Last week BuzzFeed and HuffPost published reports that Democratic senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is a serial office bully. According to multiple former staffers, Klobuchar sent haranguing, insulting emails to staffers in the middle of the night, threatened to fire people in front of their colleagues, lost her temper regularly and unpredictably, asked people to pick her dirty laundry up from the floor and otherwise regularly humiliated a number of those working in her office.
Klobuchar hit back hard. “Yes, I can be tough, and yes I can push people,” Klobuchar said after she announced her run for the Democratic nomination on Sunday. “I have, I’d say, high expectations for myself. I have high expectations for the people who work for me. And I have high expectations for this country.”
Klobuchar didn’t need to say why she thought she was being judged more harshly because — sexism. Others already did it for her. “These attacks from anonymous sources on Amy Klobuchar are a bunch of gendered bull----,” declared Amy Siskind in a typical sample, adding a few days later, “This story would never have been a story if it were Arthur Klobuchar.” Despite the examples of bad male congressional bosses that immediately got attention in the wake of the accusations — Anthony Weiner, to name one — it’s true that double standards can hurt tough women bosses. We simultaneously expect women to be kinder and judge them more harshly for failing to toe this line.
But at the same time, we need to be honest: Bullying is a major problem in American culture, one that eats away at our quality of life and is present everywhere from elementary school playgrounds to the White House, and it’s something practiced by both men and women.
It starts at the top, of course, with the president. CEOs are said to fear his ire. He insults and belittles ethnic groups and politicians of both parties. His track record of bullying people to get his way goes back decades — when he got into a dispute with a group of rent-stabilized tenants in one of his properties, renters said he took away their heat and hot water in an effort to get them to capitulate.
But Trump is less a cause than a symptom of a bullying culture run amok. As the age of inequality grew in the 1980s, a parallel culture of lionizing C-suite bullies also emerged. The late Steve Jobs was a notorious workplace bully, while former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer was accused of tossing furniture at a subordinate. (He denies it.)
This is unlikely to be a coincidence. A cross-cultural study of 11-year-olds published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2009 found countries with greater income inequality experienced more bullying, at least as far as children went. “The percentage of respondents who bullied others was four to five times greater in countries with higher income inequality, for example Turkey, the Russian Federation and the United States,” Frank Elgar, now an associate professor of psychology at McGill University and one of the named authors of the paper, said at the time.
Our turbo-capitalist economy teaches us we should be in it for ourselves, that there are winners and losers, and you can choose to be one or the other. U.S. business culture, with our tradition of at-will employment and increasing lack of union protections, plays a role, but it goes beyond work. It’s all around us. Reality television is a bonanza of gaslighting, backstabbing and other bullying behavior. Children’s sporting events report increased bullying from parents of coaches and referees. And don’t get me started on social media and the call-out culture.
Workplace bullying undergirds more than a few #MeToo stories, as well. At The Takeaway, for instance, John Hockenberry was accused not just of sexually harassing female staffers and guests but also of bullying three female co-hosts.
This brings me back to the female issue. There is forever a tension in the women’s movement: Do we simply want in on the structures that govern our lives, or do we want to transform them, as well? The argument for women’s rights often centers not just on fairness and equity but also on our merit. While no one would go as far as saying, as they still sometimes did when I was a child, that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice, we repeat our own modern equivalents. Women, it is said, are more collaborative and less inclined to take crazy risks that lead to things such as stock-market collapses.
But women, as much as we tell ourselves otherwise, are not better than men. As the Economist pointed out a few years ago, while women say they are less likely to support wars, an analysis of European history found that queens — particularly married queens — who were significantly more likely than their male counterparts to take conflicts between nations to a military place. And, as Olga Khazan noted last year in The Atlantic, women can be absolutely horrible to one another in the workplace.
Moreover, there is precious little evidence to support the idea that bullying behavior improves workplace output. In fact, bullying often does the opposite of what is intended. It decreases worker engagement and negatively impacts performance while increasing employee comings and goings — and here let me pause to note Klobuchar’s office has the third-highest turnover rate in the Senate.
Let’s not let the desire for a female president blind us to the reality of all this. When it comes to the matter of treating others with respect, we should seek to raise the standard men need to meet, not lower it so women can join in our nation’s bullyfest. We don’t need to replace one bully with another. We deserve better than that.