When Kamala met Mike

Note: all extracts reproduced in this post are taken from the full debate transcript published by USA Today

PAGE: Kamala Harris – Senator Harris, I mean. I’m sorry. 

HARRIS: It’s fine. I’m Kamala.

PAGE: No, no, you’re Senator Harris to me. 

About 14 minutes into last week’s Vice-Presidential debate, the moderator Susan Page apologised for calling the Democratic challenger ‘Kamala Harris’ (first name + last name) rather than ‘Senator Harris’ (title + last name). Harris reassured her: ‘It’s fine. I’m Kamala’. Page (who was herself addressed as ‘Susan’ by both candidates) responded that it wasn’t fine: her role in this formal setting required her both to observe the proper courtesies and to treat the two candidates equally. At no point had she addressed or referred to Harris’s opponent as ‘Mike Pence’. He was always ‘Vice-President Pence’.

Many feminists would agree that it’s not OK to call Harris by her first name while giving Pence a formal title—nor for the media to refer to the two of them in shorthand as ‘Kamala’ and ‘Pence’. I’ve pointed out before that the first-naming and/or de-titling of women in public contexts, when comparable men get last name + title, is a common phenomenon—it’s one manifestation of the ‘gender respect gap’. But as I’ve also pointed out, it’s a bit of a minefield for women with progressive/egalitarian politics. You may recognise the first-naming of women (see also children, domestic servants, and in Jim Crow America, Black people) as a putdown, a case of the familiarity that implies contempt, but you still don’t want to be seen as a self-aggrandising bully insisting that everyone should defer to your exalted status, or as so insecure that you have to stand on ceremony at all times. Was that what prompted Harris’s ‘it’s fine, I’m Kamala’?

In this case there may have been more to it. Like most things we do with language, first-naming takes on different meanings in different contexts. In political contexts, a gesture implying that you don’t stand on ceremony or demand automatic deference from others can signify qualities which many voters regard as virtues—it says you’re authentic, down-to-earth, a woman or man of the people rather than an establishment type motivated purely by personal ambition. Maybe Harris was exploiting that symbolism.

If she was, she wouldn’t be the only woman to do so. In New York City a campaign has just been launched by the Black lawyer and media commentator Maya Wiley using the slogan ‘Maya for Mayor’.  In her campaign video Wiley makes much of her non-establishment credentials: ‘Some will say I don’t sound like past mayors or look like them or think like them, and I say yes, I don’t — that is the point’. Referring to herself as ‘Maya’ underlines that point. Though it’s also true that her name is particularly well suited to the purpose: if you were called Maya and you were hoping to be elected mayor, why wouldn’t your campaign slogan be ‘Maya for Mayor’?

This brings us neatly to an observation made by several people on Twitter, that when we’re talking about the naming of politicians and other public figures, sexism, or indeed sex, is not the only variable in the equation. The media’s preference for ‘Kamala’ over ‘Harris’—but at the same time, for ‘Pence’ rather than ‘Mike’—is also a preference for more over less distinctive names. Mikes (but not Pences) are a dime a dozen; conversely, Kamalas (in the US) are much rarer than people whose last name is Harris.

The distinctiveness principle predicts that there will be a greater tendency to first-name women, because historically women’s given names have been more variable, and thus more likely to be distinctive, than men’s; but it doesn’t apply exclusively to women. It also explains (at least in part) why the current British Prime Minister is so frequently referred to as ‘Boris’—a very unusual name for a white British man—rather than by his more commonplace last name ‘Johnson’.

I say ‘at least in part’ because in Johnson’s case the first-naming also reflects his carefully-cultivated image as an unconventional politician with a larger-than-life personality. But male politicians whose given names are less distinctive have often tried to get some of the positive effects associated with first-naming (sounding more authentic and down-to-earth, or less patrician) by using nicknames or diminutive forms alongside their last names: see ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, ‘Bill’ Clinton and for that matter ‘Joe’ Biden—and on the other side of the US party line, ‘Dick’ Nixon and indeed ‘Mike’ Pence.  

All in all, then, I don’t think feminists need to get too wound up about the first-naming of Kamala Harris. Though there’s probably an element of knee-jerk sexism about it, in context it has other meanings too. In an era of populism, when elected politicians are judged at least as much on criteria relating to their personal authenticity as on criteria relating to their competence, being ‘Kamala’ may do more to help Harris than to hurt her.  

I feel similarly about some of the other features of the debate that prompted indignation on Harris’s behalf. For instance, it was noted that the moderator thanked Mike Pence more than 50 times, whereas she thanked Harris fewer than 30 times. On its own that sounds like more evidence of the respect gap. But when you look at the transcript you soon realise there’s another explanation. Susan Page consistently used the formula ‘thank you’ to fulfil the dual function of acknowledging a debater’s answer and telling them to stop talking because their time was up. She did this with both participants, but more with Pence because he went over his allotted speaking time more frequently. He also ignored more of Page’s interventions, which forced her to repeat herself.

Here’s an extract, from around 24 minutes in, where Page makes three separate attempts to bring Pence’s turn to a close before he finally yields the floor:

PENCE: Joe Biden, 47 years in public service, compared to President Donald Trump, who brought all of that experience four years ago– 

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President –

PENCE: – and turned this economy around by cutting taxes, rolling back regulation, unleashing American energy-

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – fighting for free and fair trade, and all of that is on the line –

PAGE: Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are in the White House.

In this short extract Page produces five ‘thank yous’ addressed to Pence, so it’s not surprising that the overall tally was over 50 (if anything it’s surprising it wasn’t higher).

But it isn’t just because of Page that ‘thank you’ appears so frequently in this transcript. Possibly in an attempt to avoid repeating the extraordinary incivility of the earlier Presidential debate between Trump and Biden, Pence and Harris engaged in repeated exchanges of polite thanks:

PENCE: Senator, I want to thank you and Joe Biden for your expressions and genuine concern. And I also want to congratulate you, as I did on that phone call, on the historic nature of your nomination.

HARRIS: Thank you

PENCE: Well, look, I respect the fact that Joe Biden spent 47 years in public life. I respect your public service as well. 

HARRIS: Thank you.

Both candidates were evidently determined to present at least the appearance of adherence to the rules of civil exchange, to the point where they almost seemed to be competing to see who could produce more politeness tokens. But in one much-commented on respect, Pence clearly deviated from those rules. As well as consistently ignoring the moderator’s instructions to stop talking, he repeatedly attempted to interrupt Harris.

Here’s an example from about half an hour in. Harris has just been invited to respond to Pence’s claim (made in his answer to a question about the economy) that if Biden becomes president he will raise ordinary citizens’ taxes. She says:

HARRIS: Well, I mean, I thought we saw enough of it in last week’s debate, but I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth. And the truth of the fact is, Joe Biden has been very clear. He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year –

PENCE: He said he’s gonna appeal the Trump tax cuts –

HARRIS: Mr. Vice President I’m speaking.

PENCE: Well –

HARRIS: I’m speaking.

Harris deals with the interruptions using a strategy I discussed in an earlier post—what conversation analysts call ‘doing being interrupted’, i.e. explicitly calling attention to the fact that your speaking rights have been violated. She does this by saying, calmly (since as a woman, and more specifically as a woman of color, she has more to lose than a white man if she gets angry): ‘Mr Vice President I’m speaking….I’m speaking’. (If you want to judge her tone for yourself there’s a video clip of this section embedded in the transcript I linked to at the top of this post.) This is a dual-purpose strategy: even if it is not successful in enabling her to regain the floor immediately, she will still have made the point that Pence took it from her illegitimately. And if she’s canny, that will also help her to play a longer game.

The longer game turned out to be needed, because the initial ‘I’m speaking’ move did not immediately cause Pence to back down. Rather, he pressed his advantage:

PENCE: – it’d be important if you said the truth. Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he’s going to repeal the Trump tax cuts. That was tax cuts that gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year –

HARRIS: That is – That is absolutely not true –

PENCE: – Senator, that’s the math –

HARRIS: – that tax bill – 

PENCE:  Is he only gonna repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?

By getting drawn into this quickfire exchange Harris is letting Pence set the agenda, but it seems she recognises that, and returns to the procedural point that he has muscled in on her turn:  

HARRIS: If you don’t mind letting me finish –

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: We can then have a conversation. Okay?

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: Okay. [continues for 200 words]

At this point the moderator intervenes with one of her admonitory ‘thank yous’; but Harris uses the fact that she was interrupted to make a bid for more time:

PAGE: Thank you, Senator Harris –

HARRIS: – [Trump is in court right now] trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which means that you will lose protections, if you have pre-existing conditions. And I just, this is very important, Susan 

PAGE: Yes, well we need to give – We need to give Vice President –

HARRIS: – and it’s just –  He interrupted me and I’d like to just finish, please

She goes on to deliver one of her more memorable lines of the night, ignoring further interjections from both Pence and Page:

HARRIS: If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you.  If you love someone who has a pre existing condition –

PENCE: Nonsense

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Senator Harris –

PENCE: That’s nonsense

HARRIS: – they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.

PAGE: Senator Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: You’re welcome

We can’t know if Mike Pence would have shown more respect for a male opponent’s speaking rights, or for the instructions given by a male moderator; but in the current state of US politics (which is even more polarised now than it was four years ago) I’m inclined to agree with those commentators who didn’t think Harris’s sex made much difference—that like his boss confronting Biden, Pence would have tried to steamroller whoever he’d been up against. And the fact is that she also used, albeit somewhat less frequently, strategies like cutting in to contradict him and ignoring instructions to stop speaking. Essentially the two of them played the same game by the same rules (making this encounter different from both Trump vs. Biden and Trump vs. Clinton in 2016). I don’t see much evidence that she was treated less favourably or less respectfully in the debate itself.

What happened after the debate, however, as pundits and the public assessed the two candidates’ performances, is a different story—one which shows, once again, that the biggest problem for women in politics is not how they themselves speak, or even how they are spoken to by their male colleagues, but how they are spoken about in the larger public sphere. The judgments made by commentators on the debate were transparently partisan: Trump supporters declared Pence the winner and Biden supporters insisted that Harris had outshone him. But where negative comments were made, they were clearly differentiated by sex, and in Harris’s case they drew from a bottomless well of sexist/misogynist stereotypes.

One commentator complained that ‘her reactions to Pence, which included smirking and smiling while he was answering most of the questions, were a turn off’ (this perhaps deserves some extra points for perversity, since men more commonly claim to be ‘turned off’ when women don’t smile). An Indian publication ran a piece with the predictably loaded title ‘Why is Kamala Harris so unlikable?’ which went on to say that she ‘reeked of condescension’ and had a ‘maniacal’ laugh (she does laugh, but ‘maniacal’ is quite a stretch–see the embedded clip I mentioned before). This writer also called her a ‘megalomaniac’, and in making that assessment he was far from alone. Harlan Hill, a commentator who has advised Donald Trump, and who tweeted during the debate that Harris was ‘a lying bitch’, said afterwards: ‘I stand by the statement that she’s an insufferable power-hungry smug bitch’.

This is really the crux of the matter. When two politicians are contesting the same position, it might seem logical to assume that they are equally ‘power-hungry’; but men are rarely described in those terms so long as they do not pursue power in extreme and extra-legal ways (e.g. plotting a coup or an assassination, as opposed to simply running for office). A woman, on the other hand, is ‘power-hungry’ (and therefore unlikable, a turn-off, an insufferable bitch, a megalomaniac) if she shows any disposition to seek any power at all. The desire for power, considered natural in men, is inherently incompatible with feminine modesty and submissiveness, and that is the standard women are judged against.

You do not have to be an admirer of Kamala Harris, or any other individual female politician, to understand this attitude as a fundamental obstacle to equality—one that cannot be overcome by exhorting women to speak differently, or to project a more ‘acceptable’ public image. Harris’s efforts to appear approachable (‘It’s fine, I’m Kamala’) did not stop commentators from branding her a power-hungry bitch. If you are, or aspire to be, in politics, and you have the pre-existing condition of being female, then whatever you do, the misogynists are coming for you.

In some democracies today the misogynists’ influence is much diminished; in others, including the US, it has reached new heights in recent years. Voting out the grotesque figure who currently occupies the White House (along with his religious zealot deputy) will not, on its own, be enough to turn that tide, but it’s certainly a good place to start.