Even the most heated exchanges between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during last night’s Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan, were sedate compared to the puerile insults and screaming matches we associate with GOP debates.
But some viewers were aghast when Sanders dared call out Clinton for cutting him off during a tense back-and-forth about the auto industry bailout in 2008, which—Clinton gleefully noted—Sanders opposed.
“If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed the economy—”
Clinton interrupted him here, prompting Sanders to shoot back: “Excuse me, I’m talking.”
Social media users bristled reflexively at those four innocuous words. They quoted him in all caps, as if he’d shouted a sexist slur.
Michael Cohen, a Boston Globe columnist, imagined that “every woman in America cringed at that one,” while the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti gasped: “Can you imagine tomorrow’s headlines if Clinton would have said some shit like that to Sanders?” Others scowled that Sanders “shushing” Clinton was “a bad look.”
There was nothing remotely sexist about Sanders’s sharp rejoinder.
The “bad look” remarks actually work against the sexism argument: Sanders wasn’t talking down to Clinton because she’s a woman, though it may have appeared that way to feminists in a defensive crouch.
It was a “risky move,” as CNN put it, that might make Sanders seem dismissive of a woman vying to be our first female president. But it wouldn’t be risky if we weren’t so gender-obsessed.
Clinton supporters jumped on the opportunity to smear Sanders.
Correct the Record, an independent group that backs her campaign, quickly and sensationally circulated the clip among reporters, calling it Sanders’s “Rick Lazio moment”. (Lazio was a Republican congressman who, during a 2000 debate with Clinton in the race for New York’s Senate seat, interrupted Clinton mid-sentence and marched across the stage holding a campaign finance reform pledge, demanding she sign it. Some pundits declared the incident an aggressive and intimidating invasion of her personal space.)
Sanders is no less gruff and fiery when attacked by Anderson Cooper, but apparently we expect him to change his tone when speaking to a woman. To interpret Sanders’s defensive “Excuse me” as a gendered attack demonstrates a remarkable lack of rational, critical thinking that we’ve seen multiple times during this election cycle.
Hillary herself repeatedly called attention to her gender during early debates, prefacing her arguments with a rather obvious descriptor: “As a woman…”
Indeed, following a CNN debate in October 2015, it was Clinton who turned the topic of gun control into a sexist issue.
When Clinton passionately (and volubly) accused Sanders of voting with the gun lobby, Sanders responded: “All the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence.”
It’s hard to believe Clinton genuinely thought Sanders was being sexist in this case, given that he responded similarly when former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley joined the Sanders gun control pile-on in the same debate.
“We can raise our voices,” Sanders replied. “But I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states, whether we like it or not.”
Yet the Clinton campaign decided to capitalize on reflexive feminist anger over Sanders’s “shouting” remark.
In the weeks following the debate, Clinton repeatedly referenced the incident when discussing gun control on the campaign trail.
“Some say we shouldn’t shout about it, that I shouldn’t shout about it,” she said during a town hall meeting at Keene State College in New Hampshire, to considerable applause.
She played to her audience even more during a subsequent speech at the DNC’s Women’s Leadership Forum: “I’ve been told to stop, and I quote, ‘shouting’ about gun violence. Well, first of all, I’m not shouting. It’s just [that] when women talk, some people think we’re shouting…I will not be silenced, because we will not be silenced.”
Clinton’s campaign ran versions of this quote on Twitter and Facebook that day, and blasted it on her campaign website under a banner feminist headline: “Hillary Clinton Just Said Something Women Have Been Thinking For Years.”
Clinton had successfully misrepresented one sound bite from Sanders, making herself the victim and diverting from the issue of gun control. She manipulated women and angry feminists who are tired of being shushed by the old white guy in the room.
Of course there are numerous instances of Clinton battling sexism, but this wasn’t one of them. And Sanders’s political record shows him to be as much of a feminist as Clinton.
If we take these issues seriously, we should resist the urge to cry sexism any time Sanders snaps at Clinton. Doing so only perpetuates a gender divide. It suggests Clinton can’t perform well when her opponent gets a little red-faced, as though she’s being insulted by some patronizing, sexist pig.
Nothing could be further from the truth.