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
A Party for Daddy

Bill Clinton did only a few points better among women than he did among men. Once he took office, however, he was responsible for widening the gap, as Reagan had been twelve years earlier—only in reverse, as men this time fled the incumbent's camp. In Clinton's case the reaction among men seemed almost visceral. Taken separately, his coffee-klatch managerial style, his propensity to schmooze and gossip, his celebrated indecision, his discomfort with military procedures, and his constant emphasis on diversity and inclusion might seem unremarkable, as might his early decision to make it easier for gays to serve in the military and his insistence that a woman had to be placed in the job of first law-enforcement officer in the country. Taken together, however, these attributes and actions presented a portrait of leadership many men apparently found effeminate.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was also a part of the cause. A joke in Clinton's early months went something like "In the last Administration we used to worry what would happen if Bush became sick and we got Quayle. Now we worry what would happen if Hillary became sick and we got Bill." Polls on Hillary Clinton also showed an enormous and unusual gender gap: women approved 60 percent to 25 percent and men only 40 percent to 37 percent.

In the 1994 congressional elections, which produced a Republican victory, turnout among women was the lowest since 1974. "Democrats would have retained control of both the House and Senate if women had been as excited about the Democrats as men were about the Republicans," Celinda Lake wrote in a memo shortly after the election. She said later, in an interview, "The women who didn't turn out in proportionate numbers tended to be non-college-educated women. They were very disappointed with the way the health-care effort led by Hillary had failed, and they didn't think the President had done enough to focus on the economy." Andrew Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, suggests that the well-publicized 1994 Paula Jones suit for sexual harassment may also have played a major role in depressing enthusiasm for Clinton among these women.

So, again, a gap predicted to help Democrats had really helped Republicans. "The Republican stars . . . are ushering in a fresh image of masculine government," the conservative columnist Suzanne Fields wrote a month after the election. With the Republicans trying to dismantle a welfare state that many women feel is responsible for securing and protecting their gains of the past two decades, it's no surprise that immediately following the 1994 midterm elections the gender gap widened. The gap between the sexes tended to be largest among those under thirty and those with a college education—where some surveys now found it to be 34 points. "The joke we tell around the office is that we don't see how a lot of these young professionals are going to be able to find compatible spouses," Celinda Lake told a reporter. In the early 1996 presidential primaries, when there was still a race, the percentage of females voting in the Republican primaries, according to exit polls, had shrunk to 40-45 percent from its customary 50 percent or slightly higher. And although there is evidence that the gap has been narrowing somewhat in recent months, as both women and men have concluded that the Republican revolution may be going too far, most polling analysts now see it as a standard feature of our politics.

"The Ambivalent Woman"

How will the gender gap affect the 1996 election and our politics thereafter? "The big question in 1996 is how threatened women will feel by what the Republicans are doing," says Andrew Kohut, who has recently released surveys showing the trend toward a gap to be stronger than ever. Celinda Lake says her figures show much the same thing, and argues that the gap's continued presence could help Clinton—if he can get his voters to the polls to the extent that the Republicans got out their vote in 1994. In the special Oregon senatorial election last winter, for example, women favored the Democrat by seven points and men the Republican by 10 points. Yet the Democrat won, because turnout among women was huge—57 percent of the total electorate.

Still, political trends of the past fifteen years suggest that if the electorate continues to divide increasingly along sex lines, it will help the Republicans. Although polls so far show that the gap does appear to be aiding the Democrats this year, that may be a one-election reaction to Bob Dole's age (and his lack of appeal to some men) and to the way Republicans have frightened voters with their threats of Medicare cuts. More important, the whole political debate has now shifted so far to the right—with both presidential candidates endorsing balanced budgets and substantial cuts in the welfare state—that no matter who gets elected in November, the agenda of the "Daddy" party is going to prevail. That's why Everett C. Ladd, of the Roper Center, can say, "In truth, women are not really more Democratic than they were fifteen years ago. It's that men have become more Republican." And so, therefore, has the country.

The press often describes this as a "backlash," but it's more complicated than that. In a universe where one party is identified with men and the other with women, most men see something of themselves in the male party. But many women—principally homemakers and the traditionally religious—are still unlikely to respond to a female party, at least as that party has been defined by the Democratic left or by media sympathetic to feminist causes. According to Celinda Lake, recent elections have tilted Republican not so much because of men but because of what she describes as "the ambivalent woman." What's more, in a politics defined by gender identification men are more likely to rally to a male standard than women to a female one. Men still tend to follow conventional politics far more closely than women do; they are more likely to find their identity in it and to be energized by it. That's especially true when they feel they are unfairly under siege. As Todd Gitlin writes in another context in his new book, The Twilight of Common Dreams, many men demonized as conservative white males will ironically seek out the very stereotypical identity with which they have been tagged.

Some strategists say that part of the problem is that the male leadership of the Democratic Party is having trouble meshing with its new constituency. "The Republican leaders, who are men, understand the male vote," Lake says. "But I sense that a lot of Democratic male leaders are uncomfortable with their new base of women." That may be why the Democratic Party is having trouble finding its voice in this new era and why so many of its old leaders, such as Sam Nunn and Bill Bradley, are leaving politics. In fact, Paula Baker, an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of several articles on sex and politics, sees the general disenchantment with the Democratic Party—and, indeed, with politics and government altogether—as a direct result of sex-based shifts. "There's a trend in American history that when women enter a particular activity or profession, men then often think less of that domain," Baker says. "When anything becomes feminized, the pay diminishes, the stratification in the work increases, and the status diminishes."

The Individual and the Community

The importance of the gender gap can be misinterpreted—as the media have frequently demonstrated over the past fifteen years. Moreover, while the voting gaps that once divided us over religion and class have become less important, other gaps—such as those defined by race and education—reveal larger fault lines in the electorate than does the gender gap.

In American politics, however, where most battles tend to be fought in the cautious middle, a shift of only 10 percent of the electorate can cause a realignment. In the wake of the O. J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March on Washington last year many commentators called for a more open public discussion of our racial problems. Yet with all its complications, race gets discussed far more openly and, often, intelligently in politics than does the new role of women or male fears of displacement. The welfare debate focuses on race almost to the exclusion of sex. In discussions of affirmative action in the media the focus is almost always on race. When analysts talk about the "white male revolt" of 1994, they tend to focus on the "white," not the "male." Politicians and editorialists call every day for healing the racial divisions in the culture, but no one ever calls for a similar reconciliation on gender issues. "This is the elephant in the room that no one's willing to acknowledge," says the social and cultural historian Elaine Tyler May. "Because men and women live together in the same families, people are conflicted. It's a very difficult issue to discuss openly, because the intimacy complicates the matter." In truth, the gender gap has become a convenient metaphor for addressing an issue that has always troubled Americans—finding a workable balance between the cherished values of libertarianism on the one hand and communitarianism on the other. It should probably not surprise us that in a troubled and confused age we have somehow managed to combine these two preoccupations into one abiding, if rarely articulated, fixation that now permeates and defines our politics. And in the end it is inevitable that changes as momentous as the ones sparked by the women's movement will produce dislocations. Traditional notions of what it means to be a man or a woman have been woven into our notions of what a government ought to provide. As a British writer, Julie Burchill, once said, "Only America could have started the men's movement in a country which had not passed the Equal Rights Amendment, nor given women the right to terminate their pregnancies while giving men every right to abandon pregnant women."

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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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