Over the past few days, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have had a back-and-forth about whether he told her, in a private conversation in 2018, a woman couldn’t get elected president. She says he did. He vehemently denies it. There is a real chance they could both be right.
I have had many conversations go this way, and either party’s interpretation of what was said or meant could ring true. I believe that Mr. Sanders sees women as capable of being president. I also believe Ms. Warren perceived him to be arguing that a woman was incapable of winning.
It actually mirrors an Ipsos poll from June in which three-quarters of Democratic and independent women believed they would be comfortable with a female president. However, a third of those women believed that their neighbors would not be comfortable. This is important because much of the current election discussion is about trying to predict which candidate can amass a winning coalition against President Trump. It is as much about whom you support as it is about whom you think others will support. Believing your neighbors to be unwilling to vote for a female candidate potentially affects your own calculation.
This all came to a head at the presidential debate on Tuesday. It was the only interesting moment in a debate that essentially retraced the steps of previous ones. Mr. Sanders talked about how great and capable he thought women were as justification for how he would never say such a thing. In an effective but clearly rehearsed moment, Ms. Warren called all the men on the stage losers by pointing out that only she and Amy Klobuchar had won all of their campaigns. It was good debate theater.
There are some who will characterize this as Ms. Warren playing the proverbial “gender card,” a term Chris Matthews of MSNBC actually used in a post-debate wrap-up. This accusation gets thrown around by people with race or gender privilege who don’t want to talk about or acknowledge their own potential bigotry in an attempt to make those without race or gender privilege feel guilty for accurately assessing reality.
But Ms. Warren was right to push the conversation on gender and the presidency, and what we know about race and elections can tell us why. Nearly 20 years ago, the Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg’s book “The Race Card” examined Republicans’ use of implicit racial messages and their impact on voters. She found that when implicit racial messages were exposed, they lost their effectiveness. Focusing primarily on the 1980s, her research points to crucial miscalculation by the Democratic Party. They thought talking about race would turn off white voters, but their silence created a fertile environment for implicit racial messages to flourish.
Though it is not a one-to-one comparison, there are surely some parallels here. The pervasiveness of white male leadership has created the expectation that all leaders should be white and male. It gives them an edge before the process even begins. But this kind of implicit bias can be overcome by simply rendering the decision-making processes visible. Put simply, the effects of implicit bias dissipate when the source of bias is highlighted and addressed. Ms. Warren asking the questions about gender and electability and then offering sound answers to concerns people might have was the right move.
Historic leaps are often accompanied by doubts about the consequences of change, but change is still necessary. It was necessary to break racial barriers by electing the first African-American president. It said something important about the nation, as did the subsequent racial backlash. It is now necessary to shatter what Hillary Clinton has called the “highest and hardest glass ceiling.” In hindsight, Barack Obama was elected in a much more tolerant moment than we are in now. He ran by positioning himself as a quintessential American success story. In the current era, the only way to confront divisions is to confront them, which is what Ms. Warren did.
But implicit bias is not the same as overt sexism. Overt sexists already have a candidate they can rally around — the president. There is no answer Ms. Warren or any other woman can provide that will change the thinking that sees women as inferior. To the extent that their minds can be changed, that is more interpersonal and up-close work, not the work of presidential candidates.
Those who believe that women are capable of effective leadership, but don’t believe other people are as open-minded as they, would simply have to see the narrative change. That narrative began to change last night. Not because Ms. Warren played the gender card, but because she spoke to lingering doubts and offered arguments to assuage those doubts.
Melanye Price (@ProfMTP), a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University, is the author, most recently, of “The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race.”
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