Rebecca Solnit: Unconscious Bias is Running for President

On Elizabeth Warren and the False Problem of "Likeability"

Unconscious bias is running for president again. Unconscious bias has always been in the race, and Unconscious Bias’s best buddy, Institutional Discrimination, has always helped him along, and as a result all of our presidents have been men and all but one white, and that was not even questionable until lately. This makes who “seems presidential” a tautological ouroboros chomping hard on its own tail. The Republican Party has celebrated its status as the fraternity of bias that’s conscious till it blacks out and becomes unconscious bias. But this also affects the Democratic Party and its voters, where maybe bias should not be so welcome.

One of the ugly facts about the 2020 election is that white men are a small minority of people who vote Democrat but have wildly disproportionate control of the money and media and look to have undue influence over the current race for the nomination, which is just one of the many fun ways that one person one vote isn’t really what we have.

In 2016 white men were approximately 34 percent of the electorate, but about 11 percent of the Democratic votes, because more than two thirds of them voted for Trump or third-party candidates. Black voters were also about 11 percent of the Democratic vote total (and black women voted 94 percent Democratic, the highest total of any major social group). Black and Latina women alone constitute a proportion of the Democratic electorate comparable to white men. So in a completely egalitarian system, what black voters or nonwhite women want in a Democratic candidate should matter at least as much as white men.

But power is not distributed equally, and too many white men—politicians, media powerhouses, funders, people I crash into on social media—are using theirs in all those familiar ways. Also a whole hell of a lot of them are medaling in unconscious bias. In 2016 I wrote, “With their deep belief in their own special monopoly on objectivity, slightly too many men assure me that there is no misogyny in their subjective assessments or even no subjectivity and no emotion driving them, and there are no grounds for other opinions since theirs is not an opinion.” I wish that wasn’t still the case, and I fear how it will yet again affect election outcomes.

I’ve just spent a month watching white male people in particular arguing about who has charisma or relatability or electability. They speak as if these were objective qualities, and as if their own particular take on them was truth or fact rather than taste, and as if what white men like is what everyone likes or white men are who matters, which is maybe a hangover from the long ugly era when only white men voted. It’s a form of self-confidence that verges on lunacy, because one of the definitions of that condition is the inability to distinguish between subjective feelings and objective realities.

Ryan Lizza, fired from the New Yorker for undisclosed sexual misconduct, tweeted, “The Kamala Harris fundraising numbers drive home just how impressive Pete Buttigieg’s fundraising numbers are” when hers were nearly twice as large, and maybe who has money to donate and why white men have always been carried forward and black women have always been held back are relevant things here. One notable thing about the 2016 election is that some of the leading pundits whose misogyny helped shape the race—including Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Glenn Thrush—were later charged with sexual abuse or harassment; that is, their public bias was paralleled by appalling private misconduct. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes were outed earlier; heads of networks, directors, and producers have also been outed as serial sexual abusers in charge of our dominant narratives.

“Electability isn’t a static social fact; it’s a social fact we’re constructing. Part of what will make someone unelectable is people give up on them in a way that would be premature, rather than going to the mat for them.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times in all its august unbearability just published this prize sentence in a piece about Joe Biden’s failure to offer Anita Hill an apology she found adequate: “Many former Judiciary Committee aides and other people who participated did not want to talk on the record because they feared that scrutiny of Mr. Biden’s past conduct would undermine the campaign of the candidate some think could be best positioned to defeat President Trump, whose treatment of women is a huge issue for Democrats.” That translates as, let’s run a guy whose treatment of women is an issue, and let’s ignore that treatment because even so we think that he’s best positioned to defeat the guy whose treatment of women is an issue, and also fuck treatment of women, especially this black woman, as an issue, really.

Sometimes these guys with outsized platforms say shit like James Comey did when he complained that his erstwhile classmate Amy Klobuchar was “annoyingly smart,” perhaps because women are not supposed to be like that in his worldview. The framework that intelligence is an asset in a man and a defect in a woman is nastily familiar. Another white man had the temerity to explain to me that “The really smart wonks don’t end up being the media stars needed to win the presidency, i.e., Hillary Clinton—super smart, knows the facts, but comes off as smug and all knowing. I get this from Kamala Harris too.” In other words, he assumes that they are women who know too much and the character defect is theirs, not his.

A friend of mine posted some praise of Elizabeth Warren, and a man jumped in to say, “It’s a moot point because she’s not going to get into office. With any luck Bernie Sanders is going to do that.” I’ve heard a lot of white men explain that Warren can’t win because she’s wonky, and then when I mention that our last two Democratic presidents were famously wonky, I get to hear why they had charisma and Warren doesn’t.

I am a middle-aged blue-eyed blonde woman and quite possibly wonky myself, or at least stuffed with a lot of obscure information and vocabulary words, and so I find Elizabeth Warren magnificent and if that word “relatable” is not going to die an overdue death, that too. When she talks about dismantling big tech or calls for impeachment with a voice full of conviction or delivers another of her well-crafted plans to change the world, that’s compelling and exactly what I hope to see in a leader. And I find Kamala Harris questioning Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh until they jellify riveting and supremely skilled and powerful, which is maybe what we mean by charismatic.

But I’m a woman, so I’ve always been aware that what I like is not what everyone likes. After all another friend reported a man saying Warren’s voice “makes my balls shrivel,” electability apparently tied to the gender-specific sparking of joy in the scrotum. It reminds me of Kanye West saying of his MAGA hat “But this hat, it gives me power in a way. My dad and my mom separated, so I didn’t have a lot of male energy in my home. There was something about putting this hat on that made me feel like Superman.” West is extremely not white, but he does ace unconscious bias with his widely shared male idea that a president or a presidential candidate should have the same general effect as Viagra, and he does remind me that the 2016 election sometimes seemed to be, for too many heterosexual men, an erectile referendum.

The problem, as feminist philosopher Kate Manne put it recently, is that what we say now is not just commentary about what is possible; it is shaping what is possible. She said, “If we knew for sure that a candidate couldn’t beat Trump, that would be reason not to support them. But electability isn’t a static social fact; it’s a social fact we’re constructing. Part of what will make someone unelectable is people give up on them in a way that would be premature, rather than going to the mat for them.” Meanwhile lots of media outlets have worked hard at associating the women candidates with negative language. “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux—written off as too unlikeable before her campaign gets off the ground,” tweeted Politico. “I Can’t Believe Elizabeth Warren is Losing to These Guys” is the headline of a Jacobin article that ties her to failure.

What makes a candidate electable is in part how much positive coverage they get, and how much positive coverage they get is tied to how the media powers decide who is electable, and so goes the double bind. Perry Bacon Jr. at FiveThirtyEight writes, “Because the U.S. is majority white, and because a significant number of Americans have some negative views about nonwhite people and women, a heavy emphasis on electability can be tantamount to encouraging any candidates who aren’t Christian white men either not to run in the first place—or to run only if they are willing to either ignore or downplay issues that involve their personal identities.” But if a party is majority women and people of color, should the same factors prevail? Shouldn’t we have a situation in which white men don’t really matter so much?

What makes a candidate electable is in part how much positive coverage they get, and how much positive coverage they get is tied to how the media powers decide who is electable.”

Speaking of white men, Pete Buttigieg is very young and his political experience to date consists of winning (with a tiny vote total) the mayorship of a modest-sized college town and losing his bigger elections, including for Indiana state treasurer. No one has said in my hearing that he cannot be president because he is too wonky; lots of people have praised what seem to me like charming but irrelevant intellectual accomplishments; and though I have heard an awful lot about his Rhodes scholarship I have heard hardly anything about the Rhodes scholarship of Senator Cory Booker, who is also running, and who is black, and who seems to have become, even more than Julian Castro, Invisible Man.

I asked people whether they thought the two-term former mayor of Richmond, CA, a gritty refinery town in the Bay Area with nearly the same population as South Bend, would be a good presidential candidate. But I knew that former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a sixty-something woman, was never ever going to be granted the same status as a thirty-something white man with similar political achievements—if that: McLaughlin helped organize a Green coalition that pushed back hard at Chevron’s domination of the city and its politics, raised the city’s minimum wage, reformed the police department, and stood up for homeowners against the banks in the foreclosure crisis aftermath of the 2008 crash. I have nothing against Buttigieg, but I find his self-confidence about his qualifications astonishing.

I would love to have a gay or lesbian or trans president, but I’d like that person to be what I’d like any other candidate to be, experienced and committed to climate action and the intersectional human rights and justice issues that get disparaged as “identity politics.” I was not thrilled to read Buttigieg speak dismissively of boycotts and declare, “identity politics don’t compute for me.” They apparently don’t for Bernie Sanders either, who said in late 2016, “In other words, one of the struggles that you’re going to be seeing in the Democratic Party is whether we go beyond identity politics.” Which is that unconscious bias I’ve often tried to describe as “from their mountaintop they see the playing field is level,” which is by the way a sports metaphor from the era when nearly all sports were male-only, as most televised sports still are. From the abyss, people see that the field is not level; what gets termed “identity politics” is an attempt to identify the inequalities and level them out, because not all inequality is economic and a lot of economic inequality is rooted in racism and sexism.

“I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African-American CEO of some major corporation,” Sanders added, “But you know what, if that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of this country, and exploiting his workers, it doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot whether he’s black or white or Latino,” except that the issue dismissed as “identity politics” isn’t one CEO or one candidate, it’s equality for the hundred million or so people in the USA who aren’t white. If you want to add white women and girls (and gay, bi, and trans white men) to that list, you’re talking about more than two-thirds of the population treated as a special interest group.

The Fortune 500 as of 2018 had only three black CEOs, all male, and 24 women, and it’s not hard to imagine that this would be a different country if white men didn’t control most of it. A 2011 scholarly paper on climate change denial with the fun title “Cool Dudes” concludes, “We find that conservative white males are significantly more likely than are other Americans to endorse denialist views… and that these differences are even greater for those conservative white males who self-report understanding global warming very well.” White men are the most conservative sector of this society, and wealth and power makes them more so, overall. The climate-denial study then mentions “the atypically high levels of technological and environmental risk acceptance among white males,” which is a reminder that though man and not woman is supposed to be the measure of all things and whiteness our American norm, white men are in many ways outliers. Another scholarly paper notes, “non-White minorities in the United States expressing consistently higher levels of concern than Whites… Blacks and Latinos also typically express higher levels of support for national and international climate and energy policies than Whites.” So three decades that may have doomed the earth come down in no small part to who was in charge, which makes who’s in charge a matter of survival for humans, especially poor non-white ones and women and children, and for countless other species.

But Sanders took this line all over again in 2019, telling GQ, “Many of my opponents … think that all that we need is people who are candidates who are black or white, who are black or Latino or woman or gay, regardless of what they stand for, that the end result is diversity.” When you take out black, Latinx, gay, and women, you’re left with straight white men, and lack of diversity is a real problem, from electoral politics to who holds wealth and power. Wanting Latinas in power isn’t tokenism but something that would likely change the political landscape, and everyone deserves representation, everyone deserves to live in a nation where people like them can and do hold power and participate in determining who and what matters. As Justice Sonya Sotomayor said long ago, “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Power is not distributed equally, and too many white men—politicians, media powerhouses, funders, people I crash into on social media—are using theirs in all those familiar ways.

The claim I’ve seen that other candidates are “stealing” Bernie Sanders’s issues also seems to be the fruit of longterm unconscious biases. Feminists have long talked about the phenomenon at meetings whereby a woman introduces an idea or makes a proposal and is ignored or rebuffed, and then a man does the same thing and is lauded. Perhaps the people who think Sanders originated all these excellent ideas didn’t hear the black people who spoke up and supported many of them earlier. Jesse Jackson ran for president in the 1980s on a platform that included free community college and universal healthcare (and lots of well-framed “identity politics” in a Rainbow Coalition that was gloriously intersectional before the term was coined).

Congressman John Conyers introduced a Medicare-for-all bill in the house in 2003. Then-congressman Sanders was a cosponsor, but a stunning number of the cosponsors in that very white congress were black (and there have been many earlier measures to expand healthcare coverage, by Franklin D. Roosevelt and most Democratic presidents since).

The current fight-for-15 minimum wage battle was launched by fast-food workers, many of them people of color, in 2014. Ted Kennedy introduced a minimum wage hike bill in 2002, and there was another one in 1996 and another one before that, back to 1938 when Roosevelt and company established a minimum wage. Public universities were free in California for decades, so free college isn’t even just a glorious idea, it’s an everyday reality we lost and then too many people forgot ever existed. I’m glad Sanders has spoken up for these good things, but less glad people think he somehow originated or owns them.

Unconscious bias is running for president. Anyone advocating for a candidate who’s not white or male has to compete not just against the official rivals but against the burden of inequality and prejudice on a playing field approximately as level as the Grand Tetons. It is far from impossible to overcome, but it is extra work that needs to be done. Because equal work for equal pay isn’t a thing yet, as long as not being white or male or straight requires all this extra labor and comes with all these extra obstacles.

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit
San Francisco writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-something books about geography, community, art, politics, hope, and feminism and the author, most recently of Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) and Drowned River: The Death and Rebirth of Glen Canyon on the Colorado.





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