The Real Reason Everyone Keeps Talking About Hillary's Email

Photo: John Locher/AP Photo.
Another week, another round of revelations from Hillary Clinton's email scandal. This time, Clinton has had to answer accusations that her private email server was wiped clean before it was turned over to investigators and back away from claims that she never sent classified information through it.

The controversy — why did Clinton use a private email address instead of her official one when she was Secretary of State? — is wonky, technical, and not really grounded in anything real (officials have repeatedly emphasized that she didn't break any rules). And yet, the issue is here to stay for two big reasons: Clinton has been less than adept in her responses to critics and more importantly, criticizing the trustworthiness of a candidate — especially a woman — is a great strategy...almost regardless of whether what you're saying is true.

On Tuesday, when Clinton answered questions about the investigation and news that someone wiped the server before it was turned over, the Democrat was so dismissive that she actually did a shruggie — “What, like with a cloth or something?” she cracked. It’s easy to understand her impatience, but glibness is a bad tactic when you’re trying to win the votes of millions of people.

Responses like that don't help Clinton, but you can understand why she gives them: she's responding to an accusation she feels is totally baseless. But here's the thing: that might not matter. The two major political parties have become so polarized that supporters of each side are basically die-hard fans rooting for their own team. “The parties are polarized in a way now that it’s not only about policy difference, it’s about differences between people,” Howard Lavine, the director of the Center for the Study of Political Psychology at the University of Minnesota told R29. “People are much more pooled these days by their sense of identity with a group and this makes reality almost irrelevant.”

In other words, people support their own team, regardless of whether what it says is actually true. One recent — and infuriating — example was Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Back in 2004, the political attack group slandered Democratic candidate John Kerry by suggesting he fabricated details of his service in the Vietnam war. The allegations were 100% false (and annoying, since Kerry, a legit war hero, was running against Bush, who used connections to dodge serving in Vietnam), but they worked. Kerry lost and just last month, President Bush's brother Jeb defended his earlier support of the group.


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People are much more pooled these days by their sense of identity with a group, and this makes reality almost irrelevant.

Howard Lavine, Director, Center for the Study of Political Psychology, University of Minnesota
This strategy — repeating something that sounds damning, even if its claim to truth is fuzzy, until a negative association is created — happens all the time on both sides. What's particularly interesting in this case is how it works against a female candidate. Research shows that attacking women over questions of character (like honesty or trustworthiness) is particularly successful.

According to research from the Barbara Lee Foundation, which has tracked every woman’s gubernatorial race since 1998, women tend to be perceived as more naturally ethical and honest than male candidates, but when she is seen as dishonest, it can have a dramatic impact on her support. Negative attacks, even if they’re unfounded, are an effective strategy.

"Questioning a woman candidate’s integrity is often used as a strategy to discredit and knock her off her political pedestal. Opponents tend to do it early and often. These types of attacks are part of politics,” Erin Souza-Rezendes, communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, told R29. “But they damage a long-held advantage that voters give women over their male counterparts: When those qualities are questioned, women candidates have further to fall from their political pedestals.”

Clinton’s political opponents have targeted her since her husband was elected President in 1992 over imagined criminal conspiracies and illegal activities. None — from shady land dealings during the Whitewater scandal to the suicide of Clinton aide Vince Foster to the ongoing investigation into the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya — have ever proven true.

Questioning a woman candidate’s integrity is often used as a strategy to discredit and knock her off her political pedestal.

Erin Souza-Rezendes, Communications Director, Barbara Lee Family Foundation
But that doesn't mean it will stop. “There has been — ever since Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992 — this meme or idea that the Clintons are untrustworthy, that they cut ethical corners,” says Lavine. And it continues. With email-gate, Hillary's opponents are "manufacturing a narrative that, while it has very little underlying reality, doesn’t matter," Lavine says. "What matters is that the Republicans are continuing to push it. People who trust Republicans are likely to continue to believe it."

Of course, Clinton has been able to withstand attacks from what she once called the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and she could again. But now, as fellow Democrat Bernie Sanders continues to draw massive crowds to rallies and the circus surrounding Donald Trump’s effect on the Republican primary field grows, Clinton and her allies are going to have find a better way to defuse attacks on the topic or risk being defined by an amorphous scandal, regardless of what the truth is.
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