E. Anthony Rotundo: Manliness and the presidential politics in 2008

Roundup: Historians' Take

[E. Anthony Rotundo, author of "American Manhood," is working on a book about conservatism, masculinity, and American culture.]

Gender has captured center stage in the 2008 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton barely missed being the first woman to seize a major party nomination for president. Sarah Palin now stands a good chance of becoming our first woman vice president. And the media have dealt constantly with issues of women in the campaign process.
Certainly, it's a great and welcome change to see women candidates and women's concerns at the heart of the political process. But to understand fully the role of gender in this (or any) year's campaign, we need to remember that there are two sexes. The media and political professionals tend to talk about "women voters" as if they were the opposite of "regular" voters. Men's centuries of political privilege have hidden the fact that men, like women, are a voting bloc and an interest group.

Looking at the political landscape in this way, we see that each of the modern political parties has a certain gender hue. Since at least 1980, the Republicans have been more the party of men and the Democrats more the party of women. Political pundits first recognized a gender gap after the Reagan-Carter election of 1980. They assumed that the gap was about women (because it was about gender), and they began to talk about Reagan's "woman problem." In fact, the media's gender blinders obscured an important truth: Reagan won because he attracted men away from the Democratic Party. In deserting the Democrats, men transformed the political landscape. The gender gap has remained a fact of presidential politics through the last seven elections.

Scholars have sifted through political issues to see which ones make the sexes vote differently. They find that it's not "women's issues"--on equal rights and abortion, men and women vote the same way. The biggest difference between men and women comes on issues of social welfare. Often (though less consistently), women and men also separate on issues involving the use of violence--military force, the death penalty, etc. The Republicans practice the politics of toughness and independence and attract more men than women; the Democrats practice the politics of compassion and community and have the opposite gender appeal.

But presidential campaigns are about much more than issues. They are a form of public theater that offers competing personalities, story lines, symbols, and catch phrases. And here the parties diverge even more than they do on the issues. The Republicans practice presidential politics as a drama of toughness. They summon up the perilous world of action movies--a world of terrorists, criminals, and evil empires--and show that they'll protect the nation by getting tough on the forces of evil. They borrow catch phrases from action movies ("Make my day," "Read my lips"), they invent slogans with masculine overtones ("Drill, baby, drill"). They attack in bold and daring fashion (the Swift Boat ad), they draw masculine heroes into their cause (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris), and they show their candidates riding horses and clearing brush. The Republicans present themselves as manly men, and they pursue campaigning as a blood sport.


The Democrats stage a very different drama. They present themselves as reasonable people working for the growth of equality and social justice, and for compassion at home and abroad. Their conventions are tableaux of American diversity and their candidates apply policy expertise to issues of fairness and equality. But the Democrats have trailed the Republicans badly at the art of political theater. This explains why the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections, even though polls have usually shown the public agreeing with Democrats on the issues.

This could happen again in 2008. The Republicans are trying to cut into the Democrats' strength among women. John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and the Republicans' newfound outrage about sexism are bold acts of political theater, and they are pursuing the audience for this new gender drama by advertising heavily on "Oprah," the Lifetime Channel, and other female venues....

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