The binders full of women are surprisingly illuminating

TW: class warfare, racism, sexism, anti-democratic politics

I was completely nonplussed by the way Romney’s comments last week about “binders full of women” translated into at times hilarious political discussion of how his turn of phrase dehumanized women and failed to substantively respond to the question that elicited it (which was about gendered wage discrimination). It also has the additional punch of being a complete misrepresentation of Romney’s record as governor. What I was surprised over, however, is that Romney’s response has been read as nothing more than a failed attempt at pandering to women without losing the sexist vote, while it seems quite obvious that it was his honest thoughts on the issue. His candidacy might actually believe that what he touted as a solution is actually a solution, which tells us a shocking amount about what Romney understands the US political system to be.

The original question asked by Katherine Fenton, which was directed at the President, was – “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” The moderator later extended the question to Romney, saying only, “Governor Romney, pay equity for women.” Somehow Romney took that question and immediately responded with statements like:

I went to my [gubernatorial] staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are — are all [of them filled by] men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said, well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified [for Massachusetts cabinet positions]?

(If you missed the debate, you can read the transcript of it in full here.)

Why did Romney instantly reframe the question in terms of only employment and not wages, as it had been stated? The initial question was utterly unambiguous, with Fenton specifying that the comparison was with “male counterparts” and not between female non-cabinet members and male cabinet members (or any similar group). The moderator and Obama, who spoke on the issue before Romney, didn’t stray from the topic of wages  at all. Romney came up with this permutation all on his own, and it’s indicative of his outlook on employment and wages. One of the central arguments of Romney’s campaign is that he would reduce unemployment. When he bothers to explain it, many are skeptical about his claims, but what’s clear is that they fit into a broader prioritization by the Republican Party. The argument has been made before – the party isn’t opposed to low unemployment, provided wages are low. Their goal isn’t economic stability through employment as much as creating cheap labor.

Beyond the broader issue of prioritizing nominal employment over feasible employment, he also steered the conversation away from an obviously beneficial regulation of the private sector. In the past, attempting to be a rising star in the party, Rand Paul has publicly opposed certain sections of the  Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA). After all, requiring private enterprise to racially integrate had the effect of allegedly “diminishing individual liberty” of those businesses. According to Rand Paul the right to equal participation in society by people of color is prioritized lower than private property rights. Paul was invited to be a speaker at the Republican National Convention this year, which was organized by Romney’s campaign. Perhaps Romney agrees with him, and is uncomfortable discussing the ways our political and legal system has judged it in the common welfare of the nation to restrict discrimination by private entities. It’s potentially easier for him to discuss what government can and has done to address inequalities than what government has required of others to reach the same goal.

It’s not only a convenient way of advancing class warfare and avoiding the politics of social justice, but also an argument tailored to ignore sexism specifically. Romney’s statement joins a chorus of others which insist that the gender gap isn’t produced by misogynistic opinions on women’s work, but because women just aren’t as invested in working outside of the home or some similar pop psychology excuse. This fails to acknowledge the studies that time after time have found that even when controlling for similar disposition, family life, work ethic, hours on the job, and similar excuses, the vast majority of the gap doesn’t disappear. One of the biggest factors in predicting a person’s hourly wage other than their race or gender, however is the overall gender composition of their field. The bias against paying female employees appears to be so strong, it impacts entire industries. In failing to acknowledge these facts, which Fenton raised in her question, Romney has shored up the baseless rebuttal that women’s choices are the cause of the gender gap.

In addition to the many policy questions Romney’s shifting of the question raises, it also brought up a procedural one: what would his government do? Whether because of doubts about the veracity of the gender gap or because of moral qualms about interfering in business, Romney seems reluctant to propose any sort of anti-discrimination statute that applies to private industry. That leaves only public positions for reform. Likewise, he is famously unconcerned with the lives of the working class or poor, so he has to back the issue away from wage gaps and towards general “employment”. Almost every component of the original question has to change for Romney to be able to even remotely address it – but he still does that instead of challenging the larger discussion. Why? Assuming he’s not lying or too cowardly to disagree even politely in a “townhall” debate, he still sees a point in his ineffectual, largely unrelated policy change. The broader systemic change that is required to actually try to respond to the question is out of bounds – so Romney has instead proposed a largely empty gesture. His argument for the presidency is that he can be a largely insubstantial moral example. Why is that familiar?

Pyle Illustration of King Arthur
(Originally from here.)

He won’t compel private businesses to change their ways, but he can offer his administration as an idealization of how things should be. He’s made it quite clear he’s unconcerned by the impact on the poor of essentially giving the modern robber barons carte blanche within their fiefs. The proposed recourse to that isn’t legally challenging it and setting down laws to protect the constantly marginalized poor, women, and ethnic others, but to simply have the right person as the leader above everyone. Somehow, as if by divine mandate, that will fix things. Whether as a moral example to the nobles or a provider to the common people, Romney will somehow circumvent the obvious social problems with this system. In short, Romney is proposing to rule as less of a president and as more of a king.

As a nation, we’ve gotten quite comfortable questioning whether our first Black president’s role was quite as democratic as we would like it to be, but shouldn’t we extend the same analysis to his White challenger? Does Romney view his potential role as one of providing kingly moral guidance or presidential political governance? This issue hasn’t been raised seeming at all in the discussion of the second debate and I doubt it will come up in the third one tonight – but shouldn’t it?

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2 thoughts on “The binders full of women are surprisingly illuminating

  1. […] Yesterday, I noted sadly that there was virtually no chance of Romney being pressed on how his past statements suggested that he viewed the office of the United States’ presidency as primarily a kingly position for providing moral example, rather than a key  position in influencing regulatory policies. Although this was still overlooked, Romney graciously gave us another glimpse into his very… unusual view on how the presidency functions during last night’s debate. I am, of course, talking about his call for charging Iranian President Ahmadinejad with genocide. Romney baldly stated during the debate that “[h]is words amount to genocide incitation” and afterwards one of his aides is recorded as having said something along the lines of “the World Court could arrest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, cutting off the regime’s leadership in one fell swoop”. […]

  2. […] easy to overlook the basis of agreement here. As I wrote about at the time, Romney’s borderline kingly presidency was shaped by inaction, with him promising to set a […]

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