonable, sort of. If your primary goal is putting out a fire, then your instinct is to hand the hose to the firefighter wearing the most flame-retardant gear. In this case: the candidate protected by his age, sexual orientation and XY chromosomes. That argument is also utterly exhausting. Because it’s also saying: I’m not sexist, but my position is that we should capitulate to the sexists by nominating only male candidates until the problem miraculously fixes itself. I’m not sexist, but rather than trying to make the world better, I think we should meet the world where it is, which is to say, in hell.

When is someone acknowledging sexism, and when is someone just being sexist?

That’s actually the conversation that should have happened on the debate stage.

Not Elizabeth Warren firing up a women-take-care-of-business sound bite, but Elizabeth Warren admitting that, yeah, it’s actually heartbreaking to have even your good friends tell you that the country won’t believe in you enough to vote for you. Yeah, you worry that if you lose, people are going to say it’s because you’re a woman, and the loss will unfairly impact female candidates for years to come.

Not Bernie Sanders denying that he’d ever even thought such a thing but Bernie Sanders admitting that of course he’d thought such a thing, just like many voters had. He worried that the country would eviscerate a female candidate, as had happened many times before, and he was trying to balance that fear against his very real desire for gender equality in politics.

Not two candidates trying to convince the country that it isn’t sexist — Look at how many times you’ve voted for ladies! — but two candidates talking frankly about sexism and our fears surrounding it.

That’s what America needs if it’s going to stop enacting the same hackneyed psychodrama over and over. Something like: The only sexism we have to fear is the fear of sexism itself.

Which might be too clunky to work as a rah-rah T-shirt slogan, but it does fit into 45 seconds.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit