Was Bernie Sanders Being Sexist At The Democratic Debate? Not Really
When we write the history of the 2016 presidential primaries, let's make sure to add a section on manners. Although the Republican nominees have already lowered themselves to debating the size of their body parts during the debates, the Democratic nominees are no better when it comes to basic conversation skills. After Sunday's Democratic debate on CNN, many claimed that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was being sexist for "shushing" Hillary Clinton, but that's sort of, well... debatable.
"Excuse me, I'm talking," Sanders chided the former Secretary of State at one point, after Clinton tried to interject her own thoughts while Sanders was trying to make a point about why he hadn't voted for the federal bailout of the auto industry. Later, when she interrupted him again, he said "Can I finish? You'll have your turn." Clinton supporters on Twitter were quick to call the senator sexist for cutting her off. "That was Bernie Sanders talking down to Hillary Clinton," wrote one angry viewer. "That's terrible optics. Very sexist seeming." Many others seemed to agree.
Shutting down a woman and being dismissive of her views because she is a woman is sexist, for sure. In fact, President Obama also talked over Clinton in a debate in 2008 and received the same sort of criticism. Sanders' rebuff was a bit short to be sure. But sexist? We may be reaching here.
Bear with me here. Obama and Sen. Sanders have policies that are overall in support of women's rights and feminist in nature. Because of those political positions (and let's not even get into the company they keep in terms of powerful, independent spouses), calling Sanders sexist because he told Clinton to wait for her allotted speaking time seems a tad too much. If it were Donald Trump, who has consistently said derogatory things about women throughout his career, shutting Clinton down in a debate — which may very well happen come next fall — that might be a different story. This is murky territory to be sure.
But Sanders' interjection on Sunday was more about keeping it fair in terms of being able to get some airtime to actually talk about his ideas than being sexist. Clinton interrupted him during a debate. That's just not how the contemporary debate process works. Anyone dorky enough to have been on a forensics team in high school knows that one side gets to answer a question, then the other gets their turn to answer a question and there's time for rebuttal. If only CNN and other networks could stick more closely to the Lincoln-Douglass model, oh, what a world it would be.
Alas, cable news and Twitter have made it so that interrupting another candidate during a debate is normal, if not encouraged. But it doesn't matter what your politics are — no candidate should interrupt another mid-response during a debate. It's rude. Like spitting your mother-in-law's roasted brussels sprouts into your napkin rude. It's not something you should do so brazenly.
But interruptions and antics have become par for the course when it comes to televised debates. The Republican presidential nominees spent actual airtime last Thursday mocking each other and basically subtweeting their genitals. If the Democratic party wants to differentiate itself from the Republican party during what will definitely be a contentious election year, showing some modicum of respect for the political process could only work in their favor.
By interrupting Sanders mid-point, Clinton only served to illustrate that she has been in this game a long time and knows how to play it, something that both Sanders and the Republican candidates have been using against her. Calling Sanders a sexist for asserting his airtime plays into that ridiculous message against her. It's just not a good move in this instance for Clinton if she wants to campaign as a progressive.
When someone is really being a sexist or a misogynist, let's call them on it. Unfortunately, the exchange between Clinton and Sanders on Sunday night was just another example of how the primary debates are more spectacle than substance. Imposing stricter on limits for candidates to stay mum while the other speaks might be a good start to creating helpful change.