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January 07, 2007

National Embarrassment

Shakes here...

It's a record year for women in the House of Representatives. We've got the first ever female Speaker, and a record-setting 71 female representatives, bringing us to an astounding 16% share. That puts us at #66 on the Inter-Parliamentary Union's list of 190 countries "classified by descending order of the percentage of women in the lower or single House," outranked by China, North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as some notable examples, for reasons I imagine are self-evident.

An "extensive survey of women in professions that produce many lawmakers: education, business and the law" done by political science professors Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless found, in part, that women who are asked to run are "just as likely as men to do it," but also that "women are less likely than men to be asked to run for office by party leaders and other officials." Such conclusions certainly seem to be bolstered by Ryan Lizza's The Invasion of the Alpha Male Democrat in today's New York Times.

[E]ven as this nurturing image [of Nancy Pelosi "on the House floor, surrounded by children and bedecked in pearls"] dominated the news, the swearing-in ceremony on Thursday was notable for another milestone in gender politics: the return of the Alpha Male Democrat.

The members of this new faction, which helped the Democrats expand into majority status, stand out not for their ideology or racial background but for their carefully cultivated masculinity. "

As much as the policy positions is the background and character of these Democrats," says John Lapp, the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who helped recruit this new breed of candidate. "So we went to C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quarterbacks, sheriffs, Iraq war vets. These are red-blooded Americans who are tough."

Mr. Lapp even coined a term to describe these manly—and they are all men—pols: "the Macho Dems."

The return of Democratic manliness was no accident; it was a carefully planned strategy.

I can't tell you how pleased I am to know that the Democratic Party planned a strategy predicated on not asking women to run. Or asking a specific type of woman, like Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth, whose "toughness" and "red-blooded Americanness" is conferred by a participation in a traditionally male bastion—because the candidate already running was just a plain old woman without any evident credentials to qualify as a "Macho Dem."

The idea here is, of course, to counter the perception that the Dems don't provide "leadership, strength, clarity and sureness" in the same measure as the GOP, whose foremost exhibitor of such characteristics has strongly, clearly, and surely led us into an intractable quagmire that most Americans now deeply regret. Following a bow-legged cowboy whose singular nourishment is the certainty of his own rectitude only seems charming when he leads the posse down the right path. Ultimately, the trail is just as important as the posture of those who blaze it, which is why I'm decidedly unimpressed with a strategy that prioritizes masculinity to the exclusion of sex- and sexuality-based political concerns.

Sure, some Macho Dems express support for, say, abortion rights but one gets the sense that ensuring Roe’s preservation may not be one of their highest priorities in coming to the Senate. It’s hard to imagine them at the next Emily’s List fund-raiser.

Ideologically, many Macho Dems are culturally conservative and economically liberal—making them odd ducks in a party that since the Clinton years has been defined by cultural liberalism and Rubinomics.

I'm not unaware of the positive affects economic liberalism can have for women, so I'm exceedingly grateful to see its reemergence among the Macho Dems—but any benefit to women granted by liberal economic policy is undermined if we lose ground on retaining our bodily autonomy. A higher minimum wage matters little if one has no reproductive choice.

As I've said before, It shouldn’t matter, in terms of having women’s issues addressed—from reproductive rights to securing funding for female-specific health issues—what the percentage of progressive women in Congress is, but it does. (It even makes a difference whether male representatives have daughters.) And knowing that it does, I can't help but be irritated by a strategy that is "inherently pro-male." The Democrats simply cannot pretend that deliberately excluding women from running won't have demonstrable consequences for women, or that remolding the party as Daddy Party Lite won't be troublesome for women (and undoubtedly the LGBT community, as well). For some time now, I've been seeing defenses of the Macho Dem strategy that include the argument it's better for women and gays to have a socially conservative Dem in Congress than a Republican, which may be true depending on the Republican, but it would certainly be better if we had a socially liberal Dem. Our "tough guys," however, evidently can't be tough enough to stand unapologetically and unyieldingly in liberal women's corner. And the national party doesn't appear interested in whether they do.

"Joe Sestak—that guy’s muscular!" says Mr. Lapp. "He’s a vice admiral. I’ve told him to spend a lot of time going on the national talk shows. He can really do a service changing the mold and the way the Democratic Party is viewed."

Indeed. My view is changing all the time…

Dems can't win in red states if they're pro-choice or pro-LGBT rights. A socially conservative Dem is better than a socially conservative Republican, because at least things won't get worse. Just let us get the majority, and then you'll see things change for the better. Blah blah blah. I've heard it all before, and it all boils down to: "Where else ya gonna go?" That it's the best I'm being offered as a progressive woman in America is shameful; that I represent merely one demographic of many being told exactly the same thing is a national embarrassment.

January 7, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I'm skeptical of Lizza's claims, here. It's true that the Democrats looked for war veterans, but I don't see any categorical attempt to marginalize women.

20% of the incoming class are women, which is somewhat low for the Democrats, but high for Congress in the aggregate. A disproportionate number of the hard-fought, well-funded losses in 2006 were female candidates - Patricia Madrid (NM-01), Christine Jennings (FL-13), Diane Farrell (CT-04), and Duckworth as mentioned above. I just don't see the evidence that the Democratic Party was trying to avoid women.

I mean, obviously, I think that structural sexism permeates the Democratic Party (along with the rest of society), and I think that working for a more just world involves working for more representative representation in the House of Representatives - 20-25% is still way too low.

But Lizza's case involved focusing on certain new members and ignoring others, and listening to just one guy at DCCC. He overstates his case by a wide, wide margin.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jan 7, 2007 3:39:23 PM

Well said. And I also am ashamed, and really do not understand why we are #66. I don't think we can blame religion, or class issues.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 7, 2007 3:53:22 PM

I'm skeptical of Lizza's claims, here. It's true that the Democrats looked for war veterans, but I don't see any categorical attempt to marginalize women.

I'm interested to hear your interpretation of what the quoted Dem strategists said, then, about the all-male hand-picked candidates who fit this bill. "So we went to C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quarterbacks, sheriffs, Iraq war vets. These are red-blooded Americans who are tough." That's not Lizza; that's "the former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who helped recruit this new breed of candidate." If his comment is not indicative of a "categorical attempt to marginalize women," how do you interpret it?

Posted by: Shakespeare's Sister | Jan 7, 2007 4:00:58 PM

If his comment is not indicative of a "categorical attempt to marginalize women," how do you interpret it?

I'd categorize it as a relatively small aspect of the Democrats' '06 strategy. It's a deeply problematic aspect, to be sure, but the Democrats had at least as many well-funded, well-supported female candidates as they usually do. My argument is that Lapp's strategy did not play much of a role in the actual running of the '06 campaign.

Posted by: DivGuy | Jan 7, 2007 4:05:36 PM

Other than NFL quarterbacks, which was one candidate, the rest of those jobs are all positions women can and do hold.

I don't disagree for the most part, but Rahm Emanuel's office talks a lot of shit, I don't know why we should listen to everything they say. Or care really.

A lot of these candidates also were recruited by the Netroots (Sestak/Webb/Tester). Tester isn't even that macho, I always thought his commercials were really light in touch. He just has a buzz cut.

Posted by: Joel W | Jan 7, 2007 4:06:39 PM

If his comment is not indicative of a "categorical attempt to marginalize women," how do you interpret it?

You yourself seemed to acknowledge that it might be better characterized as a "categorical attempt to marginalize the feminine," rather than "marginalize women."

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Jan 7, 2007 4:06:47 PM

I was really struck by the "band of brothers" push for Democratic candidates who'd served in the military. It put people like Duckworth in a position where she had to either downplay her gender ("I'm pretty much like a dude, so I belong with the Band of Brothers") or or stick with it and be excluded. I'd say that's marginalization right there.

Posted by: Sara | Jan 7, 2007 4:47:26 PM

Weren't a lot of the Democrats who lost close races woman as well? Lois Murphy, Darcy Burner, and Diane Farrell come to mind.

"The idea here is, of course, to counter the perception that the Dems don't provide "leadership, strength, clarity and sureness" in the same measure as the GOP, whose foremost exhibitor of such characteristics has strongly, clearly, and surely led us into an intractable quagmire that most Americans now deeply regret. Following a bow-legged cowboy whose singular nourishment is the certainty of his own rectitude only seems charming when he leads the posse down the right path. Ultimately, the trail is just as important as the posture of those who blaze it, which is why I'm decidedly unimpressed with a strategy that prioritizes masculinity to the exclusion of sex- and sexuality-based political concerns."

I understand where your concerns are coming from, but in order to have people believe your arguments, you need people to listen to them. If we refuse to let the Republican-created caricature of our positions stand, we'll be able to compete more effectively, both politically and governmentally.

Posted by: Brian | Jan 7, 2007 4:47:37 PM

Are non-limp-wristed males totally excluded , or are they allowed to vote for Democrats? Dear God, are the crotch issues trump all crowd pining for minority status again already? If the groups that focus on abortion rights want more women candidates they should recruit and support them in the primaries.

Posted by: Don | Jan 7, 2007 5:50:18 PM

That Lizza article was such a mess of half-assery that I don't think it's a good idea to take anything away from it other than the fact that Schumer and Emmanuel should give their publicists raises.

Posted by: eRobin | Jan 7, 2007 11:31:52 PM

Lots of things:

1) John Lapp is a tool who does not represent most Democrats, and certainly any liberal who reads you.

2) In those 65 countries that beat us, most of them are parliamentary democracies where the party heads just pick who holds the seats, they aren't really elected on their own. That leads to a lot more balanced populations from the top-down, compared to bottom up that always goes with the local majority (of power). We also suck at minorities from white districts.

3) It's possible men really are more electable, especially during a war. It's possible in our fallen society. I personally still think we should nominate more women so there are more women officeholders so women become more electable BUT I understand that some party operatives (say, at the DCCC) care about nothing but what gets more Democrats elected in the short term.

4) Articles are biased pieces written mainly with help from biased sources. Many in the Democratic Party would like to create the image that the Democratic party is new and mainly (or more culturally conservative) even if this IS NOT TRUE. I would even include Neil S. in this, maybe. Though I will let him speak for himself.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Jan 8, 2007 4:12:26 AM

Tony Vila is right. And Joe Sestak is the man! You mention it matters if the guy has daughters, well hell he ran because his daughter has a brain tumor and she got better care than others around her thanks to his government job. If he is willing to run for congress in large part thanks to his love for his daughter, I doubt he will take away her right to choose.

Posted by: Tim | Jan 9, 2007 12:40:34 PM

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