By Professor Helen Sullivan. Outgoing Director, Melbourne School of Government
It seems ‘impossible’ or at least incredible that in a contest between the most qualified Democratic candidate and the most inexperienced Republican, the latter might become the next ‘leader of the free world’.
And yet it is possible.
Why should this be so? The simple answer is of course that the most qualified Democrat is a woman, and Americans aren’t ready for a woman to be President. But in these peculiar times following the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 other factors are also in play.
So the problem is not that the Democratic candidate is a woman, but that it is this particular woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Qualified she may be but she is also tremendously unpopular; pollsters reporting that she is unlikeable to a degree not previously recorded.
She might lose because Americans don’t like her. But here’s the rub, pollsters also find that Donald Trump is similarly unlikeable. So does their shared ‘unlikeability’ cancel itself out, or will it favour one candidate over the other, and why? And does this just take us straight back to sexism?
A leader’s ‘likeability’ shouldn’t be determinative
All judgements are subjective, but in general US Presidents tend to be ‘revered’ if they have achieved greatness eg those immortalised on Mount Rushmore, ‘respected’, if they have proved competent, and ‘loved’ if they combined charisma with somewhat flawed presidencies eg J F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. Likeability tends not to feature prominently. Even those with charisma were not necessarily liked.
‘Likeability’ seems a relatively recent requirement, one perhaps most closely associated with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose relative youth, casual style and easy manner seemed to soften the boundary been politician and voter at least in the early years. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau seems to have this ‘likeability’, adding good looks and style to the mix.
Trump's rise can partly be explained by the impact of reality television and digital media, which in combination simplify politics and blur the boundaries between one sphere and another making the extraordinary relatable to us. One consequence of this apparent proximity may be to promote likeability/unlikeability as an important characteristic in determining whether we vote to keep the dancers, potential models, survivors etc in the show or not – their role as hero/ines or villain/esses overtaking their competence or suitability for the task at hand.
A simple matter then for many Americans to view politics and politicians as a specific manifestation of ‘reality TV’, especially so when one of the protagonists in the US election is already a star of the format.
'Likeability' has different implications for women
At first glance it would seem that ‘likeability’ is an easy win for women. From a young age girls are encouraged to be likeable, to develop those traits that enable them to get along with others and keep things sweet.
But the characteristics that make women likeable are not those that are associated with effective leadership. Indeed they seem to be negatively related – the more likeable women are, the less they are seen to be potential leaders. Indeed many books are written and advice given to aspiring women leaders on how to privilege other things over ‘likeability’.
A look at the available evidence also suggests that being ‘likeable’ isn’t the first thing on the mind of successful women leaders. Indira Gandhi, India’s long serving and so far only prime-minister had a reputation for political ruthlessness.
Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first female prime-minister was a conviction politician who became known as the ‘iron lady’, and Theresa May, the second has a reputation for being a 'bloody difficult woman', a reputation she embraces.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany and one of the world’s most successful women leaders is respected for her competence, pragmatism and her ability to be in step with her country, though that reputation is suffering domestically following her response to the refugee crisis.
It is one thing not to be concerned about being liked, another to be so actively disliked as Clinton is. Julia Gillard’s experience as Australia’s first woman prime-minister may be a useful point of reference.
During her time as PM Gillard could probably rival Clinton for ‘unlikeability’, at least on the basis of the press’s treatment of her.
On the face of it the two have relatively little in common beyond their political leanings and their qualifications for the role of premier. But both of them are deemed to have transgressed the rules of the political game at least in terms of how they apply to women; Gillard by becoming PM by deposing Kevin Rudd the sitting PM, an act that saw her tagged as Lady Macbeth for her actions while Malcolm Turnbull who did the same thing to then Coalition Prime-minister Tony Abbott received no such label. And Clinton by wanting to pursue a high profile career and become an active political player during her husband’s runs for office for which she was described as an 'unconventional first lady' at best and at worst a radical feminist who insulted stay at home mothers.
There is more going on than sexism. As Gillard herself said in her final press conference as Prime Minister in 2013, the gender issue "doesn't explain everything, it doesn't explain nothing, it explains some things".
If Hillary Clinton does not win the Presidency, sexism will go some way to explaining both why she is considered unlikeable and why being a qualified but unlikeable woman is less appealing to voters than being an unqualified and unlikeable man.
Main image: Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State in 2010. Credit: US State Department/Flickr