Six Ways from Tuesday: How Gender Dynamics Multiply Impacted the Outcome and Predicted Low Turnout

11/13/2016 05:49 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2016

How much did gender dynamics have to do with Hillary’s defeat, and Trump’s triumph, last Tuesday?

It’s already become a commonplace on the left that there are a range of factors which explain the election outcome – with sexism and misogyny being among them, along with racism, xenophobia, and a sense of disillusionment among white voters (be that more or less understandable and/or warranted). We should avoid monolithic, reductive explanations (so the thought continues); nor should we indulge in endless counter-factual analyses and ‘what if’ scenarios.

I basically agree with this. But it’s important to recognize that gender dynamics do not constitute a monolithic explanation of what happened. There are numerous ways they plausibly played into it – ranging from the obvious to the subtle – and rendered what happened relatively predictable. (Or, at least, predicted by yours truly, on the basis of low turnout for Hillary: a worry I wrote about in March and May, leading to the prediction I made in print in a piece that came out on July 11, reiterated on October 19, despite Hillary’s healthy lead in the polls then, and subsequently began to explain and defend in twitter conversations.)

In this piece, I want to spell out six of the factors that figured into my thinking here, and made me worry that gender dynamics would have a more powerful impact on the outcome of the election than had been — or has yet to be — generally appreciated:

1. Biases Upholding Existing Gender Hierarchies: As I’ve discussed before in the context of this election, there’s a wealth of empirical evidence showing that men are simply preferred to women in relevantly similar social contexts, e.g., head-to-head match-ups for male-dominated leadership positions. Around 85% of participants in one study by Madeline Heilman and her collaborators picked the man over the woman in each of the relevant trials – the only difference being the basis. If there was any room to doubt that the woman was just as qualified as her male counterpart, they held her to be less so. If there was unambiguous evidence that the woman was just as qualified as he was, they held her to be less likeable (a measure that encompassed being conniving, hostile, and untrustworthy, notably). This points to the ubiquity of the post hoc rationalization of ranking him over her in these and similar contexts. And the upholding of such hierarchies is, in my view, the essence of misogyny.

Heilman’s result, together with the related “social dominance penalty” theorized by L.A. Rudman, is important in explaining the outcome of the election. And importantly, it was evinced by both men and women equally. Youth also evidently made little difference, since all of the participants in this study (like most in social psychology) were college undergraduates, and would still be in the so-called millennial age range at the time of writing.

2. Suspecting and Guilting Women: When women do aspire to or successfully beat the boys at their own game (so to speak), there’s an emerging pattern worth paying close attention to: they are suspected of being guilty of something. In a number of places in the lead-up to the election, I explored the strikingly similar reception of Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia. Both were branded liars – “Ju-Liar” became the latter’s standard moniker with her detractors, both in the media and Australian households – and accused of corruption, on a manifestly thin basis. The charges, in each case, ultimately came to nothing. We will see if Donald Trump stays true to his word and throws Clinton in prison for her emails anyway.

Also worth noting is the “trial of Alice Goffman,” which was subsequently deemed a witch hunt by one of her more conscientious commentators – and where none of the charges stuck, despite the convictions of the internet. Goffman, a young, prize-winning sociologist was accused of everything from academic misconduct (based on a widely-circulated, 60-page anonymous document purporting to reveal inconsistencies in her account – which Goffman subsequently explained), to sheer fabrication to “driving the getaway car in a murder plot.” It’s not that Goffman was immune from criticism. But most of the valid criticisms were ones that could be levelled at many if not most ethnographers. Hence my suspicion that the suspicions were excessive to the point of crying out for explanation; the gendered pattern in question seems to me to provide the best or, at the very least, a plausible one.

True, not every female politician or prominent academic is subject to such suspicion, condemnation, and the desire to see them punished. But, when the mud-slinging does begin, it tends to escalate quickly. And there tends to be not only a pile-on (common enough on the internet), but an ‘oozing’ effect – where the suspicion seeps into every available crack in the woman’s reputation. Clinton, Gillard, and Goffman were all accused of myriad distinct offenses. And this betrays a sense that they’re guilty of something.

The problem at the heart of this seems to be trust – or lack thereof, rather. This brings me to my next point.

3. Shaming and Smearing Women: One powerful social mechanism for discrediting and disgracing women, even if they are trustworthy, is creating disgust-based associations and images surrounding them – i.e., mounting a smear campaign against them, construed more literally than usual. Elsewhere, I’ve explored how these tactics were used against Clinton by Trump and some of his alt-right brethren. Everything from Clinton’s using the restroom, to her coughing, to her signature open-mouthed laugh, to her mild case of pneumonia, to her subsequent phlegm, to a small dark mark on her jacket (a shadow from her lapel mic hypothesized to be a drool spot) were used to depict her body as an open, seeping, wound; a mess of bodily fluids which characteristically elicit disgust-based reactions, in ways which also enlisted various forms of ableism and ageism.

These are useful (or, rather, dirty) tactics for the purposes of discrediting a woman in politics because disgust sticks, spreads, seeps, stains – and catches. Disgust conspires to make the target seem ‘fishy,’ ‘slimy,’ and as if she’s ‘up to something,’ based on a negative ‘gut feeling’ which may have its basis in the smearing associations, rather than her actual perfidies. And, as we know, these feelings of disgust are often subject to post hoc rationalizations too. People fasten on reasons to justify their feelings of distaste and revulsion – and may misinterpret their visceral disgust as moral disgust, notably. This is why visceral disgust or a bad ‘gut feeling’ may underlie the false conviction that a person is guilty of some crime or other.

Also important to note: if someone or something is generally deemed disgusting, it makes people afraid to get too close to the bearer of this property. Disgust is the emotion of social rejection partly because, unlike anger, it is amenable to social learning and projection of a more general kind. You learn to recoil from what nauseates others because (a) you might get sick yourself (this being a highly aversive possibility), and (b) you might pick up the smell of it, as it were, and become disgusting to others too. Those who tangle with the disgusting may be perceived as tainted. Again, this leads directly into the next way gender dynamics plausibly figured into the outcome.

4. Demoralizing Women: My sense is that people in liberal and progressive circles were not generally as proud to vote for Clinton as President Obama, despite their very similar policies and politics, and the fact that each was or would have been (respectively) a history-making president. More than that, I think there was an atmosphere on the left which led to moral defensiveness about a vote for Clinton — as if voting for her meant complicity or complacency vis-à-vis the admittedly terrible effects of some of her (I agree) misguided foreign policies. But most of these policies were also Obama’s. Yet, somehow, they did less to damage his reputation – and didn’t turn a vote for him into a moral liability on the left, is my impression.

If that’s right, it points to two further features of misogyny worth taking into account here: (a) the way criticisms become personal and go to a woman’s moral character especially quickly and cut especially deep, and (b) the way misogyny works to disrupt female solidarity, especially among white women. I’ll take these points in reverse order.

We are unfortunately still liable to lump gender and race together in our big-picture analyses of historically subordinate social classes. But, in addition to thinking intersectionally here (e.g., Obama was not simply a Black president, but rather a Black male president, who was hence under particular pressure not to express anger or appear aggressive, for one obvious example here), we need to think relationally in this context as well. Within American society, where a nominally monogamous intimate relationship between a man and a woman is the statistical norm – and remains the more or less explicit moral norm in many communities, e.g., many Christian ones – women’s first loyalty is often to her male intimate partner, rather than other women. If there are subtle patterns of male dominance and other forms of misogynistic behavior on the part of the male partner, then there are also fairly powerful psychological incentives for the female partner to deny, minimize, and overlook their prevalence and importance.

And, for many white women, the habitual allegiance to powerful white men in particular seems to have trumped the overwhelming evidence of Trump’s serial sexual predation (among other things). In other words, these women exhibited loyalty to precisely the kind of figure who routinely commands it, given the (again, statistical and sometimes more or less tacit social) norm of non-interracial marriage. (As hopefully goes without saying, this norm, along with many of those I go on to discuss below, is a bad and unjust one, which ought to be otherwise.)

Consider too that misogyny involves distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, by the lights of their conformity to patriarchal norms and values. So it’s also not surprising that women who aspire to be ‘good’ have social incentives to distance themselves from a woman deemed ‘bad,’ as Clinton often was, and even to participate when she is ostracized and punished for supposed moral crimes and misdemeanours. These being what, exactly?

Some might say that Clinton’s only crime was to be a woman who was more qualified, knowledgeable, intelligent, and morally admirable than her male rival for the ultimate male-dominated position. As will be evident from (1), I certainly agree this is part of it. But I think there’s considerably more to it too, which helps to explain the specific women who come in for particular misogynist hostility. Clinton also violated intransigent gendered scripts into the bargain: where men are entitled to speak commandingly, and women are obliged to engage in sympathetic listening. Moreover, they are supposed to give everyone around them their personal care and attention, or else risk seeming nasty, mean, unfair, and even fake, strikingly. But, of course, that’s an impossible mandate when you’re running for the presidency. And, in general, the larger and more diverse a woman’s audience, the more she will tend to be perceived as cold, distant, ‘out of touch,’ negligent, careless, and selfish, in view of these norms of feminine attentiveness. No such listening skills need be demonstrated by her male counterparts, however. Indeed, when it came to Trump, they could hardly have been less so.

This brings me to the flipside of the misogynistic coin that consists in guilting and shaming women: forgiving and forgetting men’s misogynistic behavior, at least when these men are otherwise privileged by, e.g., being white, wealthy, and nondisabled.

5. Forgiving and Forgetting Privileged Men’s Misogyny: one of the most depressing facts about this election was that the knowledge that Donald Trump is a sexual assailant and, most likely, rapist, was not sufficient to keep him from being elected president. But, really, this shouldn’t surprise us. If misogyny is about punishing and shaming women for gendered insubordination, then its flipside is what I have (in another context) called ‘himpathy:’ ignoring, denying, minimizing, and (even following a guilty verdict) pardoning hyper-privileged men’s misogynistic behavior – including sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of gendered violence.

Himpathy was the cause of long overdue protests recently in the case of Brock Turner – where the judge extended an excessive amount of sympathy to the (male) rapist over his female victim, in worrying about his future (what about hers?), and giving him a very lenient sentence. But usually, such biases go undetected and unremarked on. When it’s a he says/she says scenario then, all too often, what he says goes: and she is a liar, trying to ruin his reputation.

6. Tainted Love: But what about the anti-establishment strand in US politics and beyond? This doesn’t have anything to do with gender, does it?

As it happens, I’m not convinced of this. For one thing, institutions tend to become ‘tainted’ when women make inroads into traditionally male-dominated environments, and are subsequently depicted as disgusting, in order to justify impugning or ejecting the infiltrators. (See, for example, Susan Faludi’s classic account of the gender integration of the Citadel.) But such ‘smeared’ women may turn out to be a Trojan horse for the institutions that subsequently come to seem disgusting by association – e.g., hopelessly corrupt, and in need of burning to the ground, rather than improvement or reform or even dramatic overhaul.

For another thing, consider again the social norm that women listen attentively rather than speak commandingly – and, relatedly, that they sympathize with rather than criticize those in their ‘care orbit.’ (Nobody likes a nagging shrew, do they?) Consider now the fact that, as Robert Reich pointed out last year, one of the most common pieces of rhetoric among frustrated members of the electorate is that they no longer feel listened to. Consider too that those who are frustrated and white are also prone to feel unfairly judged, condemned, and subject to moral shaming by elite liberal insiders, as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s new ethnography of white conservatives – originally members of the tea party, who became Donald Trump supporters – amply demonstrates. (I begin to explore these ideas in work in progress on the phenomenon which I call ‘melancholy whiteness.’)

If these observations are roughly right, then there’s a segment of Trump voters who seem to feel deprived of precisely the services that women used to be tasked with, and that Clinton was manifestly not in the business of, providing – not so much of material services, e.g., the notorious tea and cookies, but rather interpersonal ones, e.g., sympathetic attention and uncritical listening.

Not only does this help to explain the hostility toward Clinton herself; it may be part of the reason why some historically privileged people are so inchoately angry with existing authority figures (intellectual and moral, as well as political and social) at the moment. They miss the oversight of sympathetic eyes and ears, which have grown more critical and less exclusively attuned to their interests, inasmuch as they are beginning to attend to all persons equally — i.e., including the historically oppressed and marginalized. These are big changes. It doesn’t follow that they’re wrong ones.

Or so I will argue in a piece making a proper case for (6), to follow, and pointing to the subsequent dangers in the standard liberal line that, when it comes to Trump voters, we need to listen to them, to empathize. “Listen to us,” as Anna Quindlen put it, in her New York Times piece on Anita Hill’s testimony, in 1991; listen to women. Some twenty-five years later, would that we had done.

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