With the surge of new Democratic women in Congress and on the #Election2020 campaign trail, crusty politicians are faced with an unfamiliar obstacle: a demand for responsibility.
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“It is shocking, the way [men in political offices]…fail to stand up for what they believe. Can their jobs… their prestige, their power, their privileges be so important that they will cooperate with the degradation of our society just to hang on to them?” — Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed
The Democratic women in Congress are done with your thoughts and prayers. And the era of Hillary Clinton staying in the female conciliator lane, while her male opponents picked fight after fight, is definitively over.
Recently, after the death of yet another immigrant child, Rep. Lauren Underwood (IL) asked Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan why these tragedies kept happening. McAleenan deflected responsibility onto Congress and its funding, but Underwood, a nurse, persisted. “At this point,” she said, “with five children dead, and 5,000 separated from their families … the evidence is really clear that it is intentional. It’s a policy choice made by this administration, and it’s cruel and inhumane.”
The facts back Underwood. But McAleenan and the committee’s ranking Republican, Mike Rogers, puffed with outrage at her demand, one every nurse in America faces, that he take responsibility for outcomes. McAleenan defended his staff’s intentions, as if Underwood had accused them of murder. Rodgers claimed her comments impugned the witness, and took the rare step of organizing a vote to strike her comments from the record.
On YouTube, though, Underwood’s courage endures. In fact, we need to launch a new channel, Legislatrix Demands in Accountability. Watch Rep. Ilhan Omar confront Elliot Abrams with his record. Watch Rep. Katie Porter eviscerate JP Morgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon, by comparing a single mom’s sub-poverty budget to her monthly take-home pay on Chase’s abysmal starting wages. Porter asks repeatedly how a mother should make up her monthly shortfall, and in testimony that belongs in the Annals of Disingenuous Deflections, Dimon responds each time that he’d have to think about it. As if the solution—paying women a living wage—weren’t obvious and in his hands.
Katherine Clark’s grilling of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta in April may be the most masterful interrogation this session. Clark, the Vice-Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, establishes that the Department of Labor, and specifically its Bureau of International Labor Affairs, is responsible for fighting human trafficking; Acosta mentions a report of 1,700 anti-trafficking recommendations his department issued. “That is excellent,” Clark says. “I’m so glad you’re looking at that. But I noticed you’ve also proposed cutting ILAB’s budget by nearly 80 percent.” She then goes in for the kill, detailing the secret, laughable caress-on-the-wrist deal Acosta gave convicted pedophile, financier Jeffrey Epstein, while misleading his victims. Acosta points to the cost to Epstein of having to register as a sex offender. Clark asks if he thought the teenage girls got justice. In the end, she leaves him speechless by asking if, since he doesn’t dispute her facts, he still thinks he’s qualified to lead the Department of Labor?
What’s notable about the new confrontationalism is that while many men are still speaking the language of moral condemnation, and asking our opponents to recognize our humanity and that of those we’re trying to protect, Congressional women are demanding not recognition but accountability. 2019 is our Show Us the Money year.
Read, if you haven’t, Anita Hill’s op-ed on the myriad unenacted remedies we still need to meaningfully combat sexual violence. Former VP Joe Biden, who chaired the Clarence Thomas hearings, said he was sorry he couldn’t do more. To be fair, he did call her a “credible witness,” and voted against Thomas. What he didn’t do is go to the mat for American women. He didn’t allow Hill to testify first, as promised; once Thomas assailed his civil rights creds, he didn’t allow Hill’s corroborators to testify; and he didn’t, using the same House Rules Mike Rogers employed, strenuously object and call for a vote to strike, each time his male colleagues impugned Hill, and called her things like “a psychopathic sex fiend or pervert.”
As Dimon attempted to frame the structural inequity of his corporation’s low wages to the problems of one woman, Biden tried to frame his leadership failure as a minor lapse in chivalry, and presumed an overdue apology might cure it. He still hasn’t acknowledged the consequences of not putting his prestige, power, and position on the line to keep a predator off the court. And he still thinks he can distance himself from Democratic women, with potshots that portray women candidates as angry, while calling VP Mike Pence—a leader among gynecological fascists—“a decent guy.”
You can’t signal your allegiance with our oppressors and win our votes. You can’t ignore harassment and unequal pay among female employees and claim you’re our working-class champion. You can’t denigrate our frontlines defender of reproductive care as “establishment,” then expect us to believe you when you say that our rights aren’t negotiable. You can’t take casual pot-shots at Clinton, as if all things were gender equal, and this were an intellectual discussion. You can’t endorse GOP men in 2018 and expect us to take you seriously. Acknowledging your privilege as a white man, while spending every waking moment trying to edge more qualified women candidates out of the race, does not cut it.
All this is to say: We’re done with your thoughts and prayers.
Senator Kamala Harris, who might be our most confrontational candidate, used the word “fight” 20 times in her candidacy announcement. She doesn’t share personal stories; she talks about accountability for results, for example, that truancy is correlated to both being murdered and committing murder and that her policy, which some regarded as punitive, made huge inroads into keeping kids in school. She proposes mandating corporate-pay transparency, to shift the burden of proof to companies, to prove fair pay. It remains to be seen whether Harris’s version of accountability, which threatens and punishes, will sell. “I know how to prosecute Trump” may do so. A surtax on the profits of companies that pay unequally seems very hard to pass.
But then again, who would have thought Senator Elizabeth Warren, the most accountability-focused candidate in the race, could help the TARP bailout turn a huge profit for taxpayers? Or invent an agency that would go on to recoup $11.8 billion from exploitative corporations on behalf of consumers? Warren’s dazzling set of policies sound radical, but only because of how much structural unfairness she’s trying to remedy. She has translated the abstract concept of reparations into a credible compensation for damages; her public lands proposal enumerates far more accountability in the way the U.S. deals with Native Americans. She was the first major candidate to go out on a limb and call for impeachment and she has also called for a law to ensure that the president is prosecutable for crimes, just like everybody else. Finally, she is the only top-five candidate who’s been willing to say, in the simplest way, I made a mistake.
Warren and Harris are running tough, demanding, 21st-century campaigns. Though 41 percent of voters are registered independents, only a sliver, fewer than 5 percent, actually consider both parties. Independents are marked not by loyalty but by their lowered commitment to vote, which is why campaigns organized around unity, and trying to persuade the middle, are exercises in nostalgia.
It’s the suppression, stupid, not the persuasion. Uncounted Democratic voters were far more influential than swing voters in Trump’s victory, which is why, as we watched with jaws agape, he brutally alienated the center. He was solely focused on firing up his base. For Democrats, too, there is now far more growth potential in motivating our members, and registering the 25 percent of eligible citizens who remain unregistered.
Our front-running white male Democrats are still trying to straddle the middle with just-not-these-women campaigns. That’s why Harris’s and Warren’s confrontational demands for accountability are so crucial. This is not a misunderstanding; it’s not a family feud that apologies and calls for unity can heal. We’re in a flat-out fight to end centuries of unearned hegemony.
The GOP gets this. So does the crop of women we elected in 2018. So do Warren and Harris, whose shoot-the-moon strategy may be the only way to win.
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