Opinion | Don’t let Republicans snag the first female presidency

By Alison Sivitz, For The Pitt News

I am 20 years old. I wear a lot of denim. I have acrylic pins on my backpack. I love the idea of universal health care and am casting an enthusiastic primary vote for Bernie Sanders. I recently created a Letterboxd account.

All this is to say — I’m a card-carrying college liberal who never truly questioned the notion that my party would lay claim to the first woman in the White House. However, in the past few weeks, I have become increasingly convinced that the first female president will be a conservative. I do not like this idea, but I’m terrified that my own brain may be correct, and I need Democrats to pay attention.

I didn’t talk myself into this strange, conservative-female-president train of thought by chance. My brain spiral commenced after Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., suspended her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in light of a major failure to pick up a competitive delegate count on Super Tuesday. In doing so, she left the Democratic party in the hands of two men — a painfully moderate Joe Biden and a remarkably progressive Bernie Sanders — both of whom are in their late 70s.

In the wake of her departure, Elizabeth Warren also left me pondering a couple of key questions. What will it take for a woman to successfully snag the presidency? Furthermore, what will the first successful female-led presidential campaign actually look like?

Due to progressive voters’ varied responses to the Sanders and Warren campaigns, as well as their hasty willingness to discredit strong female candidates based solely on past missteps, I fear that they may not find their footing quickly enough to nominate and elect a progressive woman to the highest office. From here forward, if we don’t give progressive women adequate room to grow and evolve, we may risk being surpassed by a party whose policies — most notably those regarding health care, equal pay and criminal justice — disproportionately hurt women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other vulnerable minority groups. This would undermine the exact allure of implementing a female leader in the first place. 

From the outset of this election cycle, Warren defined herself as — undeniably — the most prepared candidate. Not only was her slate of policy proposals on par with Bernie’s progressivism, but it was easily more detailed and well-reasoned than any other candidate’s platform. Despite this, though, a large portion of liberal voters focused on her past foray into conservatism, perceiving her as a “centrist” and questioning whether her progressive platform was genuine.

Many of these questions were not unwarranted — any progressive candidate with a spotty background should be adequately assessed and held accountable. It’s odd, though, that Sanders didn’t receive nearly as much scrutiny and backlash about his flaws. If progressive voters are so concerned about candidates’ former positions, why did so few take issue with his 1993 vote against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act? Or his more recent hesitation to abolish the Senate filibuster, which too often hinders the passage of progressive legislation?

Answering this question with any statement about “ideological evolution” and “learning from past mistakes” only serves my point. No candidate is perfect, and that’s alright. 

What I’m hinting at here is not a new concept, and I compare Sanders and Warren because of their historically progressive platforms. The mere existence of both campaigns is clearly indicative of a widespread desire for progressive policies. However, Warren’s failure to receive a more competitive fraction of voters speaks to the harm that results from discrediting genuine progressivism by deeming it less “pure.” In doing so, voters turned their heads away from a genuinely smart, adept and forward-thinking candidate. 

This is the only place in which I believe we can learn something from the other party.

The Democratic and Republican parties are polar opposites in nearly every way, which complicates many comparisons. However, studies show that conservatives care far more about party loyalty than do their liberal counterparts. Because conservatives tend to care far more about tribe than purity, they seem to be far more poised to unite behind any candidate who serves their desired platform. Should a competitive female candidate emerge in their party, I doubt her past decisions would hold nearly as much weight as Warren’s. Not to mention, any woman pushing for bold and progressive policies would likely be perceived as less societally palatable than someone whose conservative ideals essentially render them conduits for a white man’s vote. 

Now, blind tribalism is neither healthy nor constructive, and it has resulted in some deeply troubling conservative political activity. I am in no way suggesting that Democrats should emulate such behavior. I am, however, suggesting that we treat our candidates as people capable of change rather than static actors to be defined solely by their past decisions. If progressives crave electoral victory, we need to be able to take strong, outspoken candidates at face value and trust that they’ve evolved. Especially when their policies suggest genuine improvement. 

In the end, I worry that the progressive wing’s tendency to default to moral purity will ultimately mean that no progressive woman will live up to the standards necessary to satisfy voters and snag the presidency. And, while it’s fully necessary to assess candidates’ histories and hold them accountable for past wrongdoing, it’s counterproductive to ignore genuine ideological evolution. Before Warren’s dropout, she and Sanders were running two of the most progressive campaigns in the history of the Democratic party. To suggest in any way that she is currently a centrist or conservative is blatantly false, and maintaining such behavior will only set the party back in terms of nominating and electing a progressive woman to the highest office.

And sure, I admit that this entire thought process is the result of my most cynical speculation. I also understand that what we’re experiencing now is simply the discourse of a primary election. Plus, it’s bold to assume that a conservative woman would be given a fighting chance at snagging the other party’s nomination. However, if we don’t work to improve our general discrediting of progressive women, we risk handing a historical presidency to the other party. And what a shame it would be to watch the first female president use her power in ways that don’t serve a forward-thinking agenda.