It seemed masculinity was being weaponized during the 2016 presidential primary, as Republicans packed the debate stage with 16 dudes, most of whom then-candidate Trump belittled for their lack of manliness. Rick Perry, for example, didn’t have the “toughness” for the job. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, was “low-energy.” And Marco Rubio was “little.”
Now we have proof that the strategy worked — beyond, of course, Trump’s victory in the general election.
According to research published last week by Dan Cassino, associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, when a man’s masculinity is threatened — e.g., a female is poised to become the next President of the United States — in addition to becoming more aggressive, he also gets more politically conservative.
For their study, Cassino’s team at the Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind Poll planted a loaded question in an otherwise normal 2016 telephone survey of New Jersey voters. Respondents were asked who they’d favor in the upcoming presidential election, but not before half were prompted to consider a fact about gender in America. “In a lot of households,” the statement read, “American women make more money than men do. Is this the case in your household?”
Two questions later, respondents were asked who they’d be voting for in the upcoming presidential election.
Those who weren’t primed with the question about gender norms prefered Clinton 49 percent to 33 percent. Those who were supported Trump over Clinton 50 percent to 42 percent. “A 24-point flip reflects exactly how gendered the election was,” Cassino tells me. “On a subtextual level, this election was all about who was the most masculine man. Hillary Clinton had trouble being more masculine than an actual man.”
It would seem, then, that the key to GOP victories moving forward would be to threaten the masculinity of men and wait for those men to coalesce behind the most alpha alternative. And this strategy might very well work in 2018 and 2020, Cassino says. But the long-term prognosis is more nuanced.
In a second study, Cassino’s team analyzed responses in the 2006, 2008 and 2010 General Social Survey, which seeks to offer “clear and unbiased perspectives on what Americans think and feel” about various issues. Individuals were contacted three times over a period that included the height of the great recession, which turned out to be a perfect time to measure the impact of threats to the male dollars, since the initial wave of the recession disproportionately hit men.
The analysis looked at changes in attitudes on three different political issues: 1) government aid to African-Americans; 2) access to abortion; and 3) support for marriage equality. As expected, conservative men who lost income relative to their wives became more conservative — i.e., they were more likely to think women shouldn’t be allowed to have an abortion under certain circumstances.
On the other hand, however, liberal men who lost income relative to their wives became more liberal and more supportive of abortion rights. That’s because, Cassino explains, when a man’s masculinity is threatened, he can do one of two things: Double down on another form of manliness, or reconfigure what masculinity means entirely.
Millenial men are doing the latter, choosing to become more liberal in the face of gender-role threats. If his wife suddenly makes more money than him, Cassino says, the typical millennial man will adjust and commit to being an exceptional father or a leader in the community. “So you might get a group of unemployed men living in Williamsburg whose wives make six figures,” he says. “But it won’t bother them because they’ve redefined what it means to be a man.”
So given this data, does this mean running a woman for president isn’t a successful strategy?
Kinda, Cassino says. And at least for now.
“The long-term solution is to run so many women that it becomes unremarkable. But in the short-term, if you do that, the elections are going to be closer than they’d otherwise would be. If I’m trying to win the 2020 election, I’m not sure that’s my best bet.”
A better option, Cassino says, would be to run the most macho, progressive man you can find. He points to Cory Booker, a former Stanford football player, whose overt machismo would appeal to what he calls ‘dead-ender men’ who vote for Republicans reflexively when their masculinity is threatened. (While there have been questions about Booker’s sexuality in the past, Cassino thinks he’s been seen with enough women to overcome them. Regardless, he says, there’s a portion of the public that wants someone who can embody masculine ideals; a Democratic candidate who can do so will likely be more successful than one who can’t.)
“Dead-ender men” is an apt moniker, since, per Cassino, the old way is unsustainable. “Younger women are more educated than men and will likely continue to have more success in the workplace,” he predicts. Jobs in which men traditionally made more money than women are ceasing to exist, he adds, which will only get worse over time.
And yes, most of those displaced men will be more conservative, he admits. But they’re also not going to live forever. “For Democrats, that’s essentially what you’re waiting for.”