Michael Moore’s Casual Chauvinism
Coming from a man on the left, this letter of endorsement is both weird and gobsmacking.
It isn’t exactly shocking that Michael Moore has endorsed Bernie Sanders, so normally I wouldn’t comment. But Moore’s letter announcing his reasons for backing the Bern is one of the most un-self-aware documents I’ve read in a long time, and it shines a light on one of the biggest obstacles Hillary Clinton faces now, even, apparently, from the left: the casual chauvinism of men for whom electing a woman president just doesn’t matter very much.
The whole conceit of the Moore letter is that “they” have always said this or that thing could never be done. Here’s a taste:
When I was a child, they said there was no way this majority-Protestant country of ours would ever elect a Catholic as president. And then John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected president.
The next decade, they said America would not elect a president from the Deep South. The last person to do that on his own (not as a v-p) was Zachary Taylor in 1849. And then we elected President Jimmy Carter.
In 1980, they said voters would never elect a president who had been divorced and remarried. Way too religious of a country for that, they said. Welcome, President Ronald Reagan, 1981-89.
Then he invokes Bill Clinton, who had never served in the military, and he winds up of course with Barack Obama, because obviously this country would never elect a Hawaiian. (Just kidding, he said black.) In all these cases, the naysayers were wrong.
If I didn’t know going in that this was a Sanders endorsement, I might have thought that he was setting us up for a Clinton nod. “And they said this country would never elect a woman...” But since I knew it was Sanders, I was thinking okay, first Jew. But no, wrong again! The pitch is: “And now, this year ‘they’ are claiming that there’s no way a ‘democratic socialist’ can get elected president of the United States. That is the main talking point coming now from the Hillary Clinton campaign office.”
I’m not exactly sure that’s the Clinton camp’s “main talking point,” but let’s let that pass. Here’s what’s weird and gobsmacking about this endorsement. In a letter that is almost entirely about historical firsts—it goes on to discuss how “they” used to say we’d never have gay marriage and other changes—Moore doesn’t even take one sentence to acknowledge that Clinton’s elevation to the presidency would represent an important first.
I mean, picture yourself sitting down to write that. You’re a person of the left. You are writing specifically about the first Catholic president, the first black president, the first this, the first that. You want people to believe that if those things could happen, then a “democratic socialist” could win too. Fine, if that’s your view, that’s your view.
But it’s also the case the other candidate winning would make history in a way that is at least as historically important from a politically left point of view—I would say more so, but OK, that’s a subjective judgment—and it’s not even worth a sentence? I wouldn’t expect Moore to back Clinton or even say anything particularly nice about her. But he can’t even acknowledge to female readers that this great progressive sees that having a woman president would be on its own terms a salutary thing?
I obviously have no idea whether Moore contemplated such a sentence and rejected it or it just never occurred to him. Either way, it tells us something. To a lot of men, even men of the left, the woman-president thing just isn’t important.
Oh, no, Moore and some folks of his stripe will shoot back. I’d love to see a woman president. Just not that woman. Moore and other Sanders supporters would say, more precisely, not that corporate shill warmonger etc etc. They’d insist that they’d be perfectly content to back another woman. But then, somehow, the years pass and that other woman doesn’t come along. Or she comes along and it turns out, wouldn’t you know it, that there are certain particular reasons to be against her, too.
Others will say hey, look at Elizabeth Warren. She’s a woman and a genuine progressive, and she maybe could have been president. Well, maybe. I admire Warren a great deal, but the Democratic Party’s record in nominating Massachusetts liberals in recent history is 0-2, and throw on top of that her apparent complete lack of interest in foreign policy, and it seemed to me that she was going to be savaged in a general election campaign. Since she didn’t run, she may have thought so herself.
The fact is that Hillary Clinton is the woman who has a good chance of becoming president. And the further fact is that her flaws, from the left point of view, are inescapably commingled with the very reasons that she happens to be in a position to be elected president. Like it or not, a woman has to “prove” she’s tough on foreign policy in a way most men do not. A woman, especially one who was a senator from New York, has to reassure the financial elites, a world of certain attitudes toward women and of ceaseless and tasteless female-anatomy jokes, in a way that a man just doesn’t have to. And so on, and so on, and so on. Many of the very things that make Clinton anathema to the left are exactly the things that have enabled her to become a viable presidential contender as a woman.
I backed Barack Obama over her in 2008. I thought then that either first would be great, but that given this country’s uniquely revolting history on race, the nod in my mind went to first black president. Some prominent feminists I know reached the same conclusion. But now we’ve checked that box. I certainly wouldn’t say that anyone should back Clinton solely because she’s a woman. And I will refrain from making Moore’s error by stipulating that it would be a great thing to have a first Jewish president.
But I am saying that I’m surprised at how little people, mostly (but not wholly) people with my chromosomal structure, seem to care about maybe having a woman president. And not only how little people care, but—on the testimony of some pro-Clinton female writers I know—how hostile some people are to the idea that it’s even a factor that should matter. If you follow these things on Twitter, you know what I’m talking about.
Making history was a legitimate factor in 2008, and it’s one now. But it seems that for a lot of people, what was ennobling then is irrelevant or illegitimate or embarrassing today. There may be good reasons to oppose Clinton, but there is no good reason whatsoever for this first to be any less important than Obama’s.