The All-Women MSNBC Debate Panel Wasn’t a Feminist Victory — It Was a Right-Wing Disaster

This week’s all-women-moderated presidential debate is being lauded as a feminist victory in the press. But it was hardly that. The candidates were just fed inane questions meant to defend the benevolence of US empire and marginalize political positions deemed too far left.

Democratic presidential candidates participate in the fifth Democratic Presidential Debate, moderated by an all-women panel, at Tyler Perry Studios November 20, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alex Wong / Getty Images

The fifth Democratic presidential debate received an outpouring of praise for its all-woman cast of moderators: Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC, Ashley Parker of the Washington Post, and Kristen Welker of NBC.

Writing in the Nation, Joan Walsh asserted that the event “showed us what American political life would look like if women’s concerns were routinely at the center of the conversation.” “Democratic Debate Moderator Panel Of All Women Is Celebrated By Viewers,” reads a Huffington Post headline. “Female moderators = more questions to the rights and burdens of women,” tweeted Clara Jefferey, editor in chief of Mother Jones. “When all the moderators are women, issues that affect women get more attention. Funny how that works,” said Michelangelo Signorile, host of the Michelangelo Signorile Show.

The idea that women’s representation in itself — regardless of who those women are — is a boon to women everywhere is hardly new to US political discourse. But what makes the fawning over the November 20 debate particularly tone-deaf is that the moderators’ questions were both inane and right-wing. Their inquiries were almost entirely premised on defending the benevolence of US empire, marginalizing political positions deemed too far left, and asking “gotcha” questions from the right on issues from health care to immigration. Trapped within these ideological constraints, the debate actually struck a blow against feminism — and was a blessing to the forces of chauvinism and austerity.

The worst question of the evening came from Ashley Parker. “You’ve said that the border wall that President Trump has proposed is, quote, ‘a monument to hate and division,’” she said to Senator Elizabeth Warren. “Would you ask taxpayers to pay to take down any part of the wall on the nation’s southern border?”

The border wall is both a symbol and tool of white supremacy, used to gin up Trump’s racist base and reinforce his administration’s lethal deportation apparatus, which is detaining more than 100,000 children and escalating a crisis of deaths and disappearances in the borderlands. That the right-wing talking point of “what about taxpayers” was used to insinuate that tearing down such a wall is a problem one has to answer for should be beyond the pale for any feminist. At the very least, Parker’s question did not, as Walsh puts it, place women’s concerns at the “center of the conversation.”

This wasn’t the only stinker lobbed at Warren, who was the recipient of several of the moderators’ right-loaded questions, including Rachel Maddow inexplicably asking, “Senator Warren, only about 1 percent of Americans serve in the United States military right now. Should that number be higher?”

“Only 1 percent”? Roughly 0.8 percent of the United States labor force is in the military, putting the United States at exactly the global average, according to the World Bank. Size- and funding-wise, the US military is bigger than the next eight countries combined. The United States spends roughly eight times more on its military than Russia (in fact, the increase in the US military budget in real terms from 2017 to 2018 was greater than the entire Russian military budget for that year). The implication of the question — that, somehow, we don’t have enough people in this country lining to sign up to join the military machine — is absurd and fatuous. What exactly is this question attempting to gauge from Warren? That we should arbitrarily recruit a greater percentage of our population for military service? To do what exactly?

This kind of mindless support for US militarism goes against everything feminism should stand for. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq killed more than 1 million Iraqi people, according to one study, and Yemenis are being mass-slaughtered with US assistance, as the country sinks deeper into a humanitarian crisis. The US maintains eight hundred military bases around the world, each one of them eroding local self-determination and expanding US domination. From the Philippines to Japan to South Korea, local populations have long protested the environmental destruction and sexual and gender-based violence associated with the US military presence. How does it advance the interests of women to bait candidates (bait that Warren took) into saying such a profoundly misogynist institution needs more troops?

But it didn’t stop there. Andrea Mitchell was responsible for another low point in the moderation when she said:

President Trump has dramatically changed America’s approach to our adversaries by holding summits with Kim Jong-un, getting out of the Iran nuclear deal, and at times embracing Vladimir Putin and other strongmen. So let’s talk about what kind of commander-in-chief you would be. Senator Harris, North Korea is now threatening to cancel any future summits if President Trump does not make concessions on nuclear weapons. If you were commander in chief, would you make concessions to Kim Jong-un in order to keep those talks going?

Mitchell has long doubled as a stenographer for the national security state, but this question was hawkish even by her standards. Aside from criticizing Trump for tearing up the Iran deal, the remainder of her question rested on the right-wing premise that diplomacy is somehow illiberal. Equating diplomacy with North Korea as “embracing strongmen,” Mitchell ignored that the peace efforts in Korea are being led by the South Korean left, namely the women who make up anti-war groups like Women Cross DMZ.

Criticizing Trump for being gratuitously flattering to Kim Jong-un is one thing, but painting the whole enterprise of diplomacy with North Korea as “making concessions” is a gross distortion of what the talks have entailed. It’s not clear what “concessions” Mitchell thinks Washington has made to North Korea, but she seems dead set on baiting candidates into denouncing peace summits as such. Summits that — while perhaps distasteful to the American press — a sizable majority of South Koreans, in poll after poll after poll, support.

It wasn’t just war-pushing: The moderators engaged in run-of-the-mill austerity scolding — a common feature of presidential debates. Moderator Kristen Welker asked Elizabeth Warren this terrible question:

Senator Warren, you are running on Medicare for All. Democrats have been winning elections, even in red states, with a very different message on health care: protecting Obamacare. Democrats are divided on this issue. What do you say to voters who are worried that your position on Medicare for All could cost you critical votes in the general election?

A lot of ideology is packed into this question, much of it baseless. Democrats are not “divided” on backing candidates who support Medicare for All: An August POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found 65 percent of Democratic primary voters would be “more likely to support a candidate who wants to institute a single-payer health care system like Medicare for All.” Only 13 percent said they’d “be less likely to back a candidate based on that support.”

Welker uses a mysterious cohort of “worried” voters to smuggle in her own opinion, which is that Medicare for All will scare way “red state” voters who don’t want single-payer (despite some polls showing a slim majority of Republicans support Medicare for All). This may be true; it may not be. It’s not clear if Democrats who have won in “red states” are winning because they oppose Medicare for All or in spite of this — or if their positions are due to outside pressure from donors, and not an organic reflection of voter will. It’s impossible to know for sure, but Welker presents her opinion — one possibly informed by the fact that her husband, as of 2017, was a marketing director at a large pharmaceutical company — as fact.

But things really went off the rails when Rachel Maddow attempted an incoherent gotcha question aimed at Senator Sanders:

Chants of “Lock Her Up” are still heard at President Trump’s rallies today. Now some opponents of the president are turning the same slogan against him. They’ve chanted “Lock Him Up” at a recent World Series game in Washington and at a Veterans Day event in New York, and, Senator Sanders, at at least two of your campaign events recently. Senator, should Democrats discourage this? Or are you okay with it?

This was clearly an attempt at a horseshoe-theory dig, meant to equate Sanders with Trump. But it was done in such a clunky, head-scratching way that the average Sanders partisan was more likely to be confused than indignant. What exactly is the point of this question? That there’s a moral equivalence between Trump’s quasi-Nazi rallies and Sanders’s events, where supporters ironically turn a far-right president’s chant back at him? That Sanders, unlike any other candidate on stage, was compelled to denounce a handful of followers for a chant reveals a great deal about the debate’s political center of gravity.

Moderators do deserve credit for a bright spot in the debate questions. As Alexia Fernández Campbell noted for Vox, “On Wednesday, something unheard of happened on the 2020 Democratic debate stage: Moderators asked candidates what they would do about high child care costs and the lack of paid parental leave in the US.” And, indeed, it was significant when Parker said, “Here in Georgia, the average price of infant daycare can be as much as $8,500 per child per year. That’s more than in-state tuition at a public college in Georgia. Mr. Yang, what would you do as president to ease that financial burden?” (Yang’s response was atrocious.)

But the debate’s overall nationalist frame was enough to taint even this victory. What does it mean that moderators were interested in discussing paid family parental leave domestically but not an end to US wars of aggression around the world? Do they believe women in the United States should have rights that are not afforded to women trying to survive famine in Yemen, or seeking to reunify with their families in North Korea? When we praise the debate for centering women’s issues, are we overlooking women beyond US borders?

The debate was not an occasion for feminist celebration, but for sober reflection on how feminism is used and appropriated to sell an imperialist brand of politics. It’s an opportunity to ask hard questions about how a superficial “girl power” brand of feminism, as writer Roqayah Chamseddine puts it, leaves us ill-equipped to oppose deeply harmful institutions when women ascend through their ranks, whether it’s corporate media or weapons manufacturers. And, most important, it’s an opportunity to develop a feminist politics that is not content just with representation but demands nothing less than full solidarity with all who are oppressed.