Women Will Save Democracy

And that’s why threats against them have soared

Written by Joel Ombry and published in Medium.c0m 3/8/2022

Clockwise from upper left: Gretchen Whitmer, Stacey AbramsMichele WuAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Source: wikimedia.org. CC Licenses CC BY 3.0BY-SA 2.0 PDM 1.0 , cropped and compiled by author.

America and the world face great challenges, and women are stepping up.

The past decade has seen a rise in the number and effectiveness of women political leaders, both in and out of government. Research is growing that shows women perform better in leadership roles than men. The 117th U.S. Congress has a record number of women representatives.

Other examples of women’s growing influence in politics:

  • In his recent State of the Union address, President Biden was framed by Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The #2 and #3 most powerful leaders in the U.S. government are women.
  • Democratic activist Stacey Abrams is believed largely responsible for voter registration and mobilization efforts in Georgia that secured a Democratic presidential win, and Senate majority, in 2020.
  • Moms Demand Action has enjoyed success in lobbying for gun safety legislation and other reforms in several U.S. states.
  • Internationally, more nations are electing women leaders, who are proving themselves in crises — like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, widely praised for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With rising influence comes more criticism, but something is different

Facing criticism is part of politics right? It’s a dynamic as old as the republic. Free speech — the bedrock of our democracy — enables citizens to speak their minds to those in power. However, when does free speech end and threats begin? When does criticism become harassment? And most importantly, why have threats against women leaders, in particular, increased in recent years?

First, let’s look at data reported by the Associated Press (AP) to try to separate fact from belief.

“Researchers for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue measured online abuse of congressional candidates in the 2020 election, including direct or indirect threats and promoting violence or demeaning a person based on identity such as race or gender. They found female Democrats received 10 times more abusive comments on Facebook than their male peers, while Republican women received twice as many as their male counterparts.” (Bold emphasis mine)

“A State and Local Government Review survey of mayors in communities with over 30,000 residents found 79% of mayors reported being a victim of harassment, threats or other psychological abuse, and 13% reported instances of physical violence. Gender was the biggest predictor of whether mayors would be victims, with female mayors more than twice as likely as male mayors to face psychological abuse, and nearly three times as likely to experience physical violence.” (Bold emphasis mine)

Research shows not only are women targeted more than men; the nature of the criticism is also different. Criticism of male politicians typically uses more general language, while female politicians receive more personal attacks using gendered language. Threats often focus on physical appearance and can include sexual violence and imagery.

Women’s traditional cultural roles help and hurt

Women’s traditional roles as nurturers, and perceived qualities of being more relational and empathetic may contribute to their success in politics. However, traditional roles may also work against them. Political and social scientists describe a concept called gender role theory which suggests that attributes of politicians such as ambition and assertiveness are “coded male.” Women who pursue elected office are perceived as violating traditional norms. The backlash against this perceived violation may be driving some of the threatening behavior.

Rutgers University Professor, Mona Lena Krook, who authored a 2020 book on global violence against women in politics, captures the sentiment:

“It’s like ‘Who does she think she is trying to tell us what to do?’…There is a sense they’re trying to delegitimize her because they don’t feel like she has the right, that she’s allowed to be there because she’s a woman … I think they take it very personally.”

It’s important to note, in our polarized times, that threats against women leaders occur on both sides of the aisle and are unacceptable no matter who is targeted. I suspect it’s more prevalent on the right as more traditional gender roles and greater xenophobia are features of the extreme right. Threats against women leaders are even more likely if they are also from a racial, ethnic or religious minority group.

Summary

The vitriol suffered by our female leaders, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, reflects misogynistic and xenophobic threads in our society going back decades. What’s new is the rapid acceleration of this violent rhetoric caused by the rising influence of women, social media and the lowering of standards of acceptable political discourse by extremist politicians and media figures.

We need to make reversing the threats against women leaders an urgent priority— right now. Some steps that might help:

  • Social media crackdown — Like COVID disinformation control efforts, greater emphasis should be placed on threatening behavior on social media (against all genders). One simple change, that seems obvious, would be to force social media account holders to use their true names.
  • Report threatening behavior on social media platforms.
  • Hold elected officials accountable not only for their own behavior, but to strengthen laws against threats and violence towards women.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that I’m writing this on International Women’s Day. It’s a time to celebrate women in the many roles they play in our lives and society. However, it’s also a time to have a clear-eyed focus on the continued threats against women in political leadership and fight against them. The continued positive influence of women in our politics depends on it.

Hope for Democracy?

Bad week in Trumpland signals hope for American democracy

Written by Austin Sarat and Dennis Aftergut and published in The Hill 8/2/2021

Photo by Rodrigo Souza on Pexels.com

The last five years’ deluge of disinformation and discord make it easy to lose faith in democracy, something never helpful to preserving it. Just when many lamented the Republican pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago as signs of Trump’s iron-fisted hold on his party, his control visibly faltered last week. Earlier polling had already shown a slip.

Still, Trump’s bad week does not mean that it’s time for foes of authoritarianism to rejoice or for anyone to assume that American democracy is out of danger.

A loosening of Trump’s influence and new steps toward holding him accountable will mean little unless current efforts to enact the For the People Act, or a Manchin-style revision, can cross the goal line. As importantly, Congress needs to adopt the June 21 Senate bill to stop election subversion.

If the measures in Republican-controlled legislatures in battleground states this year allow partisans to exert control over which election officials count the 2022 and 2024 vote, the name of the Republican candidates will not matter. Our democratic republic will be at an end.

For the moment, though, let’s consider the week’s bad news for Trumpland:

  • On Tuesday, Susan Wright, the Texas congressional candidate that Trump endorsed, lost her primary to Jake Ellzey, whose campaign pitched his bipartisan appeal.
  • The same day, Merrick Garland’s DOJ advanced the cause of accountability by ruling that Trump acolyte Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) was not immune from liability in a lawsuit for allegedly inciting the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. That ruling ends the attempt that Trump’s lawyers had already foreshadowed to raise the same defense of the former president in Swalwell’s suit.
  • On Wednesday, even Mitch McConnell, “Dr. No” to Biden legislative success, greenlighted the procedural votes in favor of a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal. McConnell did this in direct defiance of Trump’s messages threatening Republicans who signed on — 17 Republican Senators signed on anyway.
  • On Friday, the DOJ reversed Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s decision to withhold Trump’s tax returns from a congressional committee overseeing IRS audits and exploring legislation to correct. Garland’s reversal is another sign that Trump no longer can simply get away with making up his own rules and defying long standing norms.
  • Also on Friday, the Justice Department released to Congress seemingly incriminating notes made by former DOJ officials of phone solicitations from then-President Trump to support his “Big Lie.” The notes indicate that Trump told acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen all he had to do was say that the November election was “corrupt” — “leave the rest to me and the R[epublican] Congressmen.” This seems like a redo from Trump’s playbook with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 — have someone announce an investigation of Biden so that Trump and his allies could blacken his rival’s name and prospects for success.

Outside of Trumpland, all this is good news — both for accountability and for the possibility that the Republican Party may still be able to fill the country’s need for a conservative-moderate party that is not off the rails in support of delusional extremism.

While progressives have made gains in capturing public support in recent years, the country remains, at heart, moderate to conservative in its politics.

The persuadable middle remains vital to governing the country, as the week’s progress on the infrastructure bill shows. Critically, the bill was kept alive by lobbying from an old-school, moderate-conservative business-labor coalition.

While celebrating pro-democracy events, it is good to keep in mind that even the Founders constantly lost faith in the experiment they had launched in their lab at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

Yet our country has survived the traumas of Civil War, Jim Crow, the Father Coughlins and Charles Lindberghs who would have aligned us with Nazi Germany, and the Sen. Joseph McCarthys who would have imposed his orthodoxy on our political thought.

Last week’s developments offer a glimmer of hope that we will survive Trump too.

To do so, Congress must act to protect the vote and preserve the integrity of our elections.

The key for citizens is never to shy away from facing the brutal truth of our current difficulties, while not allowing it to rob us of faith. As Winston Churchill observed, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America’s death penalty, including “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.

Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, currently of counsel at the Renne Public Law Group in San Francisco.