Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Foreign Policy and the U.S. Democratic Primaries: How Gender Enables Bernie Sanders

By Maria Tulli

There has been a lot of discussion about Hillary Clinton’s gender. A lot. Calls by supporters asking people to vote for her because she is a woman. Outrage by others admonishing those who do so for some “reverse” sexism. There have been comparisons between Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, based exclusively on gender, while there is a lack of comparisons between Clinton and men politicians – comparisons which would make more sense based on policies, experience and ideology.[i] We could say gender is featuring as a core factor in these Democratic primaries. However, it is not truly at the core, but rather spotlighted on one side. While Secretary Clinton’s gender may be a locus of attention, her opponent’s is not. In an arena of gender scrutiny Bernie Sanders remains the unmarked, the un-gendered. This un-gendering has enabled Sanders to act both progressively and radically.

To be clear, I am not arguing that Clinton is secretly socialist or pursues moderate policies only reluctantly. Hillary Clinton is substantially right of Bernie Sanders and has made conscious choices to get there. However, I am arguing that whether or not she desired to pursue more radical political action or rhetoric, she is unable to do so because she is a woman. The flipside of this, of course, is that Bernie Sanders is enabled to do so because he is a man.

There is no doubt that it is important that Hillary Clinton is a woman. Even if it does not truly matter to her politics or capabilities, her presentation as a politician is built around her gender.

But it also matters that Bernie Sanders is a man.

One site this masculine privilege has been most apparent is in Sanders’ views on U.S. foreign policy. He has been vocal about the value of peace, emphasizing diplomacy over unilateral action and US military aggression. Although he has been accused of naivety, these accusations have not been gendered in a way that would impact a woman, but have rather, been based on his lack of experience. A critique of his professional, not personal capabilities. In response to these critiques, the Sanders campaign has attempted to center discussion of judgment over experience, reasserting personal characteristics as the highest value of a potential Commander in Chief. This discussion of judgment has favoured reason, a commonly associated trait of masculinity, over experience. These attempts to reframe cooperative foreign policy as reasonable demonstrate three things.

The first is that Sanders can be recast as rational in order to resist charges of naivety that threaten to feminize him. By emphasizing Sanders’ ability to make rational judgment in order to undercut Clinton’s advantage in experience, these messages reassert Sanders as the masculine norm and push Clinton outside the realm of rationality, in effect re-feminizing her.

Second, sidestepping charges of naiveté has been relatively easier for Sanders than it would have been for Clinton if the situation were reversed. A feminized trait, being naïve carries obvious negative and feminized connotations, such as being childish, exploitable, and gentle. These attributes are all projected on women political actors. These traits have also acted, and continue to act, as the rationale for the exclusion of women from public arenas more broadly.  

Third, it shows just how slippery the terrain is for women to engage in foreign policy and other masculinized policy areas and how easy it is to undermine women as leaders, or even participants, in these areas.

If Secretary Clinton, or an alternative woman candidate, were advocating for Sanders’ foreign policy platform, commentary would, almost certainly, tie these perspectives to her gender. A charge of being naïve would carry much more weight levied against Clinton than it does against Sanders and precludes her from advocating for non-violent, non-interventionist actions, whether or not she desired to pursue these paths.

For women who endeavor to pursue peaceful foreign policy platforms, naivety is tied to underlying assumptions that women are naturally inclined towards peace. Feminist security studies have critiqued the ways this assumption has limited the degree to which women are taken seriously as political leaders.[ii] Questions concerning women’s capacities to act as Commander in Chief abound in mainstream and social media.

In effort to combat these prejudices, Clinton has in many cases distanced herself from feminized roles. Many have critiqued her for this dismissal of domestic labour’s value. However, these critiques fail to account for the fact that men politicians, including Bernie Sanders, have never had to re-affirm their place outside the home. They do not have to publically disavow their connections to masculinized behaviour or identity. They do not have to negotiate a tension between being masculine, without becoming masculinized. Bernie Sanders is able to advocate for international diplomacy and cooperation without attending to assumptions about how his gender informs his intention to constrain the use of violence. 

Debates occurring throughout this primary season have both implicitly and explicitly evoked gender. This is extremely evident surrounding each candidate’s foreign policy platform. While the gendering of Hillary Clinton’s contention for the presidential candidacy has been discussed at length, Bernie Sanders’ has not. The de-gendering of Sanders is a demonstration of how sexism pervades these discussions.

Maria Tulli is an MA student in political theory and gender studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. Her current research examines resistance to pipeline development in British Columbia, focusing on how such resistance is framed and represented in mainstream media. 

[i] Doyle, Sady. (n.d.). Progressive [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://sadydoyle.tumblr.com/post/138860699828/progressive

[ii] Charlesworth, Hilary. (2008). Are Women Peaceful? Reflections on the Role of Women in Peace-Building. Feminist Legal Studies 16, 347-361.

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