John Marshall has been writing at Talking Points Memo about how this year’s election in the United States is a particularly gendered one. It’s not just that one of the two major political parties has for the first time nominated a woman for the presidency; it’s that the other party is about the nominate a caricature of an alpha male whose promise, at a deep level, is to put women and other minorities in their place.
It is within this context that you need to read Ezra Klein’s feature about Hillary Clinton in Vox.
Klein determined to find out why the former first lady and secretary of state is perceived so differently by those who know her personally than by the wider public and believes he has found the answer: Every single person he talked to brought up, in one way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns. “Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.”
That sets her apart from Donald Trump in a way that will decide not only the outcome of this election but what sort of a country America is going to be.
The meaning of conversation
Presidential campaigns reward people who are really good at talking, according to Klein.
You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men.
Like giving roaring speeches instead of listening to voters. Or tough talk instead of a reasonable discussion.
There is a risk of stereotyping here, but there are differences between men and women — or between the masculine and the feminine — particularly in the way they talk.
Klein cites Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist, saying women tend to seek a “rapport” through conversation. Did this talk bring us closer together or not? Men emphasize status. Did the conversation raise my status compared to yours?
Talking is a way of changing your status: If you make a great point, or set the terms of the discussion, you win the conversation. Listening, on the other hand, is a way of establishing rapport, of bringing people closer together; showing you’ve heard what’s been said so far may not win you the conversation, but it does win you allies. And winning allies is how Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination.
Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s Democratic primary opponent, is wonderful at delivering inspiring speeches but terrible at building coalitions. It’s why he’s accomplished so very little during his quarter century in Congress and it helps explain why he won so few endorsements from Democratic Party officials.
Read Klein’s feature in full. It suggests that, as president, Clinton will prioritize governing over ideological purity; seek expert advice and rehabilitate compromise, pragmatism and quid pro quo — all of which, I have argued here, are desperately needed in American politics.
There’s a risk these same qualities will doom her. “She could run a White House weighted down by endless meetings, fractured between too many competing priorities, riven between different advisors constantly fighting for her favor and paralyzed by a search for common ground that Republicans won’t let her find,” writes Klein.
But what’s the alternative?
Trump is — and everything we know about his management style suggests he would rule very differently.
Trump doesn’t listen to anyone. Whereas Clinton takes voters seriously and defers to experts, Trump believes he’s the smartest guy in the room and doesn’t have anything to learn. That’s bad enough when you actually may be the smartest guy in the room (Barack Obama?). It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen when you so obviously are not.
Trump doesn’t delegate. He involves himself in every part of his business empire and in every detail of his presidential campaign. He surrounds himself with yes men who will do as he says rather than professionals who tell him what to do.
Trump can’t set his feelings aside. Whereas Clinton has an almost inhuman ability to compartmentalize and work with Republicans who have said the worst things about her, Trump personalizes relationships in business as well as politics. He feuds and he never forgets. He still hasn’t got over that tabloid story from twenty years ago that said he had small hands. Imagine what he would do with the full power of the federal government at his disposal.
Going it alone, telling people what to do, defending one’s honor — these are all traditionally male qualities.
They’re not inherently bad. You don’t want a leader who is afraid to make decisions or lets people walk all over him.
But you don’t want a president either who is reckless and so insecure about his manhood that he literally brags about the size of his penis.
Time for female power
American politics needs what Hillary Clinton is selling.
There is too much grandstanding, too much honor at stake that stops lawmakers from finding common ground. Expert advice is ignored, even mocked; “common sense” and gut feelings are trusted.
Much of this is concentrated in the Republican Party, where “strength” is a substitute for thoughtfulness and deliberation and multilateralism are considered a weakness.
The consequences: a war fought for no good reason and without a plan for reconstruction; an inability to enact sane gun control legislation; inadequate climate, education and health policies; crumbling infrastructure.
This is what happens when “strong” leadership isn’t questioned; when the public discourse inordinately prizes individual acts of accomplishment and defiance as opposed to group effort and institutional success; when ignorance is touted as folksiness and bullies are mistaken for real men.
Clinton isn’t going to fix all of these problems, but she might just be able to make progress by first changing the way Americans talk about them.