A collage of photos of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

All the Rage

A Country for Old Men

After a primary with a record number of women vying for the nomination, it’s hard to get excited to vote for two elderly white men. So how can we make them become the candidates we need?

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For most of my life, I was bored by electoral politics. The issues that mattered most to me—sexual freedom, reproductive freedom, the right to live outside of patriarchal gender norms—were fought on the ground, in the culture, day-to-day. Elected officials either ignored those issues or paid lip service to them, the better to bargain them away for something “more important” later. I believed that representation was the best, or only, shot at improving the situation; if our leaders were women, they might actually care about “women’s issues,” but America’s idea of “a politician” always looked like an elderly white man, who, at best, said something like “my wife is smarter than I am” at the debates. Those men didn’t care about me, so I didn’t care about them; I showed up, voted blue, and didn’t get invested in any one guy.

There were moments when my apathy wavered—I was excited about Obama in 2008, went hard for Hillary in 2016, and let my hope flutter back to life in 2019, when an unprecedented number of Democratic women declared presidential runs. Now, thank God, that hope is dead. I can finally go back to being bored by electoral politics, because no matter who the next president is, it will be an elderly white man.

The debate over which Democratic man to endorse rages on. Some will tell you that, if you want any chance at progressive policy, you’ve got to get behind Sanders, and try to either forgive or overlook the misogyny and racism and abuse that have been deployed in his name. He’s far behind Biden, so a vote for Sanders may be less about electing him than it is about making the Democratic Party heed the voices of progressives. Others will say that Sanders alienates even people who agree with him, would alienate most of the country in a general election, and that keeping him in the race will only make the primary longer and more bitter; if you want a winner, rally behind Biden, and try not to grind your teeth when he speaks.

As for me, if neither candidate is a feminist victory, then I don’t care who loses; what matters is not rallying behind any one man, but extracting maximal value from them both. I’m no longer looking to fall in love with a candidate. What I want is a sugar daddy; some gullible, vote-craving old fool who will keep me in furs and jewels and pledges to overturn the Hyde Amendment and institute a system of universal childcare and abortion on demand. If you, too, are tired of hoping, I invite you to join me here, where it’s easier: on Team No One.

The task of integrating feminism with existing systems of power—specifically, the task of placing feminist women in traditionally male positions of authority—has always been troubled. Even some feminists decry it as “liberal” or call it an empty symbolic change. (The point of putting women in positions of power is to change the way that power is wielded and who it benefits, not just to put a female face on pre-existing practices, but this point often gets lost in translation.) It seems undeniably true that, at least as far as the presidency is concerned, there are some forms of power our society simply will not accord to a woman—any woman—and that this is likely to persist until the culture itself changes. The sexism here is not subtle: When Sanders ran against a woman, he was able to keep the race competitive, largely with support from white men, and now that he’s running against another white man, those same guys have turned against Sanders in massive numbers, and are currently wiping the floor with his ass. The Sanders surge, at least for white men, was not about Sanders; it was about electing someone who wasn’t female.

There’s no satisfaction in being right, because the same forces boosting Biden to his uninspiring victory also picked off all the better female and/or non-white candidates early on. It is only to say that, if you think women are being purposefully excluded from this contest, you’re right: They are, they always have been, and the data backs it up.

Yet feminism has always had another role: to sheepdog male-led movements and male-dominated power structures, applying strategic pressure to force otherwise hostile movements to comply with feminist values and goals. If women are to be deemed “unelectable,” we owe it to ourselves to make any man running for the nomination fear his own electability. We need to give him Hell until he gives us change.

There are a few forms this can take. We’ve seen—most recently, in the 2018 midterms—that it’s much more possible to elect progressive women to state and local positions. It’s still absolutely possible to get excited about female candidates; it’s just that none of them are running for president any more. I personally feel it’s a duty to vote against Trump in November, but if you cannot bear the thought of Biden or Sanders, you may prefer to focus exclusively on backing and funding and volunteering and signal-boosting progressive women down the ballot. The more women there are in power, the deeper the bench for female leadership becomes, and the more female power is normalized. There’s wisdom in committing to the long game.

There may also be another big short-term goal left to achieve. No -one wants to say this, but statistically, neither Sanders nor Biden is likely to be alive at the end of an eight-year term. If they are, they may not be healthy enough to serve. The Vice-President for either man is likely to do some heavy lifting, and that means Biden and Sanders have an obligation to name their VP picks now, so that voters can factor them into the primary choice. They also have an obligation to name women. A VP Warren would do much to heal the divide between her camp and Sanders’s, not least because she would probably be doing most of the work. Biden has floated Stacey Abrams’s name, though he appeared to have done it without actually asking Stacey Abrams. (I cannot stress enough how painful it is to watch Joe Biden’s campaign.) The vice-presidency should not be a consolation prize, but given that both men are pushing 80 with pre-existing heart conditions, it’s fair to expect them to make their successors a key part of their pitch, and not continue the tradition of white men handing power to white men.

As for the primary: Vote for who you like. If your priority is getting feminist legislation included in the party platform, Sanders has a universal childcare plan and a reproductive healthcare platform; both were introduced over a year after the contest began, and many months after Warren had introduced similar plans, which probably indicates that they rank low on the list of his priorities. Still, it may not matter if Sanders falls far enough behind; at that point, voting for him is just pressuring Biden to adopt the same policies. I don’t blame anyone who makes that strategic choice. I also don’t blame anyone who votes for Biden just to put this primary out of its misery. The joy of being Team No One is that I genuinely don’t care.

What I do care about is that a vote cast for a particular candidate does not mean you are required to stop criticizing them. Indeed, loud, constant criticism is at this point the only way to push any kind of feminist agenda. One of the biggest concerns with Sanders has always been that he sees himself as a leader, and not as a servant; he reserves the right to set the agenda for himself, follow his own priorities rather than anyone else’s, and tell anyone who tries to shift his course that they’re the enemy. Since gender typically falls low on his list of priorities, this routinely makes an enemy out of any feminists who try to shape his agenda. The pressure not to speak ill of the Glorious Leader frequently outweighs the pressure on that leader to earn people’s votes. Vote for Sanders if you think he can serve you. If someone asks you to serve him, or even make life easy for him, tell them to eat a generous Ben & Jerry’s scoop of shit and send them on their merry way.

Biden, meanwhile, is a gender-politics nightmare, and now that he’s a strong frontrunner, there is pressure not to criticize him for fear of weakening him in the general election. But making Biden into a president worth electing will require near-constant pressure. His positions on reproductive rights have changed at a glacial pace—he’s never been shy about the fact that he is “personally” pro-life, and was the last remaining candidate to support the Hyde Amendment—but they have changed. His work on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is likely just penance for his legendarily terrible treatment of Anita Hill, but at some point, someone shamed Joe Biden to the point that he considered penance to be necessary. Should Joe Biden win the nomination, we will have to yell at him to do the right thing for the next year, then the next four years, then, God willing, the next eight years. It will be thankless work. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg can safely retire while we’re yelling.

This isn’t a cheerful conclusion. But it isn’t cause for despair; the work of feminism can never cease while there are lives to save and disappointing men to torment. We can sit around on our hands, lamenting the sexist country we live in, or we can get off the sidelines and actually try to make this race one worth winning. It’s what most of us have done our whole lives; it’s what feminists have done since long before electoral politics had the slightest room for women. Show up, vote blue, and don’t care about any one guy, because he sure as Hell doesn’t care about you. But the price he pays from your vote is having to hear from you every time he screws up for the next eight years. That, at least, should be fun.

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