The 2020 Democratic primary race is still young, but the feminist left is already irritated by its trajectory. Despite the presence of six women in the field, their failure to generate consistent traction in early polls of Democratic voters is seen as an injustice. The blame for this travesty lies not with the candidates, these Democrats say, but with the voters and the press.
According to Cornell University assistant professor Kate Manne, Democratic voters who back male candidates over their female alternatives due to their perceived viability in a general election against Donald Trump may be guilty of indulging a “post hoc rationalization for these very common sexist biases.” Savvier liberals who share Manne’s concerns, but are wary of consigning Democratic voters to a “basket of deplorables,” have taken to blaming political media for casting a malign spell on the liberal electorate.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal said she is “frustrated” because “women candidates are getting the same kind of coverage” as Democratic men. Former Hillary Clinton campaign strategist Jess McIntosh singled out Pete Buttigieg’s breakout success despite his meager perch as mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana as a function of media misogyny. “[O]bviously,” she insisted, “that’s not the case if that was a woman.” New York Times reporter Maggie Astor noted that candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris are already getting the Hillary Clinton treatment, branded as “aloof” or “unlikable”— unflattering terms which are not reserved exclusively for women but are assumed to be.
It’s easy to see why a theory that absolves these candidates of responsibility for their defects would be attractive, and there is some superficial evidence supportive of the idea that a double standard is at work here. But feminism’s universal victimization theory has not yet confronted the variable that seems to falsify it: Amy Klobuchar.
The senator from Minnesota has endured the same intense scrutiny that other women in the race have faced. In fact, she may have endured more of it. Klobuchar has been accused of being a difficult, even abusive, boss—accusations that were attacked by the usual suspects as evidence of latent anti-woman bias. But Klobuchar didn’t lapse into self-pity or lash out against perceived duplicity by the press; she owned it. “Yes,” the senator said, “I can be tough, and yes, I can push people.” Klobuchar affirmed her intention to apply the same perfectionist standards to herself and to the country should she become president, and the controversy disappeared.
Klobuchar’s past as a criminal prosecutor has also been the subject of progressive consternation. Her “tough on crime” approach to law enforcement–about the only approach that is suitable in a prosecutor–is alleged to have contributed to race and class disparities in the justice system. But unlike Kamala Harris, who has made a clumsy effort to strike her history as a no-nonsense prosecutor from the public record, Klobuchar took ownership of this, too.
Though she acknowledged racial disparities stemming from federal drug-crime sentencing guidelines—an acknowledgment shared by a GOP-led Congress and a Republican president who passed and signed into law the First Step act reforming those guidelines—she didn’t apologize for her record. “I made this major effort because I truly believe that our mission is to convict the guilty, yes, but protect the innocent,” Klobuchar averred.
A detailed profile of Klobuchar’s upbringing published in the Washington Post this week revealed that her father was convicted of driving while intoxicated and, at his sentencing hearing, the senator testified for the prosecution. “I told him I loved him,” Klobuchar revealed after itemizing the number of times her alcoholic father had put her life and the lives of others at risk. “I would always love him. But he needed to get this help.”
And yet, despite all this, Klobuchar remains “likable”—at least, according to voters. The few polls that have tested the senator’s “favorability” rating show that, while she’s relatively unknown, she’s also relatively well-liked. But then, so are the other women in the 2020 race. So why has Klobuchar managed to evade the so-called sexism trap to which Democratic activists are so sensitive? The common thread seems to be more authenticity than likability.
Elizabeth Warren has captivated the progressive wing of her party, but her willingness to pander to the favored Democratic constituencies and a wooden performance on the campaign trail exposes her self-consciousness. Kirsten Gillibrand has developed a reputation for catering to the prevailing orthodoxies of her party’s activist class even if it contradicts last week’s orthodoxies. Though her boosters would be reluctant to admit it, Harris has stumbled into several embarrassing news cycles in her effort to flatter the sensibilities of the progressive voter.
Unlike her competitors, Klobuchar has unashamedly dismissed liberal wish-list policy proposals like Medicare-for-all and tuition-free college as flights of fancy. Though she is no centrist, Klobuchar has made overt appeals to swing voters even at the risk of alienating the left’s radical reformers. Although she’s been the subject of some hard-hitting press, Klobuchar also generates favorable headlines focused on her displays of humor and competence. If latent sexism is a force shaping both voters’ perceptions and press coverage, and there’s some evidence that it is, those who claim that it is an obstacle before the Democratic women in the race for president must contend with Sen. Klobuchar. If they don’t, theirs isn’t an applicable theory. It’s more like an article of faith.