The Gender Dynamics Of Debate And Politics

“Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.” 

A week after watching the Vice-Presidential debate, I want to take the time to recount some of the important takeaways from the exchanges between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence. Following Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s heated and controversial first presidential debate, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) enforced some increased civility rules in the vice-presidential debate. 

The CPD stated that the presidential debate “made it clear that additional structure should be added.” As fate would have it, there was indeed more civility between Harris and Pence. Overall, there were no major insults traded, no seething hatred between the two candidates, and both maintained composure in their exchange. However, there was more to this debate than expected. 

Specifically, there has been an increasing focus on the gender dynamics of the 2020 election. Gender bias is an issue in politics that hasn’t been talked about enough. As the first woman of color nominated for vice president, Harris has experienced sexism and racism for a while now. Specifically, since accepting the vice-presidential nomination, she has been the target of attacks and slurs, such as “Sapphire,” and “angry Black woman”. Similarly, other female politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Pramila Jayapal, and Nancy Pelosi have recounted painful experiences of suffering from misogyny, harassment, and disrespect. Last week’s debate between Harris and Pence showed how gender dynamics impact the debate stage and politics overall. 

One aspect of the debate that I would like to address is that, although there was an improvement in civility during the debate, Pence interrupted Harris a total of ten times while Harris only interrupted Pence five times. While this may not seem like a large number of transgressions in comparison to Trump, it was clear that Pence did not abide by the rules in some occurrences. In fact, the first of Pence’s interruptions came only nine minutes into the debate, when the candidates were discussing COVID-19. “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. That was Harris’ response to Pence attempting to interrupt her. 

The tone of this debate soon became more focused on the importance of truth and reality. Several times, following Harris’ assertive comebacks against Pence, both candidates took the emotional approach: looking into the camera and speaking to the American people. 

Why was this a common theme in the vice-presidential debate? In the first presidential debate, Biden looked at the camera frequently, particularly when talking about issues such as healthcare, voting, as well as other issues such as personal integrity. As we all live in socially-distant communities, we have to find new ways to connect with our friends and loved ones. In terms of the debates, where there have been far fewer people in attendance than normal, candidates have had to connect with the American people in different ways. Looking into the camera with a sincere and empathetic demeanor has therefore been prevalent in both debates.

More importantly, Harris’ responses toward Pence’s interruptions have sparked debate about the dynamics between and differing treatments of the candidates. Over the past week, both on social media and through network television, there has been a large number of people criticizing how women have been continuously mistreated in American politics and platforms. 

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) tweeted about the debate last week, saying that Pence interrupting Harris was, “gross, and exemplary of the gender dynamics so many women have to deal with at work.” AOC’s comments are just a few of many strong and powerful testimonies emerging concerning women in politics. 

 Harris has also experienced backlash from other male politicians in Congress. Specifically, Harris dealt with interruptions and public criticism back in 2017 during a Senate Intelligence hearing when she was questioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions about Russian election interference. During the hearing, Senator Richard M. Burr (R-NC) and late Senator John McCain (R-AZ), confronted Harris’ composure and her method of asking questions to Sessions.

 Rachel Levinson-Waldman, the deputy director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center, commented on social media about the Senate hearing, saying that Kamala Harris experienced “mansplaining” from the other Senators. Additionally, Keith Boykin, a commentator on CNN,  also addressed Harris’ treatment during the Senate hearing, asking, “Why do Republican senators only interrupt when Kamala Harris is asking questions? A black woman can’t question a white attorney general?” 

Harris, like many women in American politics, has fought her way into government with the goal of creating a more equal and just political system. Last week’s debate wasn’t the first time we have seen male politicians trying to control a political environment. In reaction to the treatment that Harris experienced during the vice presidential debate, Princeton politics professor Tali Mendelberg said that, “Men are often socialized to display dominance in competitive public settings like debates and interrupting is a power move. When Pence interrupted, he created power for himself at the expense of Harris.” 

The conversation about gender and social dynamics in politics is a conversation that needs to be had. If Harris, along with Biden, wins the election in November, she will become the first woman of color to ever fill the role of vice president of the United States.