Sex and Salience

It’s unfortunate that Michael Sokolove can’t resist the impulse to prove his woke manliness up top, when arguing that if the vote were left to white men, Roy Moore and David Duke would be the sort of people elected. “White men are all racist misogynsts” may well serve to prove he’s the exception, but it’s no way to introduce his point. And it’s a point worthy of consideration.

Why do men and women, even some living under the same roof, have such divergent views on what issues matter and what people are fit to be our leaders?

Statistics reflect a gender gap, although it’s hardly as huge as Sokolove claims.

There’s a word that political scientists use — “salience” — that applies. It’s a way of framing what issues matter most to voters. A male and female partner in a marriage may both have been disgusted by Mr. Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment. Neither liked his policy that separated migrant families at the border and put children in cages. Both think he bungled the coronavirus response.

But these issues are not equally salient for them. The man cares; he just doesn’t care as much. His main concern is more likely to be the balance in his 401(k) account.

The question is less that men are unconcerned with issues that concern women, but that there is a hierarchy of concerns, our most important issues, which inform our choices.

“Women think about government in terms of the well-being of the country,” says Melissa Deckman, a professor of political science at Washington College in Maryland who has written extensively on the gender gap. “Men are much more likely to think about it in terms of their wallet. Their bottom line is, how does this affect me?”

While the framing of “women are good and generous and men are bad and selfish” is how some want it to be, it’s dishonest and self-serving, stereotypical and shallow. More importantly, Deckman’s framing obscures what may be a valuable point. Men don’t ask “how does this affect me,” but how does this affect my family, my children and, yes, my wife?

Are men raised to believe they have a primary duty to their family first and society second? Are women less constrained to feel this burden because they, too, are socialized to expect their husband to make sure they have a roof over their head and food on the table?  In some respects, this almost smacks of gender roles half a century ago, where the wife stayed home and baked cookies while the husband went to work.

Today, more women than men go to college and get graduate degrees. Women are free to enter the workforce in any occupation or profession they choose. They can be doctors and lawyers, even Supreme Court justices. Has this changed the gender roles? Women still are primarily responsible for cooking, cleaning and child rearing. Why don’t men contribute more, with the obvious condition that having a baby requires the necessary equipment?

The question Sokolove fails to see, no less makes no attempt to address, is why men put filling the needs of their family first, leaving women free to put social issues ahead of bread and butter issues. And lest the knee-jerk answer be that men should let go of their socialization of familial fiscal responsibility, if both spouses are out protesting social injustice, who’s at work earning a living so the kiddos get to eat again tonight?

Naturally, Sokolove ties this in to the election a few days away, because otherwise there would be no reason for the New York Times to include an op-ed about how horrible white men are.

The Republican Party is for white men and people who think like white men. “We see it in poll questions that ask, “Is America getting too soft and feminine?” Dr. Deckman said. “Those who answer ‘yes’ lean strongly Republican.”

The Democratic Party is the party for women and for people of color, who are even more dependable Democrats than women. It is also, increasingly, the party of the college educated: In a late September Washington Post-ABC News poll, Mr. Trump led Mr. Biden by a modest 8 points among white men with a college degree, but by a whopping 39 points among white men without a college degree. In other words, white college-educated men are beginning to vote more like women and people of color.

These demographics may increasingly unite to head off the most extreme manifestations of the white male vote.

Is that all there is to it, Republicans suffer from “toxic masculinity” and Democrats care about women and people of color? The effort to exploit Trump’s awfulness to distinguish good white men from bad selfish manly-men is not only unavailing, but offensive. That men put the need to care for their family ahead of other issues doesn’t make them evil or selfish. That women feel no comparable responsibility doesn’t make them more virtuous. It’s not that men don’t care about liberal issues, but that their first duty is to their family. Is it evil to care about feeding their children?

Rather than chalk up men’s interest in politics to “a hobby and a sport,” whereas “women can’t do that because they’re out there organizing,” they would do well to question what it is about the Democrats’ tent that leaves more men than women on the outside. The demographics do not show that white men are callous and hateful, and are largely in agreement with women on most social issues.

So why then do they not forsake their masculinity, their sense of responsibility to care for the families, in favor of marching for social justice? Or in the alternative, why don’t women put their families’ welfare ahead of their social concerns?  Is that because there is someone else in the household to do so?

Sokolove ends with an interesting anecdote to drive his point home, but does it serve his cause?

Katie Blume works for a conservation advocacy organization, is a local officeholder in her small town in central Pennsylvania and was a Hillary Clinton delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Her husband, a mechanic, is a Trump supporter. He was awaiting dental surgery, and not up for talking. I asked how she was coping.

“I just drink more bourbon now,” she said.

Can Katie Blume do what she does, including enjoying more bourbon now, because her husband is a mechanic? If her husband worked for an advocacy organization, would she get her hands dirty to make sure there was food on the table? Sokolove never faces that question, why men’s priorities and women’s priorities may be different. It seems as if that would be the salient question.

14 thoughts on “Sex and Salience

  1. Bob S

    It’s interesting that all of these highly educated people seem to miss a fundamental lesson of history, that they are only freed to pursue their calling because the bread is already made.

  2. Rengit

    Katie Blume’s framing of “women are concerned about the collective, men are concerned about themselves and their immediate families” is an odd one, because if you sub in “nation” for “government” or “country”, it doesn’t make much sense from a wider perspective: throughout history, most nationalist movements, which claim to care about the well-being of the nation, are led by men and supported mostly and most vociferously by men, with women tending to be skeptical and caring more about immediate or pragmatic concerns. And for what it’s worth, the most ardent of communists, another highly communal philosophy, have been men too.

      1. Rengit

        I mixed up quotes, and I extrapolated “men are concerned about their wallets” to include their own family, since you pay for your family out of your own wallet; probably needed to clarify that. I stand corrected.

  3. John J

    Republicans don’t believe that the combination of “white” and “man” is intrinsically evil, while significant numbers of Democrats think that there is a secular version of original sin in this condition. Not surprisingly, more white men prefer to ride the elephant than be kicked by the donkey.

      1. cthulhu

        Eh, at least this cycle, the Democrats seem to my eyes to have wholeheartedly embraced just about all of the progressive ideology (except for Biden, who seems to have no ideology and points in whatever direction his handlers turn him on a given day).

        Personally, I’m all out of original sin; I’m working too hard to support my family (I know, such a stereotypical white male value!) to indulge such masochistic notions.

      2. John J

        According to Sokolove, “The Democratic Party is the party for women and for people of color”. Pale-faced dudes can apply elsewhere, unless they are willing to wallow in self-abasement. Hobson’s choice, Scylla and Charybdis, the horns of a dilemma, between a rock and a hard place, are the options for milk men who despise Trump but refuse to drink the Kool Aid demanded by progressives. If I was a Yankee, I’d vote for Biden, as I would have voted for Hillary, because moderate Democrat is usually better than most forms of Republicanism. But radical Democrat is just plain scary, and secret police, show trials, and re-educational gulags, loom on its horizon.

        1. SHG Post author

          That was, indeed, Sokolove’s description, but then, Biden is the nominee, not Bernie or Warren. The majority of Democratic voters are still moderate liberals, no matter what Sokolove says.

  4. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Well spotted, and I agree that being concerned about the family’s bottom line hardly implies selfishness. A better approach might involve looking at the political priorities of male vs. female breadwinners. A quick search didn’t turn up much of anything by way of studies; it’s possible, of course, that Professor Deckman has already covered this in her best-selling textbook “Women and Politics” (now in its fourth edition, Hillary Clinton no longer on the cover), but what do I know.

    1. SHG Post author

      While I can’t speak to the contents of Deckman’s textbook, it would surprise me if her perspective wasn’t slightly biased toward the wonders of young womanhood in conflict with the terrors of toxic masculinity.

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