Gap Politics

The famous gender gap is often described simply as good news for one party--women are moving to the Democrats. But it's a two-way gap--even more men have moved to the Republicans. Each party and its candidates now appear to represent, at least in part, the interests of one sex against the other

For many Americans, the good news in 1992 was that the country finally had a feminist President. The bad news was that the President was a man. For many others, Bill Clinton's Administration has, fairly or not, come to symbolize an attack on men and masculinity as "problems"to be overcome. If 1992 was the "Year of the Woman,"1994 brought the "Revolt of the Angry White Male." Suddenly the question that has haunted American politics since women got the vote, in 1920—Will women vote differently from men, and how will that change politics and public life generally?—had a new salience. The "gender gap"of the 1980s, a phenomenon wrongly interpreted as favoring the Democrats, was yielding to a new concept: gender realignment.

Traditionally, American party politics has had fault lines—blacks vote differently from whites and southerners from northerners. Even in the 1970s, however, gender was not one of these. "Sex was a variable it never paid to look at," Patrick Caddell, a leading Democratic pollster, once said. Men and women tended to vote alike.

Those days are now gone. In the 1994 midterm congressional elections men voted Republican by a margin of 57 percent to 43 percent and women voted Democratic 54 percent to 46 percent for a gender gap of 22 points. Demographic breakdowns within these groups tend to reveal even wider disparities: white men went Republican in 1994 by 26 points, while unmarried women, white and nonwhite, backed the Democrats by a 32-point margin.

Along with the continuing shift of the once-solidly Democratic South to Republican control, a related trend, the gravitation of men and women to different political camps, appears to be the outstanding demographic development in American politics over the past twenty years. "I think that we're the party of Mars, but we would like to have the Venus side of the American society in our party too," Trent Lott, a Republican senator from Mississippi, said last year. With a gender split increasingly driving our politics, many of the issues on the national agenda—from welfare to health care to abortion—have been the bases for an indirect debate on the changing roles of women and men. And the trend will continue. "I foresee a tremendous clash around these issues continuing in the 1996 elections and beyond," says Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In a mid-spring New York Times/CBS News poll Bill Clinton was running stronger among women against his Republican opponent than he did in 1992, but slightly worse among men.

The press discovered the gender gap some fifteen years ago. Yet most conventional accounts of the gap and its meaning continue to obscure the importance of this realignment. First, although a difference in the way each sex views political issues is nothing new, the emerging party-identification gap between the sexes is unprecedented. Each party and its candidates now appear to represent, at least in part, the interests of one sex against the other. Thus the gap is responsible for much of the changing ideological orientation of both parties—and the outcome of elections and the direction of government policy. Second, although many media accounts still give the impression that the gap is greatest on "women's issues" such as abortion and an Equal Rights Amendment, men and women do not differ much on these issues. Rather, the gulf today tends to be on issues involving the existence and expansion of the social-welfare state.

Far more women than men supported the Clinton health-care plan—not because its architect was Hillary Clinton but because women are far less likely to be covered by existing insurance plans (more of them work part-time). Women tend to support affirmative action more than men, yet are much more in favor of government spending to support social programs. In the cultural area women are far more accepting of homosexuality than men, yet are also likelier to support banning books that advocate positions they think are dangerous. (In a clash between a real threat and an abstract ideal—say, the First Amendment—women tend to worry about the real threat far more than men do.) Even the ways politicians talk about issues affect the sexes differently. "Women have a much lower tolerance for conflict," Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, says. "Take the trade issue: Both parties kept making arguments for NAFTA by saying 'This will increase competition.' But women don't like competition and they don't respond to metaphors such as 'leveling the playing field.'"

Certainly gap politics drives the current debate over welfare. The original program, Aid to Dependent Children, was designed to support women so that they could stay home and raise children—an ideal that has now changed. "Almost all welfare states were built around the concept of a nuclear family, with a wage-earning man," says Theda Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard. As the norm changes, support for programs linked to it changes too. If one sees the current welfare state as enabling women to be freer of men—and, perhaps, more hostile to them—then dismantling that state may not seem like such a terrible idea.

Finally, most media accounts continue to describe the gap as helping the Democrats, as mobilized women answer the call of feminism. In fact the opposite has often been true, as men have turned out in strength to protect their interests. Though the press frequently describes the gender gap as one figure—say, 22 points in 1994—there are really two gaps: one among women (equaling 8 points in 1994), benefiting the Democrats, and another among men (14 points in 1994), which has recurrently benefited the Republicans more. Maybe 1996 will be the year the gender gap finally benefits the Democrats. At least until now, however, the "gendering" of American politics has sharply eroded support for the social programs for which the Democrats have traditionally stood. The two major political trends of the past fifteen years—the rise of the gender gap and our political swing to the right—are linked.

Why have the political interests and voting behavior of many women and men diverged in the past decade and a half? Is the divergence a good thing for our society? And if this is one of the major themes of our politics today, why aren't any candidates addressing it directly?

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Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. More

Steven Stark has been a cultural commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and the Voice of America. He is the author of four books and one e-book and has written frequently for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and both the Boston Globe, where he was an op-ed columnist and the Montreal Gazette, where he was a world sports columnist.

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