How is it that, at the same time, possibly the most principled and possibly the least principled politicians the U.S. has seen in recent times are both serious contenders for the presidency? How are voters weighing the progressiveness of supporting a woman candidate for president versus the regressiveness of creating another political dynasty? What does the failure, to date, of any serious conservative or libertarian candidate tell us about what people in the U.S. really value? These are just a few of the questions that the 2016 U.S. presidential election raises.
It is a strange election so far, and its strangeness serves to highlight important issues that are present in many elections, including issues in political philosophy, epistemology, and ethics. What does this election tell us about voting, democracy, and democratic theory? What lessons does it hold regarding political participation, civic virtue, and education? What has been the role of emotion, rhetoric, and ideology in the campaigns? What conclusions about political epistemology, if any, should we draw from the election so far?
To discuss these questions and others, I invited philosophers and political theorists to share some brief remarks about the election to date. As with previous installments in the “Philosophers On” series, these remarks are not comprehensive statements, but rather focused thoughts on specific issues, meant to prompt further discussion, here and elsewhere.
- Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse (Vanderbilt University) — The Party’s Over
- Elisabeth Anker (George Washington University) — Trump’s Melodrama
- Jason Brennan (Georgetown University) — Democracy Works Because It Doesn’t Work
- Michael Fuerstein (St. Olaf College) — A Hollowed-Out Civic Experience
- Alexander Guerrero (University of Pennsylvania) — Update the ‘Old Technology’ of Elections
- Suzy Killmister (University of Connecticut) — Democracy, Speech, and Punishment
- Gina Schouten (Illinois State University) — Does it Matter that Clinton Is a Woman?
Thanks to each of them for taking the time to share their thoughts here.
The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to the public conversations about current events, as well as prompt further discussion among philosophers about these events. All are welcome to join the discussion.
Please share the post with others, and feel free to provide links in the comments to relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere.
We have never embraced political conservatism. However, we also think that the conservative tradition in American politics is intellectually formidable. We find the best representatives of that tradition to be rigorous, insightful, and philosophically astute. They are political commentators for whom ideas matter. In their best work we find proposals and principles that we think are incorrect, but never merely stupid.
The trouble with political conservatism in America is that for the past fifty years, its central ideals have been growing increasingly unpopular with the American citizenry. The sociological, demographic, and economic explanations of this need not detain us. The fact is that the core conservative values of personal responsibility, self-reliance, restrained government, shared community, and the moral authority of tradition have given way to tendencies that conservatives must regard as base and uncivilized: insatiable appetites for luxury, excess, spectacle, and power, all of which are social forces that dissolve tradition and foster divisions. It is no accident that W.F. Buckley Jr. defined conservatives as standing athwart history yelling, Stop!
This cultural shift naturally presented a challenge to the Republican Party, which was faced with a social reality in which winning elections on the basis of their core values was bound to become increasingly unlikely. Again, conservative intellectuals understood that their ideas were bound to be seen as badly out of step. And so they needed to find other ways to win elections beyond explaining their core ideas to what they saw as a fractured populace. What was needed was a way to build a political coalition among people who ultimately have little in common. And this required a strategy by which deep-seated divisions could be overshadowed by some unifying purpose. With the citizenry divided, this unifying purpose needed to be manufactured.
Alas, the formation of political unity is not as difficult as it may seem, for it is easy to construct nemeses: social and cultural forces that threaten to thwart, disfigure, nullify, or dilute whatever makes America great. Note that in manufacturing such an antagonist, one mustn’t get specific about the nature or target of the threatening body. It is enough to simply characterize it as alien and hostile, or debauched and decadent, thereby allowing each citizen to fill in the details however he or she sees fit. The rest is left unsaid, and this was presented as a matter of etiquette. But it was strategic. A silent majority, insofar as it is silent, doesn’t speak. And insofar as it doesn’t speak, it doesn’t speak to itself, and so it cannot discover how deep its internal divisions may run.
It is crucial to remember that the Republican strategy initially was to merely manufacture an enemy around which to unify an otherwise divided citizenry for the purpose of winning elections. Once in office, Republicans could govern according to the traditional conservative values that they had downplayed or omitted from the narrative while campaigning. To be sure, this kind of bait-and-switch may seem cynical and disingenuous, but it is the stuff out of which democratic politics is made.
The most recent national election cycles have shown the hazard of this strategy. One might say that the bait-and-switch has come full circle: The artificial foe has become the concrete enemy, the instrument has become the end, and the rhetoric has become the substantive message. At least since Reagan’s presidency, the Republican Party has undergone a fateful transformation, most evident in the progression from Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America to the Tea Party and Sarah Palin to Donald Trump. The resentment, anxiety, and fear that was once deployed as a device to motivate voting behavior is now the official party platform.
In this way, Trump has already won. The Republican Party is no longer conservative, as the Party is no longer devoted to ideas of any kind. In fact, it is committed to the idea that ideas do not matter. And, importantly, this means that Trump has won even if he does not win the GOP nomination (though it currently seems that he will), for he has demonstrated that in order to get the support of voters who identify with the Republican Party, would-be candidates must vilify ideas as such and instead communicate solely in one-liners — empty slogans, vulgar innuendo, and childish insults. All this in the service of selling what is vaunted as a brand. Conservatism was supposed to be the idea that values were more than brands, but branding is now all the Republican Party has at its rhetorical core.
There is good reason to think that the GOP nominee will not win the White House in the coming election. Although we are pleased by this thought, we also cannot help but find it disconcerting that, with respect to the Republicans, the Party’s over.
Elisabeth Anker — Trump’s Melodrama
One of the most important and vexing questions in current politics is why presidential candidate Donald Trump galvanizes such a large percentage of the US population. Support for Trump’s “Make American Great Again” campaign extends far beyond the white supremacists attracted to his nativistic appeals. Trump’s political rhetoric is a key part of his broad backing, but why it is so remains unnoticed among critics who focus on his seemingly spontaneous and statistically third-grade level diction. Trump posits that Americans are the unjust victims of economic hardship and political exploitation, which are manufactured by scary, evil villains who can only be stopped by heroic state actions that will restore a diminished sovereignty. He emphasizes the wounding of virtuous and innocent citizens by evil Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, and Chinese trade imbalances, and he depicts a border wall, aggressive unilateral state action, and military expansion as moral imperatives to ameliorate citizens’ suffering and re-achieve greatness. Trump, in other words, deploys the popular and galvanizing political discourse of melodrama.
Melodramatic political discourses, as I have argued in my book Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom, portray political events through moral polarities of good and evil, overwhelmed victims, heightened affects of pain and suffering, grand gestures, and astonishing feats of heroism. In America, they often emphasize national goodness though the suffering of the US nation-state, diagnose evil in political opposition, and find heroism in acts of state and individual sovereignty that can eradicate villainy. Melodramatic political discourses equate feelings of powerlessness with virtue and innocence, and they solicit affective states of astonishment, sorrow, and pathos through scenes of injured citizens. They often promise that sovereign state power can eradicate villainy and restore individual freedom. Melodrama has been a popular form of American political discourse throughout much of the twentieth century, but Trump takes melodrama to heightened levels as he uses it to address the intensifying effects of neoliberalism, globalization, and precarization that relentlessly besiege millions of Americans. He taps into their felt powerlessness by diagnosing it as unjust victimization from foreign job-stealing plotters, and promises to restore imperiled individual freedom by reinvigorating exclusionary forms of state sovereignty.
Trump draws upon melodrama in part because it is particularly adept at articulating ineffable feelings of vulnerability. His melodramatic speeches detail “Americans decimated” by villainous Mexicans who steal US jobs, violently destroy American cities, and rape and murder innocent American women (women are the ultimate melodramatic victim — tied to the railroad tracks and waiting helplessly for the hero.) They depict Muslim refugees as uncivilized barbarians hoping to arrive in the United States solely to murder and behead the innocent Americans they hate. They decry the Chinese government nefariously stealing the economic power and global sovereignty that rightfully belongs to hard-working American citizens. Trump’s melodramas portray the United States as both the feminized, virginal victim and the aggressive, masculinized hero in his story of Making America Great Again.
Trump’s overheated melodrama is thus not the mark of unsophisticated thought, but a powerful political strategy that foments the feeling of being overwhelmed by power. Trump deploys it to argue that violent and punitive forms of state expansion, especially strong borders — whether a concrete wall, draconian detention, or blocked visas — plus an impermeable military can end them. “We’re gonna make our military so big and so strong and so great, it will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it. Nobody’s going to mess with us.” It is a promise that state power, so big and so strong and so great, can wipe away all experiences of vulnerability. Trump’s vision of sovereign power may seem philosophically incoherent — he promises individualism and global control, self-mastery and mass detention, border walls and unbound power– but it is politically compelling. Make America Great Again, in other words, transmutes affectively intense experiences of vulnerability into the justification for state violence imagined as sovereign freedom.
Trump’s melodramatic promise is this: you may feel weak and injured now, but my state policies will soon overcome terrifying villains and allow you to experience your rightful, and unbound, power. This helps to explain why Trump’s support is especially strong from white, male supporters. It is not that they are the population most injured by the economic recession or diminished state sovereignty, for instance, but that they feel unable to achieve what they have always been told is their rightful entitlement. Their rightful entitlement, Trump knows, is to be him: economically dominant, a master over self and others, and beholden to no other. His promise to recapture the sovereign freedom he claims to embody is most compelling for those people who have historically and fervently invested in heroic individualism, typically the white men upon whom it is implicitly modeled. Trump’s adherents surely feel threatened by the rise of women and minorities to positions of political power and public visibility, but they, like many others, also feel at the mercy of economic and political forces that few people can identify or understand. Indeed, the individualism they desire disavows the very impact of these larger forces on their lives. Yet this explains how Trump’s melodrama also gains broader appeal than just the avowed white supremacists who support his campaign. His vision of individual sovereignty is broad-based enough that it appeals to women and minorities in greater numbers than one might otherwise expect. Trump’s melodrama may therefore become more appealing as the election wears on, as the robust sovereign individualism he claims to embody continues to decline in possibility for all Americans.
Jason Brennan — Democracy Works Because It Doesn’t Work
In general, democracy works because it doesn’t work. Trump and Sanders are populist candidates who play to misinformation, anger, and prejudice. Trump is doing well this time around because democracy is working, because there has been a break down in various checks parties place on voter ignorance.
Here a few basic truths about voter knowledge and behavior. First, the mean, median, and modal amounts of basic political knowledge among voters are low. Second, voters have systematically different beliefs about how the market or government functions when compared to economists or political scientists; these differences are not explained by differences in demographics, but by differences in knowledge. Third, voters are systematically biased and irrational in how they process political information. Fourth, voters do not generally vote their self-interest, but instead vote in ways that they regard as expressing fidelity to their moral ideals. In short, voters are in general ignorant, irrational, and misinformed nationalist sociotropes.
Given how little voters know and how badly they process information, it’s not surprising that democracies frequently choose bad policies. But given how little voters know and how badly they process information, it’s surprising democracies don’t perform even worse than they do.
In fact, there’s a significant gap between the policies the median voter prefers and the policies actually get implemented. Though modern democracies make plenty of bad choices, in general, they do significantly better than one would expect, given how silly and misinformed median voters are. What seems to explain this is not the “wisdom of the crowds”—the median voter is not wise—but instead that in democracies, political parties, elites, bureaucrats, and others have significant leeway to act independently of voters’ wishes. If you think democracy is a good thing in itself, perhaps that upsets you. If instead you think, as I do, that democracy’s value is purely instrumental, and that political systems ought to be judged by how well they deliver on procedure-independent standards of justice, you should be happy. For the sake of my children and the world, thank goodness America democracy generally doesn’t work, i.e., doesn’t just give the people what they want.
Recently, political scientist Martin Gilens measured how responsive different presidents have been to different groups of voters. Gilens finds that when voters at the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentiles of income disagree about policy, presidents are about six times more responsive to the policy preferences of the rich than the poor.
Gilens is in some ways horrified by results like these, but he admits, there’s an upside. Voters at the 90th percentile of income tend to be significantly better informed than voters at the 50th or especially 10th percentile, and this information changes their policy preferences. For instance, high income Democrats tend to have high degrees of political knowledge, while poor Democrats tend to be ignorant or misinformed. Poor Democrats more approved more strongly of invading Iraq in 2003. They more strongly favor the Patriot Act, invasions of civil liberty, torture, economic protectionism, and restricting abortion rights and access to birth control. They are less tolerant of homosexuals and more opposed to gay rights. In contrast, high information Democrats—such as party elites—are more strongly in favor of free trade and the strong protection of civil rights, and are less interventionist.
Policy-wise, Trump is for the most part a moderate, centrist, populist candidate, though one prone to narcissism and ghastly displays of xenophobia. It’s worth noting here that most political moderates are not moderates on every issue; rather, they are moderate on some and extremist on others, but their positions average out. Thoroughgoing moderates are rare. Trump is rising as the likely Republican nominee despite widespread opposition from the party elite, and despite not sitting well with core Republican voters, because he strongly appeals to disaffected, middle-of-the-road Americans. Trump is what happens when the various safety mechanisms in place in modern democracy—mechanisms that prevent the people from getting what they actually want—start to break down.
Michael Fuerstein — A Hollowed-Out Civic Experience
Even Trump himself doesn’t seem to believe his own bullshit, but the primary results so far suggest that plenty of voters do. Or do they? I’m not sure. The most striking thing about Trump is that, beyond promising to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban Muslims from entering the country, his candidacy is not based on any discernible policy positions. Trump’s platform is Trump, and its main plank is his middle finger.
It seems to me that Trump illustrates a couple of features of democracy worth noting. The first is that voting, and political behavior more generally, is driven as much by emotional responses to people, institutions, and events, as it is by judgments or preferences about who is likely to be a good leader. Trump supporters are apparently angry about the status quo and fearful of social and economic changes that they perceive as a threat. Choosing Trump appears to be as much an expression of those feelings as it is a manifestation of some belief that he will do something good as an office-holder. That is why the almost comical vacuity of Trump’s policy agenda (“we’re gonna be great again!”) is beside the point for his supporters. The second is that political behavior is driven as much by group identification as it is by individual values or beliefs. Trump has given voice to a constituency of white, working class voters that believes itself to be under threat by Mexicans, Muslims, and PC liberals among others. His alarming racist rhetoric and innuendo has served as a rallying cry that defines and accentuates a particular in-group vs out-group narrative. Supporting Trump seems to have become a way of signaling in-group membership as much as anything else.
I think these observations have significance for how we think about addressing some of our democracy’s ailments. In democratic theory, the reigning model for the last couple of decades or so is “deliberative democracy” which, in brief, recommends a free and egalitarian exchange of reasons as the basis for democratic decision-making. But while we undoubtedly would benefit from more reasoned deliberation, the observations above suggest that improving our democracy will depend as much on measures that facilitate the development of our emotional as much as our cognitive faculties and engagement. A healthy democracy is one, not only in which citizens are reasoned and informed, but also one in which they have the capacity to feel sympathetically about the problems and concerns of others, and to leverage a sense of shared experience and identity across social categories. Cultivating such capacities has traditionally been the role of public schools in the United States, as well as public museums, parks, and universities, all of which—at their best—can function as incubators of meaningful, sympathetic social interactions among disparate social groups. From this point of view, Trump is a reflection, not only of a breakdown in social reasoning, but also of a society with an increasingly segregated, defunded, inegalitarian, and hollowed-out civic experience.
While there has been some notable philosophical work of late addressing this emotional/experiential dimension of democracy (e.g., Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions, Elizabeth Anderson, The Imperative of Integration, Sharon Krause, Civil Passions), I think that democratic theory would benefit from a broader shift in its agenda toward engagement with these concerns, and with an exciting body of relevant work in psychology. From the standpoint of democratic practice, I think that American society would benefit from a vigorous reinvestment in its public crossroads, and from a policy effort to limit the escalating pressures of segregation across economic, racial, religious, and political lines.
Alexander Guerrero — Update the ‘Old Technology’ of Elections
Here’s something puzzling: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are leading candidates for president of the United States. Donald Trump—with the hideous gold buildings and beauty pageants, the endless series of wives and bankruptcies, the moronic and bullying bluster; Donald Trump—a fraud of a human being, an inept billionaire whose catchphrase is “you’re fired,” is a leading candidate for president. And, in the other corner: Bernie Sanders, America’s lonely socialist, 75-years old, who has been wandering in the wilderness in Congress for two-and-a-half decades, has somehow stumbled into a serious presidential bid. To add to the oddity, they couldn’t be more different. Trump, while pretending to be a populist for a few minutes, aims to implement tax cuts for the rich beyond anything George W. Bush considered. Sanders, with decades of principled droning on behind him, would like to institute democratic socialism to rival Scandinavia. Trump doesn’t want to jump to conclusions about David Duke; Sanders is releasing mixtapes with Killer Mike.
What is going on? A recent study from two political scientists, Wendy Rahn and Eric Oliver, helps shed some light on this question. They conducted a national survey, assessing characteristics of various candidates’ supporters along four dimensions: authoritarianism, anti-elitism, mistrust of experts, and the importance of American identity.
Trump supporters were more authoritarian than any other candidate’s supporters except for Ted Cruz’s, and had the highest scores along both the mistrust of experts and importance of American identity dimensions. Sanders supporters were the exact opposite on those three dimensions: they were the least authoritarian, the most trusting of experts, and put the least importance on identifying as American. Strikingly, however, Trump and Sanders supporters both had, by far, the highest scores with respect to anti-elitism. Rahn and Oliver assessed anti-elitism in terms of agreement with statements like:
“It doesn’t really matter who you vote for because the rich control both political parties”
“Politics usually boils down to a struggle between the people and the powerful” and
“The system is stacked against people like me.”
These are the most compelling ideas this election cycle. People—to an unprecedented degree—feel that the system is broken.
They aren’t wrong. The empirical work of Martin Gilens and others suggests that the rich usually get their way. The rich are not stupid; they try to avoid throwing their money away. People worry about Citizens United, but experts agree that the largest problem isn’t buying elections (which turns out to be hard to do: ask Jeb! and Marco Rubio), but post-election access and lobbying. One just has to look to see how much money is spent on lobbying by the defense, pharmaceutical, insurance, medical, oil/gas, securities/investment, and telecommunications industries to see that something is being sold, and something is being bought. There are questions about whether the policy proposals of either Sanders or Trump would actually help those struggling—diagnoses of false consciousness, wishful thinking, and manipulation are common. But they are both staking their campaigns on this issue: government by the people and for the people (or, at least, for our people, in the case of Trump), rather than by the rich and for the rich.
Many have thought that electoral democracy is the best system possible to ensure government by the people and for the people. So, what is going wrong? Elections set up a principal-agent problem. We are to choose a small subset of people who will act on our behalf. That’s always tricky. What if those people just look out for themselves, or for the most powerful? Here is the genius of elections: if those elected aren’t for the people, we can vote them out. There is an accountability mechanism. Here is the problem: that mechanism only works if we can hold our elected officials meaningfully accountable. And that requires not just free and open elections, but also real choices between meaningfully different options, and—most important—knowledge regarding who has done what, and whether what they have done is good for us, for the country, or for the world. The anti-elitism of Sanders’s and Trump’s supporters reflects a sense that this mechanism is failing us.
There are many different reasons why this might be, but I think the most fundamental one is modern policy complexity coupled with our thoroughgoing ignorance. We are broadly ignorant about what our political officials are actually doing or trying to do, ignorant about the details of complex political issues, and ignorant about whether what our representatives are doing is good for us or for the world. This ignorance means that we can’t hold the elected officials meaningfully accountable. And we don’t. We elect them, and it is as if we have chosen them to sit at the levers of power on the other side of a brick wall. Every two or four or six years they return to our side to tell us what they have been doing, and if we like what they say, we elect to send them back to the other side. But that’s not meaningful accountability. More troubling, if money buys access to the other side of the wall, or even hours at the levers, as it does, then our ignorance permits the capture of our political officials—leading to obscene levels of defense spending, unreal pharmaceutical profit margins, continued entrenchment of oil interests and friendships with Saudi dictatorships, wars as business ventures, the opening of tax shelters and closing of homeless shelters, “too rich to jail,” private prisons, and on and on.
Elsewhere and in ongoing work, I argue that we should consider using lotteries, rather than elections, to select our political officials; that we should consider eliminating the elected individual presidency; and that we should move away from flawed models of accountability through elections and toward models that result in good and responsive policy through demographically representative control of political power and the elimination of avenues for financial influence from the few. There’s not room to make that case fully here. But there is reason to take seriously that electoral democracy may be old technology—better than what came before, and certainly better than authoritarian tyranny, but capable of being improved upon. Here’s where neither Sanders nor Trump is being radical enough. We don’t just need to change who the captain is; we need a new way to travel. As the supporters of Sanders and Trump say: we need a revolution, we need to make America great again. Or for the first time.
Suzy Killmister — Democracy, Speech, and Punishment
At the risk of gross understatement, the current election cycle does not inspire much confidence in the state of democracy in the United States. Rather than try to identify a single, unifying, explanation or diagnosis for these democratic woes, I’m going to focus more narrowly on two refrains that have emerged from this campaign, and consider their relevance for the state of democracy in the US. The first is the refrain, common amongst Trump supporters, that ‘he is finally saying out loud what we’re all thinking’ —a reference, I’m going to assume, to Trump’s outspoken bigotry. The second is a refrain, expressed by some Sanders supporters, that if Clinton wins the nomination they will vote Trump in order to ‘burn this place down’ —where ‘this place’ presumably refers to the political establishment and the institutions that house them. I take the first refrain to signal a threat to democratic relations between citizens; I take the second refrain to signal a threat to democratic institutions.
With respect to the first refrain: we might wonder whether Trump’s declarations of bigotry really matter, if indeed they are merely echoing what many of his supporters were already thinking. The reason they matter is that having such bigotry declared out loud, by a potential Presidential candidate, and then seriously engaged with by the nation’s media, has the power to alter the relations in which citizens stand to one another. Such vocal expressions of bigotry, in such a public forum, license behavior that might otherwise be kept in check. In just the last few weeks, we have seen high school students taunting racially diverse sports teams with chants of ‘Trump, Trump’; we have seen young people of color being jeered at, pushed and shoved, and ejected from spaces in which Trump is speaking; and we have seen the Ku Klux Klan emerge as a topic of debate on cable news channels. Such phenomena effect relations between citizens: they effect who is welcome in which spaces; whose voices are granted a hearing; whose histories are taken to matter; and against whom violence can be inflicted. Saying it out loud has effects.
Surely, though, we can imagine a supporter of Millian liberalism declaring, having these ideas out in the open allows them to be countered with reasoned argument. Won’t the cleansing power of ‘more speech’ win out in the end? I think such optimism is deeply misplaced. These are not moves in a rational argument that can be countered with evidence. It’s impossible to counter falsehoods if those who espouse them aren’t listening; and it’s impossible to counter falsehoods if those who espouse them have already decided that any attempt at countering them is further evidence of untrustworthiness on the part of their interlocutor.
What, then, of the second refrain? I’m assuming here that not everyone who expresses such sentiments believes that a Trump presidency will improve their situation—the call to ‘burn it to the ground’ seems primarily aimed at harming the political elite, rather than benefiting oneself. I see two possible ways to interpret such attitudes. On the one hand, such attitudes could be understood in light of psychological experiments that show participants’ willingness to pay to punish non-cooperators (such as the ‘ultimatum game’, or third-party observers to prisoners dilemmas). People, it seems, are willing to forego a good for themselves, in order to inflict punishment on someone who has not behaved fairly. At the political level, then, it may be that some citizens are willing to forego the benefits of democratic institutions in order to punish the political elite who have behaved in ways that they deem unfair. An alternative interpretation is that some citizens do not see democratic institutions as bringing any benefits at all. There is nothing to lose, so we may as well burn it all to the ground. Whichever interpretation we go with, such sentiments suggest a radically disenfranchised citizenry. When sufficient numbers of people have come to feel so poorly served by democratic institutions that they are prepared to see them crumble, democracy is in a precarious position.
Gina Schouten — Does it Matter that Clinton Is a Woman?
I have been feeling the Bern something fierce. But should my enthusiasm for Bernie be tempered somehow by the fact that his opponent is a woman? Madeleine Albright seemed to think so when she remarked recently that “there’s a special place in hell” for women who don’t help each other. I confess to having felt indignant. To be fair, she said it with a twinkle; perhaps she was more teasing than admonishing. And she quickly walked it back. But there is surely something here worth thinking hard about. Does the fact that Clinton is a woman give us reason to support her? Notice, first, that I have already weakened the position under consideration. Albright’s quip suggested that we have a decisive reason to support Clinton because she is a woman, but any obligation to support women in pursuit of their projects cannot be a decisive one—we should not have supported Carly Fiorina, after all. The weaker position I want to consider is initially more plausible: Does the fact that Clinton is a woman give us any reason at all to support her candidacy? That is, does it tell in favor of supporting her candidacy?
We might have reason to support those who have historically received unfairly small investments or support in the pursuit of their projects. But Clinton is in a zero-sum competition. While, on average, women have received less support in pursuit of their projects than have men, gender is only one aspect of identity, and other aspects also influence the investments of support one receives. We have, as yet, no case either that Clinton has received unfairly little support all-things-considered, or that she has received less support than her competitor. Alternatively, women might have reason to support Clinton based on some special relationship, just as parents have special obligations of support toward their children. But what could this relationship be? It cannot be the mere fact of shared gender identity. Shared gender identity might give us reason to pursue some special relationship—for example, if it makes it likelier that we will have some shared values. And that relationship might subsequently generate reasons for me to support her projects. But mere social similarity seems not directly to generate such reasons.
There is another approach we might take, which begins with the role in question, rather than with the woman herself. It might be that, for any role of authority or prestige, we have some reason to support some woman in her endeavor to occupy that role. There are two routes by which such a reason might arise. First, we have reason to prefer that roles be filled by those most competent to do so. We might think that, given prevailing social norms and trends, women are on average likelier than men to perform excellently in certain roles—because they would have to be more qualified to be perceived as equally qualified, for example, or because their gender equips them to represent some set of interests that receives inadequate attention under the status quo. Secondly, we might have reason to promote women for certain roles in order to promote gender justice: By paving the way for future women occupants and by challenging gendered stereotypes about fitness for the role, promoting a woman here and now might expand women’s access to positions of prestige and authority moving forward.
Albright’s quip suggested that, for any particular person, the fact that that person is a woman gives other women reason to promote her projects. This is implausible. But something in the neighborhood might be right: For any particular role of power or prestige, given existing gender imbalances, we have some reason to support women in pursuit of that role. Notice, though, that these are reasons for men no less than for women. Men should want positions to be filled by those most capable of filling them well, and so should care if circumstances obtain such that members of underrepresented groups are likely on average to be particularly capable. Men also should want a more gender just society, and so have reason to support the pursuits of women to occupy positions of power and prestige if doing so promotes gender justice. Notice too that these reasons are contingent. Likelihood of better performance gives us reason to support women only if the women pursuing the position are really likelier to perform better. Whether they are depends on more than gender. Similarly, whether supporting Clinton will promote gender justice depends not just on her occupying the position as a woman but on what she will do with it once there. Finally, these reasons are defeasible. Even if successfully supporting a qualified woman in her pursuits will in fact promote gender justice, we have reasons also to promote other social ends, and reasons of gender justice might give way to other considerations.
None of this is to deny that there are non-gender related reasons to support Clinton. Nor is it to criticize Albright. (Sometimes, you really should just luxuriate in a good hell joke!) But there is something behind her words that was not a joke. It is worth using the tools of philosophical excavation to bring it to light, examine it, and think what should be done with it.