Is Swift’s endorsement of two Democrats a political bellwether? Mari Uyehara on the rise of formerly apolitical women who are speaking out for the first time.
This week, when Taylor Swift, for the first time, threw her support behind candidates running for office, she didn’t make a flashy campaign appearance with a rising national political star, like Beto O’Rourke. Instead, on the eve of the last day of voter registration in many battleground states, she opted to back two decidedly unflashy Democrats from her home state of Tennessee—Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives—in a post on Instagram.
The accompanying black-and-white photo of Swift was subdued, depicting her in a plaid shirt, leaning forward and looking into the camera, her chin resting on her hand. Likewise, her statement was strong and pointed but measured. She soberly stated her reasons for not supporting the female Republican candidate Marsha Blackburn, including her votes against equal pay for women and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. She closed with an empathetic nudging for her young fan base and 112 million Instagram followers to register to vote: “So many intelligent, thoughtful, self-possessed people have turned 18 in the past two years and now have the right and privilege to make their vote count. But first you need to register, which is quick and easy to do.”
Celebrity endorsements are often little more than candidate ego boosters. While musicians like Madonna and John Legend have long intertwined politics with their celebrity stature, Swift has mostly shied away from politics, so much so that she’s been lambasted for it in the past. But her call to action this week seemed to portend something greater rumbling below ground: the political awakening of America’s once politically neutral white women. It hardly seemed coincidental that her post came on the heels of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the highest court in the land, jammed through right after his raging partisan testimony at the hearing on Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault accusations. (Bredesen publicly supported Kavanaugh, but Swift, perhaps, sympathetic to the contours of Tennessean cultural landscape, understood that a very different kind of Judiciary Committee leadership would be installed if Democrats took back the Senate.)
In the run-up to that hearing, sexual assault survivors chanted on the Capitol steps, interrupted hearings, and confronted politicians with their stories in offices, hallways, and elevators. Their impassioned pleas were dismissed by conservatives as fodder for a “Kavanaugh bump,” energizing conservatives and pushing moderates towards Trump. “The tactics that have been employed both by judiciary committee Democratic Senators and by the virtual mob that’s assaulted all of us in the course of this process has turned our base on fire,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. While vicious retaliation to societal progress is often the calling card of the reactionary right, it didn’t quite pan out in big numbers this time around. Going into the hearings, Democrats led Republicans of registered voters in party registration states, 40 percent to 31 percent, about 12 million more people. Following the Kavanaugh hearings, according to a Morning Consult/Politico survey, Democrats widened their lead of party preference among all voters in generic ballot polling to 10 points, and their “very motivated” enthusiasm for the midterms, comparable to that of the 2008 presidential election, topped that of Republicans 77 to 68 percent. Furthermore, a new ABC poll published Friday showed that 70 percent of women between 18 and 49 supported a deeper, more robust Congressional investigation into Kavanaugh, one that could potentially lead to efforts to remove him from his post.
Twenty-seven years after the disreputable Clarence Thomas hearings on Anita Hill’s allegations, which included three days of witnesses and a perfunctory FBI investigation, the one-day hearing on Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations of sexual assault seemed to be a step backwards. Not a single witness was called to testify; the sham FBI investigation was controlled by Kavanaugh’s longtime buddy White House counsel Don McGahn, who had pushed his nomination. And the Republican side of the Judiciary Committee, which, as the majority party, controlled the hearing, is still entirely composed of white men, with an average age of 64. It is often said that the Anita Hill hearings, in which an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee stared down at her in between turns of snarling chauvinism, led to the election of five women to the Senate in 1992. We’ve already seen a similar reaction to Trump, with several Women’s Marches and a record number of women running for office. A total of 274 women, after winning Senate, House, and governor primaries, will be on ballots around the country in November.
In a tone-deaf attempt to avoid the creepy-old-men optics, Republicans mostly avoided slut-shaming Blasey Ford, hired a “female assistant” to question her in the hearing, and propped up Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), as another female representative, to regurgitate right-wing talking points in a painful speech on the Senate floor. None of it worked. The videos of a red-faced Lindsey Graham screaming and Kavanaugh crying, lying, and snapping at Sen. Klobuchar (D-Minn.) may have galvanized hardcore partisans and men inclined to distrust women. Indeed, support for Kavanaugh among men actually rose slightly after Blasey Ford’s accusations became public. But many women saw raging men reminiscent of alcoholic dissembling and entitled excuse-making, and the reactions of his supporters were equally disturbing. At a Mississippi rally following the hearing, Trump mocked Blasey Ford’s memories of what happened; the crowd chanted “lock her up.”
The accumulation of Trump-era offenses has been chipping away at those who’d cast themselves in a shell of neutrality. In the early fall in most years, my Facebook feed is filled by women of a certain age posting photos of their young children hamming it by pumpkins or husband appreciation posts and successful home improvements. But this autumn, I noticed something different. Trump had, two years ago, ignited one subsection of previously politically disengaged women; Kavanaugh triggered another. For those who might not identify with the predictable misogyny of a brash billionaire leering at teenage Miss USA contestants, Kavanaugh was something altogether more familiar: an entitled frat boy, who may have been at the top of his class, but acted terribly in private. We all knew the type. Friends, who, like Swift, typically avoid political rants became atypically outspoken. “I couldn’t even listen to most of the hearing yesterday. It literally made me sick,” said one friend, who had taken a years-long political hiatus, and later texted me. “He represents a thing. I think a lot of women are reevaluating things.” Another posted: “Vote out the old, white f$@&s!! This is disgraceful. I’m so angry.” Even more interesting were the women hitting “like”—women I’d never before heard make a political utterance. It wasn’t just my greater circle of friends and acquaintances either.
There were signs of Swift’s growing political awakening. Last March, she posted an Instagram in support of the gun-control movement March for Our Lives. And before that, she appeared on the 2017 Person of the Year cover of Time honoring the “Silence Breakers” on sexual assault. In 2013, well before #MeToo, Swift reported a Colorado DJ to his station for grabbing her ass while they took a photo together. After an investigation, he was fired and, two years later, he sued her for defamation. She counter sued him for a symbolic $1 and won. Her testimony was full of zingers that seemed straight out of a female empowerment movie. When the defense attorney asked her if she felt guilty over the DJ losing his job, she retorted: “I’m not going to let you or your client make me feel in any way that this is my fault. Here we are years later, and I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are the product of his decisions—not mine.” Later, Swift told Time, “I was angry,” noting that the man’s attorney bullied her team, including her own mother, and accused her of lying—a pattern with reverberations in the case of Blasey Ford and others who come forward with sexual misconduct allegations. She also noted that she called Kesha, who has been entangled with her own years-long public battle over sexual abuse allegations, for advice.
In a recent The New York Times article on the white evangelical women deep in Texas supporting Beto O’Rourke, former Republican female voters in their thirties spoke about their reasons for turning away from Trump’s Republican party, including the blatant disrespect of women and cruel family separation policies of migrants seeking asylum. “We’ve been asleep,” said one of her previous one-issue pro-life votes for Republicans. “Now, we’ve woke up.” She became enraged when an older evangelical man told her that a Christian couldn’t vote for O’Rourke. Evangelical voters overall still overwhelmingly support Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), but these women are part of larger, quiet backlash, both to Trump and the attitudes of men in the face of misbehavior. Another usually apolitical friend recently told me of her deep disappointment in her own father who questioned Blasey Ford’s memories and timing in coming forward, noting that she’d never told him of her own sexual assaults. For every vocal protestor or Facebook poster, there are dozens more women silently nodding along with them. According to a new CNN poll, 63 percent of women now support the Democratic party, while 33 percent support the Republican party—a yawning 30-point differential.
For those who grew up in the post-Roe vs Wade era, long past bouts over college admittance and overt gender discrimination in the workplace, the threat to women’s rights that seemed safe has become stunningly clear. While Democratic offenders, like Al Franken, have been cast out, each week brings a new Roy Moore, Rob Porter, or Brett Kavanaugh, all protected by the Republican establishment—fresh reminders that the gendered workplace slights and sexual misconduct women have long tried to bury to go about their daily lives are part of a vast collective experience rigged to protect mediocre white men.
Following Swift’s call to political action, Vote.org, the site she mentioned, saw a surge of 166,00 new registrations. “We have never seen a 24- or 36- or 48-hour period like this,” the organization’s spokeswoman, Kamari Guthrie, told The New York Times. “So many dumb articles today on how Taylor Swift’s Instagram post supposedly goosed voter registration,” Blake Hounshell, Politico Editor-in-Chief, snarked on Twitter. “Hint: It was probably the deadline today in many, many states.” That didn’t explain why 42 percent of the registrants were between the ages of 18 and 24, which typically accounts for the lowest turnout group in any election and makes up a good chunk of Swift’s fanbase, or why that individual voter registration site saw a jump. Within 72 hours, as more celebrities joined Swift in directing followers to Vote.org, new registrations ballooned to 413,000, with 65 percent of those under 30.
Republicans too were dismissive of the potential of female power. McConnell did his part to secure two seats and a far-right majority in the Supreme Court, setting it up to nullify Roe v. Wade, in a show of raw partisan power, fueled by a cabal of men inflamed by challenges to their place of privilege. “These things always blow over,”said McConnell of the aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings, during which support for him fell by 19 net points among GOP women. Something is certainly blowing in the wind, but it doesn’t seem to be more patience for more entitled male villainy.
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