September 13, 2016

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL | Political Culture and Clinton’s Cough

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Photo Courtesy of Jim Cole

The biggest news story from this past weekend isn’t that our nation just grieved September 11th for the 15th time. Nope, the biggest headline following this historic day is that Hillary has pneumonia.

Over the past few months, the 68-year-old Democratic nominee has faced a constant barrage of scrutiny surrounding her physical health, and after her stumble and early departure from a 9/11 commemoration ceremony, it was revealed that Clinton is currently being treated for pneumonia.

Even more disconcerting than the fact that Clinton still works tirelessly despite her illness and tries to conceal it from us, is our grotesque fixation on her and the hyper-scrutiny we subject her to.  Conspiracy theories ranging from seizures to an inability to support herself at a podium have surfaced, and a letter from her doctor claimed that Hillary is undoubtedly “fit to serve” as president. Yet the magnifying glass still looms large, waiting to reveal signs of weakness.

Our fixation on Hillary’s health is not born out of any real concern about her fitness to serve.  Our fixation on Hillary’s health is symptomatic of a toxic political culture that thrives on unearthing concealed vulnerabilities, and especially obsesses over the vulnerability of women.  This culture is the exact reason why the Clinton Campaign did not announce her pneumonia diagnosis on national television on Friday.  Vulnerability is their greatest enemy in this election cycle.

Clinton’s critics on both sides of the aisle attack her most vehemently for a lack of transparency.  Transparency in a strong male candidate indicates confidence, but results in radically different connotations for a female politician.  Clinton entered the political arena at a time when politics was still very much a man’s game (although it hasn’t improved too dramatically, but that’s another conversation).  Men were perceived as innate leaders, while women were better suited to subservient roles, lacking the acuity and assertiveness to lead.  In order to assimilate into such an overtly masculine political culture, Hillary had to play the part by overemphasizing the qualities that would make her most accepted in this sphere, while concealing those which might be conceived as vulnerabilities.  Ambition and aggression are perceived much more favorably than emotionality or femininity.

While it’s easy to think that we have distanced ourselves from such blatant sexism in politics, our modern political discourse suggests otherwise.  Whether it’s her appearance or her health, our critiques of Hillary often tend to be gendered, at least implicitly.  The pantsuits she wears are too masculine.  That headband she wore in the ‘90s was unprofessional (read: too feminine).  Her voice is mannish.  She is too physically weak to serve as president.  Playing the “woman card” is bad politics.  Not playing the “woman card” is bad politics.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that Hillary Clinton is a perfect candidate, and I am not even trying to sell anyone on her politics, but I think it’s important to note the inconsistencies in how we deal out criticism in the public sphere, especially when talking about political candidates.  The fact that Hillary Clinton’s cough got as many headlines as the 15th anniversary of 9/11 is evidence of the ageism and sexism that tinges our perception of figures like Clinton.  We obsessively search for vulnerabilities and pat ourselves on the back when we find one (yay, she has pneumonia! Good work everyone!), and it has to stop.

In order to overcome our internalized biases against women in leadership, we must work to construct a political discourse that emphasizes policy over conspiracy.  Let’s talk about her platform.  Let’s talk about the Clinton Foundation.  Let’s talk about her tenure as First Lady and U.S. Senator and Secretary of State.  But for Christ’s sake, stop talking about her cough.