Femininity and Masculinity in American Politics

Explaining the American cultural divide

Image by Adi Sri, from Pexels.com

I present you with a political mystery: Why are Democrats culturally so different from Republicans, and how exactly should we characterize those differences?

Two Households, Democrats and Republicans

The Republican’s stereotype of a Democrat is of an effete, elitist, passive-aggressive wimp who wants to raise taxes to steal from winners to try to bail out losers. The Democrat’s stereotype of the Republican is of a warmongering, xenophobic, vulgar barbarian who wants most American citizens to live in a state of virtual anarchy. These stereotypes may be exaggerations but they’re consistent with the narratives that have played out in American politics for decades.

Bill Clinton triangulated his policies, scouting out centrist positions and compromising between his supporters’ progressive preferences and the will of the conservative Congress. In 2008, Obama betrayed progressive principles when he bailed out and didn’t prosecute or at least publicly shame the bankers, and didn’t give direct support to the homeowners who were defrauded by the predatory lenders. Obama ordered many, arguably dishonourable drone strikes and backed down from his “red line” or his threat to intervene in the civil war in Syria when Assad used chemical weapons.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump, because she adhered to Michelle Obama’s slogan, “When they go low, we go high”: she resorted to euphemisms for Trump’s monstrous derangement, calling it, for example, his “temperamental unfitness” for high office, and she expressed regret for her accusation that his supporters are a “basket of deplorables.” Moreover, she hid behind the robotic phoniness of her technocratic persona and the intellectualism of her policy platform, without acknowledging the manifest failures of Bill Clinton’s centrist neoliberalism for much of the American middleclass. Finally, Nancy Pelosi leads a slow-moving, legalistic, rhetorically-hollow and likely-anticlimactic assault on Trump’s presidency.

As for the Republicans, Reagan pressed ahead with a hard-line arms race with the Soviet Union, prolonging the Cold War after Gorbachev had begun the liberalization of Soviet society with Glasnost and Perestroika. Specifically, Reagan clung to his fantasy of a space-based missile-defense program, which stalled the Reykjavík Summit in 1986.

George W. Bush corrected for his father’s more Democratic handling of Iraq, putting together a “coalition of the willing” to conduct a “regime change” in Iraq on the basis of neoconservative lies about that country’s weapons of mass destruction. George H.W. Bush had gone through the UN and stopped short of removing Saddam Hussein. Bush Jr. became a cartoon symbol of anti-intellectualism and macho swagger — until miraculously he was surpassed in those respects by President Trump whose demonstrations of barbarism (ignorance, bluster, con artistry, selfishness, venality, sociopathy) may live in infamy for centuries. And before Trump and George W. Bush there was Nixon whose megalomania was paradigmatic for the Republican Party. John McCain’s elevation of “Mama grizzly” Sarah Palin fits the pattern too.

Democrats are Feminine, Republicans are Masculine

What, then, can explain those patterns? What’s missing from much of the analysis of American tribalism is an appeal to the difference between feminine and masculine traits. These traits are partly biological and they’re also socially constructed; moreover, they’re found in both women and men, but heterosexual women excel in femininity while heterosexual men tend to be more masculine than feminine.

The feminine traits include empathy, humility, gentleness, passivity, supportiveness, and cooperativeness. The masculine ones include courage, leadership, independence, and assertiveness, and masculinity can turn into machismo, into a reckless lust for power.

Perhaps the clearest evolutionary basis for this split in female and male personal characteristics is the fact that human babies need to be nurtured for an unusually long period, because of their oversized brains and helpless bodies. Women are therefore adapted to nurse babies and that has fostered feminine traits in women; at any rate, the mother’s close proximity to infants during pregnancy and nursing trains her to be more generally supportive. By contrast, with their more muscular, less fatty physiques, men are adapted to hunt, to provide meat for our omnivorous diet. Taking down dangerous or helpless prey calls for a warrior’s cold-blooded mentality, and thus our evolutionary past inculcated masculine traits in men.

In any event, after WWII Democratic culture became feminine whereas Republicans have been masculine and have often reverted to machismo. Part of the reason for that political split might seem clear: in 2019 there are 89 female Democratic congresswomen and only 13 Republican ones, and Democratic women have outnumbered Republican ones in Congress by roughly 2 to 1 (and often 3 to 1) since the early 1990s, before which their numbers were even. More than twice as many Democratic women as Republican women have run for their party’s presidential nomination, and Republicans have never had a female nominee whereas Democrats had one.

But it’s doubtful that greater female representation in the Democratic Party is a major cause of the party’s feminine values. Certainly, when the Speaker of the House is a woman, as she is in the case of Nancy Pelosi, her feminine traits will affect the party’s strategies. But many women are just as likely to flock to that party because of its preexisting femininity. Likewise, many men may be drawn to the Republican Party because of its preexisting masculine ethos.

The situation is complicated, because lots of conservative women — mainly white ones — vote for Republicans. Those women’s femininity will have nonpolitical channels, such as in their religious subservience to their husbands. In the same way, lots of progressive men vote for Democrats, and these men may sublimate their masculinity by playing violent videogames, taking the family on camping trips, or being a tough boss at work. In more extreme cases, progressive men will be forced to repress their masculine impulses because of the predominant culture of feminism and political correctness in liberal circles.

Whatever the complications, judging from the gulf between their rhetoric, strategies, behaviour, and certain policies, the Democratic Party as a whole has been more feminine than masculine for decades and the opposite has been true for Republicans. That difference explains all sorts of oddities in American politics. For example, instead of triangulating to appease the Republican-controlled Congress, why didn’t Bill Clinton attempt to win over public support for progressive policies, by demonizing the Republicans? Why didn’t Obama likewise demonize the bankers and take the opportunity of the 2008 banking crisis to impose a second New Deal, making good on his messianic rhetoric about “change”? Why are Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats so strangely incapable of trouncing Trump on the stage of public opinion? Why have Democrats shied away from overt war since the Korean War, but have thrived on middling, dishonourable measures such as drone strikes?

The answer is that, on average, Democrats are nurturers, not fighters. Democrats “feel your pain” and want to help and cooperate, not destroy; they want to pursue diplomacy, not war. Democrats don’t heroically stand over their vanquished prey, with their boot on the beast’s throat; Democrats are gatherers, not hunters. Democratic culture is feminine.

Notice, though, that the masculinity of Republican behaviour is more blatant, because masculinity has a toxic form which Republicans happily exhibit. Again, why did Reagan refuse to back down from his promise to pursue the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) even when he could have eliminated all nuclear weapons with Gorbachev? Why did Bush Jr. pretend to be a macho lone-wolf cowboy when in reality he went to Yale and Harvard and couldn’t have become president if his father hadn’t already held that position? Why does Donald Trump similarly pretend to be a self-made businessman when his father’s fortune gave him a head start in real estate? Why does Trump literally scowl like a Clint Eastwood character?

The answer is obvious: Republicans are overtly masculine, meaning that to succeed in that conservative culture you have to at least perform as a macho action hero. The case of George H.W. Bush’s presidency is instructive in this context, since he was the last moderate Republican president, from the Greatest Generation, and although he headed the CIA, he was praised by Democrats and liberals after his death for being warm, generous, decent, and gracious. In short, Bush Sr. was a more balanced figure with respect to the masculine-feminine continuum; certainly, he wasn’t recklessly masculine. In fact, Bill Clinton was able to defeat Bush Sr. in part by casting Bush as an out-of-touch elitist. But had Bush Sr. played into the Republican cult of masculinity, he may not have been one of the few American presidents to serve only one term in office.

The opposite holds in the cases of Nixon and Trump. Bush Sr. was insufficiently masculine, whereas Nixon was excessively so and so is Trump. Nixon lost his presidency for that reason and under normal circumstances Trump’s unmatched descent into machismo would cost him a second term by way of impeachment; however, the rest of the Republicans have joined his wild chase after power at the expense of statesmanship.

American Superpower: the Source of the Cultural Divide

Suppose the feminine-masculine dynamic does help account for the recent divisions in American politics and culture. There’s the remaining question of the source of those divisions. Why is American culture so polarized? How have femininity and masculinity come to characterize two of the major American tribes with so little overlap?

There are likely multiple causes, but one of them seems instructive and perhaps crucial. The key factor is America’s hegemonic power. After WWII, the United States and the Soviet Union were the world’s only superpowers. Superficially, Soviet communism was feminine, because power was supposed to be shared by the workers. In reality, Russian culture has been abundantly masculine for centuries, perhaps because of the harrowing climate in much of that part of the world, which requires feats of strength and courage. That masculinity likely contributed to the brutality of Russia’s numerous revolutions. In any case, communist Russia became a corrupt dictatorship or oligarchy, because power had to be centralized to manage so large a territory; moreover, masculine pitilessness was called upon to dispose of the many victims of the flawed Soviet system, in the gulags.

The point, though, is that domination inculcates the dominator with masculine traits, including the toxic variety of those traits, whereas powerlessness fosters femininity if only out of necessity. The weak and the downtrodden cooperate to survive; poor countries, then, are often at least rhetorically socialist — until predators come along and exploit the weakness to impose a tyranny, as in parts of Africa and in drug cartels in Central America. After being at the center of two world wars, following upon its long and bloody history of imperialism, Europe seems mostly to have shifted from masculine to feminine (“liberal”) values, despite its economic wealth.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. was the only remaining superpower. The prospect of world domination attracted a corrupt, hypermasculine or psychopathic political class which propagates a “libertarian” tough-guy ideology that glorifies exorbitant displays of wealth and power. After 9/11, the U.S. lost its “peace dividend” and prepared itself for permanent war, since the U.S. is the “indispensible nation” with military bases all over the world and with a class of billionaires and Gilded Age-level economic inequality, all of which is justified with the shibboleth of “freedom.” This is why beginning in the 1960s, in the age of political theater when presidents started to appear frequently on television, the Democratic presidents had to be moderate rather than progressive or overtly feminine, that is, radically empathetic, cooperative, peaceful, and thoughtful.

Again there are a couple of instructive counterexamples that make the case. Take Jimmy Carter, who also served only one term, losing in a landslide to Reagan. Carter was an exception who governed as overtly progressive or feminine, having reinforced those values with his commitment to Evangelical Christianity, and he was punished for it. Carter pardoned all the Vietnam War draft evaders on his second day in office. He pursued a progressive energy policy that included conservation and price controls, and he presided over high unemployment, high inflation, and slow economic growth. But his Christian femininity or “weakness” was most apparent from his actions abroad. The U.S. superpower seemed helpless in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis that dragged on for months, and of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Like Carter, John Kennedy was another exception that proves the rule. Conservatives viewed Kennedy as weak and inexperienced on foreign policy, since under his watch the Soviets threatened the American homeland with their missile bases in Cuba, and he rejected Operation Northwoods, failed in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and was nearly drawn into a thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was assassinated under suspicious circumstances, and even if Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t part of a conspiracy, there’s a Christ-like aura around Kennedy’s death, as though Kennedy were too good for this world; in other words, in public perception Kennedy was too feminine to survive in the man’s arena of realpolitik.

Carter and perhaps Kennedy showed what happens to an excessively feminine/progressive president in the U.S. in our era, just as Bush Sr. incurred the fate of an insufficiently masculine/regressive one. The asymmetry is due largely to America’s domination in world affairs. Machismo is all about achieving and protecting that power over others, including military domination over other countries and the domestic domination of the richest one percent over the working poor. Femininity is about renouncing or sharing such power even to the point of sacrificing yourself to build up the powerless, as in the mother’s care for her infant or the Christian story of Jesus’s sacrificial death. And Republicans have a trademark on machismo.

What’s happened, then, is that America’s superpower status has acted like a magnet, attracting parasites, predators, and managers of those forms of hegemony who have thus separated themselves from those who are ill-suited to defending or preserving American domination, owing to their more feminine inclinations. The two major parties reflect that inequality in American society.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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