It’s hard to deny that Democrats have a masculinity problem. Attitudes toward masculinity have been an important predictor of votes for Donald Trump. And while Black and Latino voters still overwhelmingly lean Democratic, men in those communities are turning to Republicans at higher rates than women. Republicans seem all too happy to capitalize on the gun-toting, fist-pumping tropes of stereotypical manhood. GOP presidential candidates are bragging about their athletic prowess. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s recent book, Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs, joins a body of let-men-be-real-men work that includes the preachings of Jordan Peterson, the postings of Andrew Tate and the writings of a popular online guru who goes by “Bronze Age Pervert” — all of whom cast liberals and progressives as the enemy of masculinity.
As they approach elections with razor-thin margins, what are Democrats to do? Recruit candidates who fit traditional stereotypes of manhood? Confront Republican arguments head-on with alternative takes on crime, guns, transgender rights and a vision of masculinity that intersects with all of these issues? Or just do nothing and hope voters are turned off by GOP rhetoric that they see as toxic or discriminatory?
To explore that question, POLITICO Magazine reached out to Democratic strategists with an eye on voter behavior, along with a scholar and a filmmaker who have studied masculinity in American culture and politics. Our panel included author and filmmaker Jackson Katz, co-writer and producer of The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump; political strategists Lis Smith, Chuck Rocha, and Joshua Ulibarri; public policy scholar Ted Johnson; and University of California Hastings School of Law professor Joan Williams.
They met over Zoom for a spirited discussion, moderated by contributing writer Joanna Weiss, about what masculinity means in white and nonwhite communities, how both parties are trying to connect with male voters, and how Democrats might hone a message about manhood while staying true to the party’s roots. Most of them agreed that, for Democrats, the answers to some of these questions are far more complicated than they are for Republicans’ less diverse voters. “If we think that the way to react to this white male aggression and politics is to have Democrats turn that aggression back on Republicans, that is not going to happen,” Ulibarri said. “That’s not the kind of masculinity, or male leadership, that our candidates and our party and our voters are going to respond to.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Two visions of masculinity
Joanna Weiss: Jackson, give us some context. It’s not new that candidates have characterized Democrats as feminine and Republicans as masculine, right? It’s the Democrats-as-nurturing-mom, Republicans-as-authoritative-dad metaphor: social safety on the left, and defense and fiscal austerity on the right.
Jackson Katz: Since 1972, since Richard Nixon’s landslide election over George McGovern — a bomber pilot in World War II who was feminized in political discourse as soft and wimpy — the Republican Party has understood that one of the ways to build electoral majorities is by racking up huge numbers among white male voters.
If we have any hope of creating majority coalitions, or supermajority coalitions, to pass progressive legislation, we have to figure out a way to peel back the overwhelming advantages that the Republicans have had among male voters, especially white male voters.
Joanna Weiss: Ted, I saw you nodding. Has the same dynamic played out in nonwhite communities?
Ted Johnson: Since about 1964, 90 percent of Black folks are voting for the Democratic candidate in presidential and congressional elections. For the 10 percent of Black folks that have voted for Republicans, that’s usually 6, 7 percent of Black women and 15 or so percent of Black men. So masculinity does factor in.
The part of conservatism that is most attractive to Black men is usually the ideas of individualism, self-sufficiency, self-determination. It’s very consonant with the Black power and Black pride movements in the ’60s and ’70s: This idea that if left to our own devices, we will be just fine if the government would just get out of the way. That hearkens back to some of the Reagan Republicanism.
Joanna Weiss: Chuck, more Latino men voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. You’ve argued that Democrats need to more directly court the Latino vote. What’s the best way to do that?
Chuck Rocha: You start with the premise that the average age of a Latino in America is around 27. They’re just a younger demographic. They’re consuming things differently. This narrative that GOP appeal to Latinos is about machismo is mostly a false narrative. It’s more about this economic pressure on Latino men to provide.
Joanna Weiss: Josh, do you want to pick that up? Do you see this kind of pressure on men factoring into political decisions?
Joshua Ulibarri: Anytime we talk about men, we really mean in many ways white men. Certainly, the vote for Democrats has been shrinking among Latino men, and the same is happening for Black men.
The books and the folks we were talking about — Jordan Peterson and Republican Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, the “dominance” language, the fists-in-the-air conversations — are very different kinds of conversations than I know we’re having in people-of-color communities. I think the number one issue for us is, as Chuck mentioned, “Can we provide?”
The way men in our community see the leadership of these two parties is quite different in that they do not believe that Democrats reward hard work the way Republicans do. Democrats tax. We regulate, we take away, or we give away what other people worked so hard to gain. And so, when we have so much pressure in our Latino community for men to provide and lead, and then we see a Democratic Party taxing and taking away, that eats away at the ability for our party to win the Latino men’s vote.
Joanna Weiss: Lis, I see you nodding about that economic argument, and I’m curious what you’re seeing.
Lis Smith: I think when we look at these appeals that Josh Hawley and other people are making to masculinity, we should see them for what they are, which is not really just an appeal to men, frankly. This is much more part of a conservative cultural outreach than a gender outreach. And it is something that is very, very limited in its appeal, and that I don’t think is going to appeal to swing voters.
In some of the races in 2022, you saw different paradigms of masculinity. A great example was the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania. On one side you had Republican candidate Doug Mastriano dressing up as a Confederate Civil War soldier, going to D.C. on January 6th, touting what you might think of as traditional, in-your-face masculinity. But he significantly underperformed with male voters.
Then you see Josh Shapiro, who won, presenting a very different paradigm and a very different view of masculinity. In his ads, he talked about faith, he talked about family, he talked about opportunity, he talked about how when he was a county legislator, he cut taxes and kept taxes low. He talked about how as attorney general, he worked to combat crime. He always talked about being a dad and going home to his kids, and how he’d married his high school sweetheart. Those are, I think, examples of masculinity that a lot more men can identify with than these guys out there like Doug Mastriano dressing up as a Civil War soldier, or feeling the need to storm the Capitol in a triangle hat.
Joanna Weiss: There are a few Democratic candidates right now who are trying to present a traditional masculine image. In Josh Hawley’s upcoming Senate race, one of his Democratic challengers is a guy named Lucas Kunce. He’s got a very deep voice and a very square jaw. And he’s got these ads that are basically accusing Hawley of being a weenie. He’s leaning into that almost performative, caricature version of a manly man. Joan, how will that play with voters?
Joan Williams: There’s one measure on gender called hostile sexism. It’s kind of Men should be men, women should be women and it is actually more powerful than anything other than political orientation at predicting Trump voting.
And there are really cool experiments where they threaten men’s masculinity in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, and they find that a man whose masculinity has been threatened has higher support for war, more homophobic attitudes and is more interested in buying an SUV. Precarious masculinity was incredibly predictive of voting for Trump in 2016 and voting for Republicans in 2018.
What Republicans have done is taken this threatened masculinity, and taken masculine anxieties, and forged them into a weapon for the far right. And what Democrats have done in response is pretty much nothing, mostly. But the move for people who are anti-Trump — and the only group in my view that’s really understood this is the Lincoln Project — is to push back.
There are really two abiding themes in masculinity: The macho man — Trump’s got that covered — and the good man. And what Democrats need to do, and Josh Shapiro did this, Lis, to a certain extent, is enact the good man, the decent man, the “It’s a Wonderful Life” man. The only people I see articulating that are other Republicans, which makes me a little sad as a Democrat.
Joanna Weiss: You’re talking about adopting a kind of working-class white male perspective. This right-wing critique of the Democratic Party as out of touch and feminized and elitist and arugula-eating and in the ivory tower — how much of it is really just a proxy for class warfare?
Jackson Katz: One of the things that Trump does in speech after speech … he name-checks working-class male professions all the time. He’ll say things like, “We love our truckers, we love our cops, we love our firefighters, we love our military.” It’s brilliant because what they feel is a sense of cultural recognition.
Nixon figured this out back in the early ’70s. One of the ways you could appeal to white working-class men was not through giving them better wages or benefits, because that would impede on the interest of the ownership class that is really running the Republican Party, but by giving them cultural recognition. You could say to them, “They are the ones who built this country — they, meaning the white working-class male who was providing for his family. And those people — meaning multiculturalist, feminist Democrats — hate you. They detest you.”
Joshua Ulibarri: I’m really struggling with this conversation. Because in one way we’re lifting up Trump as the epitome of this great communicator who really zeroed in on working-class men and brought this conversation home.
And we’re talking about a candidate who lost a popular vote twice — who last cycle in 2020, lost three additional states he had won in 2016. There was no red wave. Democrats held the Senate. We only lost the House by six seats when predictions in the summer said we were going to lose 40 or 60 seats.
If we think that the way to react to this white male aggression in politics is to have Democrats turn that aggression back on Republicans, that is not going to happen. That’s not the kind of masculinity, or male leadership, that our candidates and our party and our voters are going to respond to.
If we think that that’s what has to happen for us to compete with Josh Hawley, that’s just not going to work out for us. It needs to be a different conversation than “We need to be as brutal as they are,” because we will never be as brutal as they are. We’ll never win an election, we’ll never get the women. Our vote is based on the women’s vote.
Joan Williams: I wasn’t saying that Democrats should counter hypermasculinity with hypermasculinity. I was saying that Democrats should counter hypermasculinity of the far right with an alternative image of masculinity. That’s not just a professional elite image but is also a working-class masculinity of the sort that Chuck was standing up for. Democrats have to connect with that.
Lis Smith: I agree with a lot of what Joshua said. I don’t think that trying to Xerox what Donald Trump is doing is somehow going win Democrats male voters. I also would strongly contest the idea that the Lincoln Project’s ads have been successful in winning over voters. There’s no proof of that. They’re good at getting people on MSNBC, on Twitter to, like, clap along, but they don’t show really any movement with voters. I do think that the model that people do respond more to is, as Joshua and Joan said, the model of the good man.
Men, messaging and gun policy
Joanna Weiss: Most Democratic voters want to move the needle on guns and persuade traditional Republican voters to come over to that side. How do they do that, in the context of masculinity?
Jackson Katz: So much of the gun debate is about white men’s sense of themselves as protectors. Men feel they’ve lost their jobs as providers because of macroeconomic shifts [that have depleted certain industries] and the ascendance of women and people of color. The thing that they still have is their ability to be a protector.
If we don’t talk about the gendered subtext of the gun debate, we’re just going to be running, which we have been, from one mass shooting or gun violence statistic to the next without really talking about the underlying dynamic. The gun debate is all about masculinity.
Lis Smith: We saw this test case in 2022 with a race that used the imagery of guns and all that: Blake Masters. Let’s look at his 2022 Arizona Senate race. This guy did all these ads with him and all of his guns, showing off his silencers and playing to what some people might think of as traditional masculinity. To most people, it looked ridiculous. He looked like a kid wearing a costume and trying to play cowboys and robbers. The masculinity that people identified a lot more with was the model provided by Democratic candidate Mark Kelly. He was an astronaut. He was a veteran. He had a wife who was almost killed in this brutal shooting, and that gave him a lot of credibility to speak out on the issue of guns.
Ted Johnson: That message needs to be tailored to the community. And one of the fastest-growing demographics of gun owners is actually Black women who are looking to protect themselves because Black men have been taken away by the government or disenfranchised, or whatever it may be. So even the gun debate isn’t nice and clean in the Black community. Philando Castile, who has a gun, gets killed by police. He has a permit. He’s done everything correct and gets shot in his car. Where was the NRA? Where were the gun rights folks looking out for Philando Castile’s rights?
So the gun debate, the class debate, the working class piece … all of these things mean different things in different communities. But we often take the national message, which is really controlled for white working-class men, and drop it on the rest of the country, as if those messages will resonate in the same way.
Joshua Ulibarri: And that’s the complexity of having the conversation in progressive and Democratic politics. In Republican politics, you can have that conversation, and it’s just about protecting my home, keeping what’s mine, owning this plot of land.
But it is also understanding Ted’s conversation about how Black men protect other Black people in their lives; how 19-year-old Latinos raise children without mothers in their households. That’s the complexity in our masculinity conversation, but it misses the boat when we apply a framework of Josh Hawley and Jordan Peterson being the directors of what it means to be men, because that’s just not the base.
An economic message tailored to men
Jackson Katz: Critiquing the ways in which the Republicans have been successful at getting huge percentages of the white male vote does not mean mimicking them. It means understanding what they’re doing and the dynamics that they’re tapping into.
You look at the percentage of white men with no higher than a high school education who voted for Trump. By the way, that’s an imperfect proxy for “working class.” A lot of men who have higher incomes don’t have a college education. But we on the progressive side continue to concede that 70 percent, 73 percent, of white men with a high school education are going to vote for the Republican candidate. … Look at the Senate races in Georgia between two African-American men. Eighty percent of white men with a high school education voted for the Republican candidate, Herschel Walker. Eighty percent!
If you can peel back a small percentage of white men from voting Republican by talking to them in a language that they can understand, by assertively saying that their economic interests are better served by what we’re trying to do here, then you’re going to have supermajorities to pass progressive legislation.
Joanna Weiss: Lis, do you agree with that? And do you see anybody doing what Jackson’s talking about, trying to go after at least a sliver of those votes?
Lis Smith: Yeah, and look, this has clearly been something that Joe Biden has tried to do as president and as a candidate.
A big issue for a lot of swing male voters is a sense that there isn’t enough economic opportunity and that, even if they have a job, they’re not being paid well enough. That’s why Biden goes out and talks about how he’s bringing manufacturing jobs back to the country. Has it penetrated yet? Not really. And that’s something I think that Democrats do have to continue to work on.
There was a conversation recently that happened around my old boss, Pete Buttigieg, about paternity leave. You had people like Tucker Carlson essentially saying, “You’re not a real man if you’re taking paternity leave.” And there were some people who thought: “OK, well, this is an appeal to masculinity. This is an appeal to male voters.”
But it is such a small sliver of the population that actually believes that men shouldn’t take paternity leave. If you look at demographic changes, you’re seeing that more and more men, not just in professional jobs — in transportation jobs, in manufacturing jobs, in retail jobs — are taking more paternity leave. It’s actually really exploded over the past few years.
We should be talking about how it is really important for more men to have an active role in their families, and when you diminish the importance of paternity leave, you’re taking a swipe at men having economic security. You are taking a swipe at men who are trying to be more involved in their households, and that is something, too, that puts more pressure on women. We shouldn’t divorce women from this conversation, because when you say “Oh, parental paternity leave isn’t important,” that means that you’re putting all the burden for child-rearing on women.
Joshua Ulibarri: People see Republicans and Democrats as strong at different things when it comes to jobs and economic security. If you’re hungry and in need of a job, people think Republicans are better, that Republicans create more jobs, whether that’s true or not. That they lower regulations. They bring in jobs. But once you have the job, people really respond to Democrats and think Democrats can make that job better by fighting for more health care, by fighting for more earned leave, by fighting for better wages. As we’re trying to have this conversation about what helps men provide, we should be more aggressive about that.
Joanna Weiss: This talk of changing gender roles raises one of today’s biggest wedge issues: transgender rights and gender fluidity. Is this a third rail for Democrats or an opportunity to change or expand the conversation about gender, on an assumption that people will come along?
Lis Smith: I think that there is a way for Democrats to win this argument. I did work in Michigan in 2022, and Republicans obsessively focused on issues of gender identity and ran all these ads about transgender girls playing girls’ sports, and they just got absolutely creamed in the election. Voters saw them talking about all these [transgender] issues, but not talking about the economy, not talking about education, not talking about how we get back from Covid. So I think one effective way to talk about this is to point..