In the first round of Democratic primary debates, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand spoke up strongly not just in favor of women’s democratic rights but in favor of the necessity of having women representing themselves both on the political stage and in the proverbial political back room in advocating for their own interests.
The second part of Gillibrand’s insistence, that it’s not just that women’s interests need representation but that women need to be the ones representing them, reinvigorates an important challenge to our representational democracy, highlighting a tension that has historically vexed—and continues to vex—our system: how effectively can representatives really advocate for the multiple constituencies they supposedly represent? And can they even adequately understand them?
Trump’s Presidency makes this crisis of representational democracy clear with a vengeance, as his approach to “governance” of seeing winners and losers already signifies that he is not out to advocate for the best interests of all but to defeat those he categorizes as his opponents. He doesn’t even exercise the typical political courtesy in pretending that he views his policies as best for all in the nation; he has been fairly clear that he seeks to play to and represent only his “United Base of America.”
But the content of Trump’s character, its thorough-going racism and misogyny, has for the most part always been pretty evident. He hasn’t hidden it; rather, he has celebrated it, making it his chief campaign platform.
Gillibrand’s position makes us wonder in deeper and subtler ways if we are at a moment yet when we can rely simply on the content of one’s character in choosing a leader to represent us. I, as a white man, like to think that I have progressive views and care about equal rights and dignity for women, people of color, transgender people, gays and lesbians, disabled people, rural and urban populations, and so forth.
But is content of character enough to represent the interests and understand the experiences of such diverse and different constituencies, especially when we’ve seen in the past few days the remarkable lack of agreement on whether or not telling a group of American citizens to go back where they came from constitutes racism? And especially when we know that bias and prejudice are often, perhaps mostly, not consciously recognized. Nobody, even Klansmen, really thinks they are racist or sexist.
The power of Gillibrand’s debate commentary lay precisely in the fact that she addressed not what happens in the open but what happens behind closed doors in those smoke-filled rooms with men wielding big cigars.
When the issue of abortion rights came up, she took control of the microphone. “I want to talk directly to America’s women and to men who love them,” she said. “When the door is closed and negotiations are made, there are conversations about women’s rights, and compromises have been made on our backs. That’s how we got to the Hyde Amendment,” she elaborated, referring the amendment which bans federal funding for most abortions.
“When we beat President Trump and Mitch McConnell walks into the Oval Office to do negotiations, who do you want when that door closes to fight for women’s rights?” she asked. “I have been the fiercest advocate for Roe v. Wade, and I promise you when that door closes, I will guarantee your reproductive rights no matter what.”
When that door closes . . .
These closed doors take many forms, including the closed doors in our minds which blind us to our own biases and prejudices.
I am reminded of the words of the mid-19th-century American writer Sarah Margaret Fuller, a proponent of women’s rights and suffrage. In her work Women in the Nineteenth Century, she speaks directly to the need for women’s voting rights precisely because of this problem of representation I’m addressing.
As to men’s representing women fairly at present, while we hear from men who owe to their wives not only all that is comfortable or graceful, but all that is wise in the arrangement of their lives, the frequent remark, “You cannot reason with a woman,”—when from those of delicacy, nobleness, and poetic culture, falls the contemptuous phrase “women and children,” and that in no light sally of the hour, but in works intended to give permanent statement of the best experiences—when not one man, in the million, shall I say? No, not one in the hundred million, can rise above the belief that Woman was made for man,–when such traits as these are daily forced upon the attention, can we feel that Man will always do justice to the interests of Woman?
Fuller’s answer, of course, is “no.” And she highlights how views that demean and infantilize women are built into our language and deeply embedded in our cultural assumptions such that men don’t even recognize them.
Trump’s overt racism, doing away with the racist coding Lee Atwater coded when devising the Southern Strategy to consolidate Republican power by concealing the racist dynamics of policies and campaign strategies, shows us to some extent what lurks behind the closed doors of the dominant cultural and political mind in America.
But there’s more for us to see and understand in terms of the prevalence of misogynistic and racist dynamics at work in U.S. culture and society which highlight an abiding crisis in our representational democracy, one Fuller pointed out a century and a half ago.
Gillbrand urges us to see that it’s not just the content of our characters that matters; it’s also the bodies that house that content and that shape the content as well which matter.
The diversity of Democratic candidates gives us a chance to reflect more deeply, wisely, and carefully about how best to represent the interests of all in our faltering democracy in need of repair.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.
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