Masculinity Was on the Ballot This Year, and Americans Chose a Different Version of It
The political divide in America runs deep, and researchers are finding that it’s not just because of differing opinions on tax policy, trade, or immigration.
The parties have become proxies for the gender wars, feminized and masculinized to suit political needs.
It's a dynamic that reached renewed intensity four years ago.
Remember the moment when one of the presidential debates went off the rails?
Donald Trump started talking about his hands and the conversation soon went south: “If they’re small, something else must be small. I guarantee you, there’s no problem.”
It’s the type of exchange every man is familiar with, according to University of Akron psychology researcher Ron Levant, except it usually happens on the school playground.
“Masculinity has a tremendous hold on people largely because boys are made to feel that they’re obligated to be masculine; it’s mandatory,” Levant said.
With something so deep-seated, it’s no wonder that our concepts of masculinity can influence our political leanings.
Masculinity and the conservative mind
Levant’s soon-to-be published paper takes a closer look at how that might work.
His team surveyed around 1,000 men and women for their views of what he calls "traditional masculine ideology" to see how they related to their political and personal identities.
Levant found that of the seven traditional masculine norms they studied, two stood out as pairing with conservative ideology, respect for toughness, and homophobia.
“The equation with masculinity and conservativism boils down to a respect for traditional roles,” he said.
Levant also found that this conservative bent may stem from how a person’s personal identity is formed.
That is, whether they’re more or less open to exploring other ideas and beliefs.
And in the political realm Levant says this may explain the sort of emotions seen at, say, a Trump rally.
“Conservative men have been forced to accept things that violate their belief system,” he said.
Gay marriage, Black Lives Matter, equal rights for women, he says, all challenge the authority straight white men have wielded for most of our history.
He said voters this year were presented with very different versions of manliness.
“The masculinity of Trump, which is toughness and domination, and the masculinity of Biden, which is compassionate and empathetic, which is very feminine,” Levant said.
“The Republican Party is seen by many voters as being ‘masculine’ and better at handling so-called ‘masculine’ issues like the economy, foreign policy ... military conflict,” she said.
The Democrats on the other hand are seen as feminine because of the issues they tend to pursue.
“Education, that’s an example of a ‘feminine’ issue," she said.
"Health care is a feminine issue. Issues that involve that involve children or that involve social welfare or social justice,” Beckwith said.
She says beyond the issues, the fact that even with a record number of women elected to Congress this year, only one-in-four are Republican.
“So when people look at the parties and they look at who sits for the parties in Congress, they see a big difference,” she said.
And many of the GOP women elected this year ran on masculine issues, like gun rights, and tried to appear tougher than their Democratic opponents.
“Parties vary on electing women. Parties are viewed different as a result. Sexism predicts vote choice, and political context makes a difference,” Beckwith said.
A different brand of masculinity
So where does this all lead?
Beckwith says that the economic struggles many Americans have faced in recent decades, the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages, the decline of city centers, what Trump called the American carnage, made many people feel powerless.
“For an individual that’s a very hard thing to accept," Beckwith said. "And so one thing you can accept is you can blame it on someone else.”
It’s a message that acknowledges pent-up resentments.
“When you have leaders that say racist things, that insult ethnic groups, that blame economic circumstances on other countries or other groups of people, this can give people some relief,” Beckwith said.
But we live in a time when toughness and blame are powerless against an enemy that can’t be cowed: the coronavirus.
And while Levant says that masculinity was on the ballot this year, voters appear to have chosen the brand of masculinity that protects rather than attacks.