What Hillary can learn from Dilma about the Forces Opposing Change

Dilma Rousseff and Hillary Clinton, with supporters.

Dilma Rousseff and Hillary Clinton, with supporters.

    As a variety of commentators have noted, the U.S., faced with rising inequality and a growing perception that only the wealthy have benefitted from economic growth, has begun to witness the demagoguery and populist appeals believed characteristic of nations south of the border. This blog entry considers another similarity: the obstacles faced by women politicians advocating “within system” change aimed to benefit the disadvantaged; it considers the difficult political obstacles presented by powerful economic and political interests that manipulate misogynistic sentiments to block change.

Dilma and Hilary as Advocates for Progressive Change

    Dilma Rousseff, the first woman president of Brazil, was elected in 2011, in a run-off vote that gave her 56% of the popular vote and re-elected in 2014. She was forced out of office in May 2016 on corruption charges and is currently facing impeachment. Her party, the PT (Worker’s Party), like Rousseff herself, began with a radical agenda (involving strong opposition to neoliberalism and support for land redistribution) but now holds a much more moderate position—a strategy no doubt developed in order to gain and maintain power. Nevertheless, Rousseff’s credentials as an advocate for the poor and working class are indisputable: she became a socialist in her youth, joined a number of guerrilla organizations to fight the country’s military dictatorship, and was arrested and tortured by the military government. In office, she lowered taxes on food, expanded social welfare benefits, and reduced the cost of electricity.

    Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s candidate in the upcoming U.S. national election, and the first women to run for a major political party in the U.S., was a social activist in her youth. While both she and the Democratic Party became more conservatives over time, there is little doubt that her presidential campaign marks an important shift to the left. Pushed by the relentless demands of the supporters of Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party is now calling for a substantial increase in the minimum wage, more aggressive action on police shootings, job creation, and financial and tax reforms to rein in the power and wealth of the 1 percent. Like Dilma Rousseff, if Hillary is to follow through with even some of these promises, she will have to obtain the quiescence, if not support, of the country’s powerful economic interests and political establishment. Her advantage is that as former first lady and Secretary of State under President Obama, she has already been very much part of that political establishment. The question is: can she keep the powerful onside while pursing progressive reform. For any politician, this task is an extremely difficult. For a female politician, doubly so, for the reasons I elaborate on below. 

Women Politicians: Always between a Rock and a Hard Place

    All women politicians face a societal bias that involves perceptions that women must act in ways that are congruent with expectations of what constitutes “feminine” behaviour. When they do not behave in these ways, they are not liked or accepted. This is an especially difficult problem for women politicians because most politicians are male and politics is about power and strength—the most macho of attributes. These are characteristics that women are not expected to aspire to or have, but as politicians, women’s worth is measured against these very traditional male attributes. Women politicians are judged on the extent to which they demonstrate such characteristics as rationality, decisiveness, and strength. However, if a woman politician scores high on these attributes, she can be quickly demonized by her political opponents as hard, controlling and not feminine. The very fact of being a female politician, therefore, hands political opponents a ready-made opportunity to incite public opinion against her. This is especially the case for women politicians with a progressive agenda that the powerful do not like because these very powerful economic interests usually control media outlets. The case of Dilma Rousseff is instructive. 

Manipulating Misogyny to Block Change

    In Brazil, media ownership is highly concentrated and content is heavily influenced by powerful political and business interests.This press treated Dilma Rousseff very badly throughout her entire tenure as president, highlighting her non-feminine, “hard,” characteristics (5). Opposition portrayal of her dress and style has been profoundly misogynistic to such an extent that the United Nations office on women’s rights in Brazil issued a statement protesting this “sexist political violence” against Rousseff. Many believe that the impeachment proceedings against her have a very significant (if not central) sexist component. Aside from the fact that past presidents had been accused of more serious corruption practices than the one with which she is charged and were not impeached, those who led the impeachment campaign against her were themselves much more deeply embroiled in corrupt practices. 

    Rousseff was a politician supporting progressive change in a society with powerful forces resistant to change—a scenario not unlike the one Clinton will be faced with should she be elected. Rousseff’s particular political situation was probably more difficult. She lacked control of Congress, had to negotiate with opposition parties, and, in addition, had to include a number of opposition politicians in her cabinet. She had to play political game in the way it had always been played—arguably necessary if she was going to accomplish anything for the poor in the short to medium. Hence, she allowed powerful private sector interests access to overly generous state contracts so that they would refrain from active political opposition. Her political opponents certainly had ample reason for wanting her removed from office. She was held responsible for the country’s economic downturn. A crucial motivation on the part of her political opponents, however, was the fact that she had allowed the investigations into the country’s oil company corruption scandal to go forward—an investigation that implicated the very politicians that would lead the charge for her impeachment. However, gender bias exacerbated these political difficulties; it provided her opponents with an additional incentive to have her removed from office and gave them the ammunition (in the form of ridicules of her style and appearance), that facilitated popular support. In short, misogyny fueled a vigorous search for missteps on the part of her political enemies and inspired the humiliating representations that helped the opposition gain popular support for her ouster.

     Already, Hillary Clinton’s gender has become part of the subtext of the criticisms voiced by her political opponents. Trump has said that she lacks “strength” and “stamina” and that she “shouts”—this latter highly acceptable for male politicians. While Democrats do not put much weight on the impact of comments of this nature, they vastly underestimate Trump’s ability to manipulate the emotions of the electorate. More important than Trump’s remarks, however, is the rampant sexist criticism Clinton has received from the U.S. media. Mainstream media commentators have accused her of being angry, of “shrieking”, of being a lesbian, and of having mood swings. We can expect much more of the same should she become President, particularly if she carries through on her progressive campaign promises. Let us hope that her gender is not manipulated in a way that blocks the progressive changes she now stands for. 

    The sexist bias against female politicians is widespread and its political use remarkably similar across distinct political and cultural contexts. The eradication of this sexist bias is, of course, a long-term project. The first step is surely public recognition of its prevalence, impact, and harmful effects on the public good.