Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential bid has been beset by grim reporting on her treatment of staff members since the Minnesota Democrat declared her intent to run earlier this month. Reports of Klobuchar’s abuse of staff members have included allegations that she has thrown office supplies such as phones and binders in the direction of underlings in fits of anger, that she regularly berates her workers, and that she has attempted to sink job prospects for staffers departing her office as revenge for their leaving (a charge the senator’s office has denied). Her reputation for ill treatment of those in her employ apparently made it difficult for her to put together a team to staff her presidential campaign.
The reports drew criticism of Klobuchar from most commentators. But some people weren’t convinced. In fact, as former staffers have continued to speak with reporters and allegations of Klobuchar’s office antics have continued to emerge, a specifically feminist line of defense has arisen regarding the senator’s methods of doing business.
In Politico, Jennifer Palmieri, the former director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, argued that men with Klobuchar’s management habits would wear such reports as a “badge of honor,” and that “those who say that Klobuchar is getting the treatment she deserves also miss another, larger force at play: We still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses.” And for Vox, editorial director Laura McGann mused: “It’s hard not to wonder, would a male candidate in the same position take the same heat?”
Sexism in our politics was one of the chief organizing narratives in the 2016 election, so it is not surprising to see it revived again ahead of 2020. But with at least four other women in the running in the upcoming Democratic primaries, it’s clear that Clinton’s 2016 jab at the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” changed something important in the party’s imagination: It’s clear, now, that being a woman isn’t a barrier to claiming the party’s nomination. And that means that there’s no need to defend female candidates who just aren’t principled enough to reliably lead. Klobuchar, in other words, needn’t be a hill to die on.
There’s a reflexive kind of defensiveness that comes from the realization that women are judged more harshly than men for the same behavior. It tells us that fairness matters — and it does. But there are positive and negative forms of fairness. Negative fairness is a kind of fairness that reduces everyone to an equally bad position. Arguments that we ought to discount coverage of Klobuchar’s maltreatment of her staffers on gender-egalitarian grounds, for instance, really hold that because we wrongly accept male abuse of workers, we also ought to accept female abuse of workers. But the reality is actually the reverse: We rightly don’t accept female abuse of workers, and we shouldn’t accept male abuse of workers, either. This line of criticism is both gender-egalitarian and aimed at increasing the overall common good by creating a moral expectation that all workers be treated with dignity. That’s positive fairness.
What Klobuchar did, according to several reports from different credible news organizations, isn’t acceptable — and it’s almost certainly the case that plenty of men who have run for office in prior years are guilty of similar abuses, and should be just as firmly held accountable. But this time around, staking out a path for women to the nation’s highest office doesn’t require us to choose between reluctantly championing a negative fairness or kissing the hope of a mixed-gender field of candidates goodbye. There are enough women running who don’t share Klobuchar’s staff issues, and who can therefore more credibly set forth a pro-worker agenda, to make criticism of Klobuchar tactically safe (if you’re protecting a path for women to the presidency) as well as morally justified.
As the 2020 primaries wear on, there will be both fair and unfair criticisms of the female candidates in the race. It is and will remain necessary and useful to prosecute sexist criticisms which aim to undermine candidates strictly because of their sex. But the multiplicity of women running means that there’s no incentive anymore to shrug off legitimate criticisms for the greater good, even if doing so once seemed like an unfortunate fact of political life. There are more choices now, and no more need to weigh out greater and lesser evils. And hasn’t that always been the promise of feminism?