I watched over the weekend as people reacted to a post by Kevin Drum titled: Hillary Clinton Has a Shouting Problem. Let’s just say that the response he got from Hillary supporters on twitter was not kind. The standard line was that the critique was sexist because no one ever says that male candidates shouldn’t shout at campaign rallies. It’s true that he was a bit flippant about that in what he wrote.
A lot of people will take this criticism as pure sexism. Maybe some of it is. It’s not as if Bernie Sanders has a carefully modulated tone of voice, and young people seem to like him just fine. Still, fair or not, sexist or not, this is a common observation about Hillary.
Of course Drum is right, this is “a common observation about Hillary.” But before we leave it at that, perhaps we should ask a few more questions. Is it just true of Hillary, or do we react the same way when other women shout on the campaign trail? When it comes to presidential campaigns, we don’t have a lot of evidence to work with because Clinton will be the first female nominee of either major party. I remember having the same reaction to former Governor Jennifer Granholm’s shouting during her remarks at the 2012 Democratic Convention. Because women’s voices tend to be in a higher octave, their shouting is more likely to sound shrill.
But there are much bigger questions that a discussion like this could trigger. One of the mistakes feminists too often make is that we want to be judged on the same playing field as men. Personally, I think that is too limiting. A deeper feminism would challenge the patriarchal structures on which our culture is built. In the context of this critique, we can ask the question about why our political campaigns are often judged by the way candidates rev up the big crowds – which often involves shouting.
It is hard to have this conversation without referencing the campaign of Howard Dean with his shout heard round the world. As the candidate himself recently explained, what really went wrong with his campaign was his inability to shift from insurgent to establishment. He gave an example of how that happened at his big rallies.
I knew I had to make the turn. It was very, very hard and I didn’t successfully do it…It was really a tug of war. I could actually feel the tugging as I would try to do it and I would give a measured speech and the audience would be completely flat and I wouldn’t let myself leave them flat.
So Dean continued to shout to please the crowds…knowing that it signaled that his campaign would ultimately fail. That is precisely why Clinton’s campaign has developed a different strategy that plays to her strengths. She prefers smaller more intimate gatherings. A lot of women can identify with that preference. Rebecca Traister gives us an example in a great column about the complexities of Hillary Clinton.
Francine and David Wheeler are there with their 13-year-old son, Nate, and his 17-month-old brother, Matty, who’s scrambling around on the floor. They carry a stack of photographs of their other son, Benjamin, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when he was 6. David presses the photos of his dead son on Clinton with the urgency of a parent desperate to keep other parents from having to show politicians pictures of their dead 6-year-olds.
Leaning in toward Wheeler as if they are colleagues mapping out a strategy, Clinton speaks in a voice that is low and serious. “We have to be as organized and focused as they are to beat them and undermine them,” she says. “We are going to be relentless and determined and focused … They are experts at scaring people, telling them, ‘They’re going to take your guns’ … We need the same level of intensity. Intensity is more important than numbers.”…She is practically swelling, Hulk-like, with her desire to describe to this family how she’s going to solve the problem of gun violence, even though it is clear that their real problem — the absence of their middle child — is unsolvable. When Matty grabs the front of his diaper, Clinton laughs, suggesting that he either needs a change or is pretending to be a baseball player. She is warm, present, engaged, but not sappy. For Clinton, the highest act of emotional respect is perhaps to find something to do, not just something to say. “I’m going to do everything I can,” she tells Wheeler. “Everything I can.”
Campaigns are what passes for a job interview in politics. It should come as no surprise that, in a patriarchal culture, they have been set up to function in a way that benefits the loudest male in the room (and also in a way that benefits our media culture). Assuming that women simply need to compete on that turf sells us all short because, to be honest, shouting at campaign rallies doesn’t tell us a lot about how a candidate will function in the actual job. Rather than defend Clinton’s right to shout like a man, I’d like to see us define a world where she can campaign like a woman.