Hating Hillary

Gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which

History, I suspect, will look back on the past six months as an example of America going through one of its collectively deranged episodes - rather like Prohibition from 1920-33, or McCarthyism some 30 years later. This time it is gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind. It has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which - sooner rather than later, I fear - will have to account for their sins. The chief victim has been Senator Hillary Clinton, but the ramifications could be hugely harmful for America and the world.

I am no particular fan of Clinton. Nor, I think, would friends and colleagues accuse me of being racist. But it is quite inconceivable that any leading male presidential candidate would be treated with such hatred and scorn as Clinton has been. What other senator and serious White House contender would be likened by National Public Radio's political editor, Ken Rudin, to the demoniac, knife-wielding stalker played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Or described as "a fucking whore" by Randi Rhodes, one of the foremost personalities of the supposedly liberal Air America? Could anybody have envisaged that a website set up specifically to oppose any other candidate would be called Citizens United Not Timid? (We do not need an acronym for that.)

I will come to the reasons why I fear such unabashed misogyny in the US media could lead, ironically, to dreadful racial unrest. "All men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson famously proclaimed in 1776. That equality, though, was not extended to women, who did not even get the vote until 1920, two years after (some) British women. The US still has less gender equality in politics than Britain, too. Just 16 of America's 100 US senators are women and the ratio in the House (71 out of 435) is much the same. It is nonetheless pointless to argue whether sexism or racism is the greater evil: America has a peculiarly wicked record of racist subjugation, which has resulted in its racism being driven deep underground. It festers there, ready to explode again in some unpredictable way.

To compensate meantime, I suspect, sexism has been allowed to take its place as a form of discrimination that is now openly acceptable. "How do we beat the bitch?" a woman asked Senator John McCain, this year's Republican presidential nominee, at a Republican rally last November. To his shame, McCain did not rebuke the questioner but joined in the laughter. Had his supporter asked "How do we beat the nigger?" and McCain reacted in the same way, however, his presidential hopes would deservedly have gone up in smoke. "Iron my shirt," is considered amusing heckling of Clinton. "Shine my shoes," rightly, would be hideously unacceptable if yelled at Obama.

Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, American men like to delude themselves that they are the most macho in the world. It is simply unthinkable, therefore, for most of them to face the prospect of having a woman as their leader. The massed ranks of male pundits gleefully pronounced that Clinton had lost the battle with Obama immediately after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, despite past precedents that strong second-place candidates (like Ronald Reagan in his first, ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 1976; like Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown) continue their campaigns until the end of the primary season and, in most cases, all the way to the party convention.

None of these male candidates had a premature political obituary written in the way that Hillary Clinton's has been, or was subjected to such righteous outrage over refusing to quiesce and withdraw obediently from what, in this case, has always been a knife-edge race. Nor was any of them anything like as close to his rivals as Clinton now is to Obama.

The media, of course, are just reflecting America's would-be macho culture. I cannot think of any television network or major newspaper that is not guilty of blatant sexism - the British media, naturally, reflexively follow their American counterparts - but probably the worst offender is the NBC/MSNBC network, which has what one prominent Clinton activist describes as "its nightly horror shows". Tim Russert, the network's chief political sage, was dancing on Clinton's political grave before the votes in North Carolina and Indiana had even been fully counted - let alone those of the six contests to come, the undeclared super-delegates, or the disputed states of Florida and Michigan.

The unashamed sexism of this giant network alone is stupendous. Its superstar commentator Chris Matthews referred to Clinton as a "she-devil". His colleague Tucker Carlson casually observed that Clinton "feels castrating, overbearing and scary . . . When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." This and similar abuse, I need hardly point out, says far more about the men involved than their target.

Knives out

But never before have the US media taken it upon themselves to proclaim the victor before the primary contests are over or the choice of all the super-delegates is known, and the result was that the media's tidal wave of sexism became self-fulfilling: Americans like to back winners, and polls immediately showed dramatic surges of support for Obama. A few brave souls had foreseen the merciless media campaign: "The press will savage her no matter what," predicted the Washington Post's national political correspondent, Dana Milbank, last December. "They really have their knives out for her, there's no question about it."

Polling organisations such as Gallup told us months ago that Americans will more readily accept a black male president than a female one, and a more recent CNN/Essence magazine/ Opinion Research poll found last month that 76 per cent think America is ready for a black man as president, but only 63 per cent believe the same of a woman.

"The image of charismatic leadership at the top has been and continues to be a man," says Ruth Mandel of Rutgers University. "We don't have an image, we don't have a historical memory of a woman who has achieved that feat."

Studies here have repeatedly shown that women are seen as ambitious and capable, or likeable - but rarely both. "Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test," says Alice Eagley, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. A distinguished academic undertaking a major study of coverage of the 2008 election, Professor Marion Just of Wellesley College - one of the "seven sisters" colleges founded because women were barred from the Ivy Leagues and which, coincidentally, Hillary Clinton herself attended - tells me that what is most striking to her is that the most repeated description of Senator Clinton is "cool and calculating".

This, she says, would never be said of a male candidate - because any politician making a serious bid for the White House has, by definition, to be cool and calculating. Hillary Clinton, a successful senator for New York who was re-elected for a second term by a wide margin in 2006 - and who has been a political activist since she campaigned against the Vietnam War and served as a lawyer on the congressional staff seeking to impeach President Nixon - has been treated throughout the 2008 campaign as a mere appendage of her husband, never as a heavyweight politician whose career trajectory (as an accomplished lawyer and professional advocate for equality among children, for example) is markedly more impressive than those of the typical middle-aged male senator.

Rarely is she depicted as an intellectually formidable politician in her own right (is that what terrifies oafs like Matthews and Carlson?). Rather, she is the junior member of "Billary", the derisive nickname coined by the media for herself and her husband. Obama's opponent is thus not one of the two US senators for New York, but some amorphous creature called "the Clintons", an aphorism that stands for amorality and sleaze. Open season has been declared on Bill Clinton, who is now reviled by the media every bit as much as Nixon ever was.

Here we come to the crunch. Hillary Clinton (along with her husband) is being universally depicted as a loathsome racist and negative campaigner, not so much because of anything she has said or done, but because the overwhelmingly pro-Obama media - consciously or unconsciously - are following the agenda of Senator Barack Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod, to tear to pieces the first serious female US presidential candidate in history.

"What's particularly saddening," says Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton and a rare dissenting voice from the left as a columnist in the New York Times, "is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the . . . way pundits and some news organisations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent." Despite widespread reporting to the contrary, Krugman believes that most of the "venom" in the campaign "is coming from supporters of Obama".

But Obama himself prepared the ground by making the first gratuitous personal attack of the campaign during the televised Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate in South Carolina on 21 January, although virtually every follower of the media coverage now assumes that it was Clinton who started the negative attacks. Following routine political sniping from her about supposedly admiring comments Obama had made about Ronald Reagan, Obama suddenly turned on Clinton and stared intimidatingly at her. "While I was working in the streets," he scolded her, ". . . you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart." Then, cleverly linking her inextricably in the public consciousness with her husband, he added: "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

One of his female staff then distributed a confidential memo to carefully selected journalists which alleged that a vaguely clumsy comment Hillary Clinton had made about Martin Luther King ("Dr King's dream began to be realised when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964") and a reference her husband had made in passing to Nelson Mandela ("I've been blessed in my life to know some of the greatest figures of the last hundred years . . . but if I had to pick one person whom I know would never blink, who would never turn back, who would make great decisions . . . I would pick Hillary") were deliberate racial taunts.

Another female staffer, Candice Tolliver - whose job it is to promote Obama to African Americans - then weighed in publicly, claiming that "a cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements" and saying: "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this an isolated situation, or is there something bigger behind all of this?" That was game, set and match: the Clintons were racists, an impression sealed when Bill Clinton later compared Obama's victory in South Carolina to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 (even though Jackson himself, an Obama supporter, subsequently declared Clinton's remarks to be entirely inoffensive).

The pincer movement, in fact, could have come straight from a textbook on how to wreck a woman's presi dential election campaign: smear her whole persona first, and then link her with her angry, red-faced husband. The public Obama, characteristically, pronounced himself "unhappy" with the vilification carried out so methodically by his staff, but it worked like magic: Hillary Clinton's approval ratings among African Americans plummeted from above 80 per cent to barely 7 per cent in a matter of days, and have hovered there since.

I suspect that, as a result, she will never be able entirely to shake off the "racist" tag. "African-American super-delegates [who are supporting Clinton] are being targeted, harassed and threatened," says one of them, Representative Emanuel Cleaver. "This is the politics of the 1950s." Obama and Axelrod have achieved their objectives: to belittle Hillary Clinton and to manoeuvre the ever-pliant media into depicting every political criticism she makes against Obama as racist in intent.

The danger is that, in their headlong rush to stop the first major female candidate (aka "Hildebeast" and "Hitlery") from becoming president, the punditocracy may have landed the Democrats with perhaps the least qualified presidential nominee ever. But that creeping realisation has probably come too late, and many of the Democratic super-delegates now fear there would be widespread outrage and increased racial tension if they thwart the first biracial presidential hopeful in US history.

But will Obama live up to the hype? That, I fear, may not happen: he is a deeply flawed candidate. Rampant sexism may have triumphed only to make way for racism to rear its gruesome head in America yet again. By election day on 4 November, I suspect, the US media and their would-be-macho commentators may have a lot of soul-searching to do.

In this comment piece on sexist language in the US media in relation to Hillary Clinton Andrew Stephen suggested that Carl Bernstein had publicly declared his disgust for Hillary Clinton's thick ankles. We are informed that Carl Bernstein intended, in his biography of Hillary Clinton, to refer to comments made by others about her when she was at high school. We are happy to accept that Carl Bernstein was not motivated by sexism, and we are sorry for any embarrassment caused.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Don't just listen to people's concerns about immigration. Think

Labour must be an alternative political leadership, not advocates for positions in which we don’t actually believe.

A few weeks back the Observer published an article by Jason Langrish, a member of the Canadian team that negotiated the recent CETA trade deal between the EU and Canada. He was unsparing about the utter mess of the government's approach to Brexit and the catastrophe that it risks. The line I found most telling, not least because I think it also partly identifies the hole in which Labour finds itself, is that the government is still in "campaign mode". Ministers are still only giving us, and indeed Brussels, a very general sense of what they intend to do.

Last month some of my colleagues also published a report on social integration that, among other things, advocated the further exploration of a system of regional immigration controls. A few days later, Jeremy Corbyn seemed in quick succession both to accept and to reject further controls on immigration.  

To me, a large part of Labour’s problem comes from a public debate over Brexit that confuses at least three very different issues and very different contexts for any debate on immigration. The first issue is: "What would our immigration policy look like if we started from scratch?"  

The second is: "How much free movement within Europe should we be prepared to accept as part of a Brexit deal" – that is, "how hard do we want our Brexit?". Sadly, this is a question on which we may get very little say as a party, though that does not mean it cannot do us plenty of damage in the interim.

The third and realistically only question with which a Labour government might have to contend is: "After Brexit, what should our immigration policy look like given public sentiment and the nature of our economy?".  It is plain to me that this is where our attention should be focused, and that we should be realistic about how we might get there and what that might look like. It is also plain that we're not really there yet.

On the first issue of what our immigration policy would look like if we started from scratch, opinion polling suggests that a majority of people in Britain would probably agree that skilled migrants who plug identified gaps in our economy, who have family members here already, and who speak English and are keen to get involved in civic life should be allowed in – and should be welcomed. A majority would also probably agree that unskilled migrants who don't speak English and have neither a job nor family here, nor a reasonable expectation of getting a job very soon, should not be allowed in. The devil is very much in the detail. As someone who consistently argued that Britain is better off within the European Union, it is worth reiterating that many of us who believe that the free movement of people within the European Union has been good for Britain and helped our economy do not believe that uncontrolled immigration is a good thing in itself. Were we a new country we would also not have ties to countries all over the world, much further away geographically even if often very close culturally, that come from Britain's imperial past.  

The second issue of how much free movement within Europe we should accept as part of a Brexit deal is one where ultimately Labour has limited capacity to make a difference. It is very clear to me that a majority of people in my constituency and across the country voted to leave the European Union. It is also very clear that attitudes towards immigration were central to this.

My view is that the best deal for Britain is one that keeps as many as possible of (in no particular order): single market membership; customs union membership; European Court of Justice jurisdiction over trade disputes and similar between the United Kingdom and its European partners; continued passporting rights for our financial services industries; technical co-operation on matters of joint interest such as nuclear power and nuclear safety; and the maximum possible freedom of movement rights for British and EU citizens alike.

I am intensely aware that the ability of the Opposition to achieve any of this is not huge, especially given the likelihood that many SNP MPs may take the view that their party interest is better served by a bad deal for their constituents so that separatism becomes a more appealing prospect. This is yet another reason why we should be furious with ourselves for failing to win in 2015, and why we should focus so ruthlessly not just on holding our own seats but also on those of our opponents.

I also believe we should not hesitate to continue to stand up for what we believe is in the best interests of working people in our country, rather than what we think a narrow majority of the British people want to hear right now. We must be an alternative political leadership, not advocates for positions in which we don’t actually believe.

The British public can easily see through politicians who don't themselves believe in what they are saying and who only say what they think voters want to hear. They don't trust them. One of the many lessons from Donald Trump’s victory is that politicians who appear sincere in their belief in transparently catastrophic policies can be more successful than those who display admirable self-doubt. It is an unhappy message for those among us of a cautious disposition who value reason and evidence, but a powerful one nonetheless. I believe that in the medium and long term, the public will reward people who stick to their beliefs.

The third issue on the question of what our immigration policy should be post-Brexit is the one where I think that Labour has to start doing better. I admire the work of colleagues on the APPG on Social Integration, but I hope they will forgive me for saying that my admiration for their efforts is not matched by agreement with their recommendations. I was, for example, genuinely taken aback by their suggestion that the UK could learn from the Canada-Quebec accord on immigration.

There are two obvious reasons why any form of regional control of immigration wouldn't work in Britain. The first is that this is a much smaller country, and therefore travel between major population centres is extremely easy. How, for example, would people who had residency status in Scotland be prevented from turning up in Sunderland?  Are we to rebuild Hadrian's Wall? Will motorway speed cameras be joined by watchtowers?

The second is if anything even more obvious: Quebec is a French-speaking province of an otherwise largely English-speaking country. People are less likely to move to a different province if they cannot get by in the language spoken there.  While we have probably all struggled on occasion with the accents of people born and brought up elsewhere in Britain, almost everyone who has grown up on this island speaks English. Our governmental structures are also markedly different to those of Canada.

The reality too is that our economy is dependent on immigration, and the contribution of migrants has driven our country’s economic success. Our social model, above all the NHS, rests heavily on immigration, but I want to focus here on the economic issues.

One of our export success stories, and one that also gives us tremendous soft power, is higher education – that is until the government started to throttle it. Higher education only works as an export industry if you let people in before asking them to go home. Yet today we see a crackdown on student visas wholly disproportionate to the level of their abuse, and a general failure to understand how crucial higher education is to our economy. You only have to walk around Sunderland to appreciate the impact that international students have made upon the city, and the investment and wider benefits that an expanded university has brought for the entire community.

Another important part of the UK economy is agriculture. For a variety of historical reasons, the United Kingdom has a relatively small agricultural workforce and a high degree of agricultural mechanisation. But that means that for some jobs that have not yet been automated, we have labour requirements that are unusually seasonal. There are not yet mass-market droids for judging the ripeness of a strawberry and then picking it without crushing it. The strawberry-picking season is short, so the sector has seasonal acute labour force requirements for people with fairly easily acquired skills rather than a persistent shortage of people with highly specialist skills.

What's also true is that for these people, who may only pick fruit for a few short summers and spend the rest of their lives overseas, the challenge is much more about preventing their exploitation than it is about ensuring their integration. I am unconvinced that everyone who works picking apples or strawberries on a summer job here needs to know English before they arrive. It's obviously great if they do, and they may well learn the language whilst working, but a degree of realism might usefully intrude into our discussions.

Perhaps the most obvious British economic export is financial services. London is the financial capital of Europe, although that may not continue for much longer. People working in financial services come from all over Europe, and the taxes they and their companies pay in London provide much of the money for the services on which we all depend.

I believe very strongly that we have a desperately unbalanced economy. Geographically we are too focused on London and Edinburgh and sectorally we are too concentrated on finance - but the first step to reduce our dependence on a goose that lays golden eggs cannot be to stab the goose. In the short and medium term, that means we have to make sure that the financial services sector does not suffer disproportionately. London may be the financial capital, but jobs in the sector are spread across every part of our country.

Even after Brexit, we will need to keep financial services - institutions, jobs, and regulatory expertise - in Britain. That will mean being open to people from across Europe working in that sector and ensuring our country remains a global centre for financial services.

Lastly there is the key industry in my own city: car manufacturing, which depends both on access to big markets in which to sell the products and a highly skilled workforce to build them. We don't know exactly what Theresa May has said to Nissan, beyond that they have now made the very welcome announcements about future work at the Sunderland plant, but my fears are threefold. First, I am concerned that the company may have been promised inducements which will not be available to new entrants to the British manufacturing sector, making us more rather than less dependent on current goodwill. My second fear is that restrictions on Nissan's ability to move top-flight engineers here from elsewhere in Europe, even if just in paperwork, may make Sunderland a less attractive destination for future research and development. And my third worry is that a patchwork of deals and site-specific support is so far from being an industrial strategy as to be laughable. It isn't even "picking winners": it's picking companies we'd rather weren't losers.

All of these concerns make me highly receptive to a policy position and a political strategy based on the industries we already have, which of these a Labour government would want to flourish post-Brexit, to what extent they depend upon immigration, and how their labour force requirements are structured across both skills and seasons. Our focus as a party should be on how we reconcile the clearly expressed view of the public for national immigration controls with building an open and successful economy that provides high quality jobs for the people we represent. We need to listen, but we also need to be more candid about the complexity of the challenge we face. 

Bridget Phillipson is Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South.