giubbini peuterey The hidden sexism that could sway the election
Armando Manno was in a good mood. His bartending shift at Louie’s Bar Grill in Akron, Ohio was almost over, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were ahead in the first quarter of a pivotal playoff game. It was May 25, near the end of the primary season, and talk had shifted to the presidential election. “Trump is going to make the right moves,” Manno, the son of Italian immigrants and a lifelong Republican, said as he wiped down the bar. “You don’t become a gazillionaire if you don’t know what you’re doing. He’s gotta have something upstairs.” As for Hillary Clinton, Manno said that he didn’t want her in the White House. She was untrustworthy and willing to say anything to get elected, he said. And she possessed another, more fundamental shortcoming, Manno added: her gender. “Nothing against women,” he said, “but I don’t want a woman president right now.”
Manno laughed and gave a sheepish, that’s just how I feel shrug. As he turned away, a waitress named Mary Stone quietly offered a different point of view. Though she’s also planning to vote for Trump in the fall, Stone said she could relate to the cultural barriers that Clinton faces as a woman. “Men are still chauvinistic enough to think that women can’t do the same job as them. And I think that’s an issue.”
Heading into the general election, Clinton has a wide lead over Donald Trump among minority and female voters. party, has struggled with the one big voting bloc that’s truly up for grabs in 2016: moderate white men. White men also happen to be Trump’s base. If he doesn’t get a record number of them to turn out, it’s hard to see how he wins the presidency. Women, African Americans, and Latinos will still play a crucial role in the race. They skew Democratic and anti Trump. If Clinton keeps that coalition together, she can afford to lose some white men. But she can’t afford to lose too many.
The Clinton campaign knows this. Clinton spent significant time in the primaries courting white male voters in particular white, mostly working class men in the key Rust Belt and Midwestern swing states that usually decide presidential elections. And yet, despite all the effort, the results were abysmal. Clinton lost the overall male vote to Bernie Sanders by an average of 10 points in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin, according to an analysis of exit poll data. She also lost men by double digits in states as varied as Nevada, Connecticut and Oklahoma. In contrast, she won the male vote by wide margins in states that have large numbers of African American and Latino voters. In short, white men are the last holdout.
Female candidates have long faced more resistance, and received less support from men and women alike, even though the percentage of people who say they feel comfortable voting for women has gone steadily up. In 1937, just 33 percent of Americans said they would vote for a female presidential candidate, according to Gallup’s first poll on the subject. By 2015, that number had climbed to 92 percent. But giving a non sexist answer to a pollster is easy enough; the country has almost aced that test. Actually voting for a female presidential candidate has proven to be a much bigger challenge.
Obviously, gender isn’t the only factor contributing to Clinton’s struggles with white male voters. She has real shortcomings, like any male or female candidate. They were evident in her failure to put Sanders away early on in the primaries. Her national approval ratings are remarkably low for a presidential nominee, and part of that can be traced to men and women across the political spectrum who have legitimate policy disagreements with Clinton (though her likeability numbers are gendered as well; and of course some women hold subconscious biases towards female candidates, too). White men began abandoning the Democratic Party in the 1960s, for reasons that had nothing to do with gender. The trend accelerated under Ronald Reagan and shows no signs of slowing today.
“Bias in general, whether it’s directed at gender, race, or anything else, is more automatic than people think,” said Susan Fiske, a leading researcher on prejudice and stereotypes who teaches at Princeton University. “And it’s also more ambivalent than we realize. So that makes it harder to detect in ourselves.”
I should say here that my goal is not to mansplain the way that sexism works to people who already get it. Rather, it’s to work through a thorny issue at the heart of this election that many men, like myself, probably haven’t spent as much time thinking about as we should. We don’t have to if we don’t want to, which is just one of many unfair privileges that come with being a man.
The theory of ambivalent sexism, more than anything else, helps illustrate men’s subconscious bias against Clinton, but it’s hard to understand at least it was for me because it clashes with many people’s ideas about prejudice. It can be easy to think of bias and racism in absolute terms. You’re either racist or you’re not. The same thinking applied to gender up until the mid 1990s. That’s when Fiske, working with Peter Glick, a social psychologist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, published a breakthrough paper that laid out their ambivalent sexism theory. The theory, which has since been accepted by researchers around the world, helped form the basis for how experts study sexism today. Fiske and Glick separated sexism into two distinct categories. The first kind, known as “hostile” sexism, encompasses overtly negative views about women. It’s what we usually associate with gender discrimination. The second kind, known as “benevolent” sexism, describes positive attitudes and actions which men take toward women that are based, deep down, in feelings of superiority and dominance.
“Men have ambivalent attitudes toward women that are prejudiced and paternalistic, but that are also based on love and interdependence,” Glick said. In other words, we can say we like women and really mean it while also harboring a combination of conflicting biases that we don’t even realize exist. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. For any male readers out there who might want to grapple with this some more: the next time you offer to carry your wife or girlfriend or female friend’s heavy shopping bag, or go on a drive with a member of the opposite sex and insist on doing all of the driving, try and honestly break down the gender dynamic. Sure, you mean well. But it may not be that simple.
When it comes to politics and the 2016 presidential election, hostile sexism plays out in obvious ways. We have Trump to thank for that. He has insulted the physical appearance of Carly Fiorina, his lone female primary opponent (“Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?”), and attacked FOX News host Megyn Kelly (“She had blood coming out of her wherever”) after Kelly highlighted his long track record of misogynist comments at a Republican debate. The list goes on and on from there. For Clinton, however, the root of her problem with white men stems from a central aspect of benevolent sexism, according to Glick: its use as a tool to reward women who accept traditional gender roles, and punish those who don’t. Any first lady who was discouraged from meddling in her husband’s policy work, and received lavish praise for the food at a White House function, has first hand experience of benevolent sexism.
And this is the crux of the gender issue for Clinton. An extensive body of research has shown that women who seek leadership positions often encounter resistance from both men and women if they violate gender norms by acting in stereotypically masculine ways, like being competitive, assertive and self promotional. This is known among social psychologists as the “backlash” effect, and examples abound. For instance, though there are more women in middle management positions in the business world today than there were in previous generations, just 4.2 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female. The backlash effect extends to politics, too.
“The more female politicians are seen as striving for power, the less they’re trusted and the more moral outrage gets directed at them,” said Terri Vescio, a psychology professor at Penn State who studies gender bias. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” she continued. “If you’re perceived as competent, you’re not perceived as warm. But if you’re liked and trusted, you’re not seen as competent.”
Women in politics know this well. “I think a woman has a hard time running as a woman,” said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a veteran civil and women’s rights leader who represents the District of Columbia in Congress. “Even as Donald Trump is running openly and with great aplomb as a man.”
This theoretical framework is extremely useful in decoding the real life views of male voters like Tomi McKelvey, a 20 year old beer store clerk who grew up in Dravosburg, a working class town outside of Pittsburgh. McKelvey’s father is a steel mill worker, and his mother is an accountant. He was an offensive lineman on his high school football team, and moves with the gracefulness of a former athlete. McKelvey, who is white, described himself as a moderate Republican. He disagrees with Trump’s most inflammatory proposals, such as banning Muslim immigrants from entering the country. Still, he voted for Trump in the primary and is planning to back him again in the general election. He fits into Trump’s target demographic. If enough people like Tomi McKelvey vote for Trump, he has a real shot.
McKelvey told me he didn’t like or trust Clinton. He said he wants a woman to become president someday, but didn’t think that Clinton was the “right one.”
“I’m not a real Hillary fan, but I respect her,” McKelvey said.
When I asked him at another point if he viewed male and female roles in society any differently, McKelvey replied, “With a man you look for leadership and guidance. With a woman you look for companionship and nurturing. A motherly role.”
McKelvey isn’t unique in thinking this way. Many Americans have been conditioned to assign men and women prescribed gender roles. And when Clinton goes off script, which she did a long time ago, and acts like a politician that is to say, no different than a man science shows that McKelvey and the rest of us are wired to judge her differently, and more negatively, than her male competition. That’s the double standard at work, and that’s the point. It is very real, and it has a profound effect on our view of men, women, and who gets to have the power.
The Iowa Democratic caucuses were a turning point in 2008. Barack Obama’s surprise victory signaled that whites would vote for a black candidate, instantly turning him into a true contender. But in 2016, Clinton had to wait much longer (until the end of the primaries) for her version of an “Iowa” moment a primary win or key speech that the country interpreted as a critical shift in gender relations. Like Obama, Clinton also made history in Iowa, but her win didn’t symbolize a decisive change in how men view female politicians. The exit polls and Sanders’ improbably close second place finish told the opposite story. Clinton won with women and non white voters. But she lost the male vote in Iowa by 14 points.
Iowa set the pattern for the rest of the primaries. An overtly gendered narrative emerged, pitting Sanders’ inspiring political “revolution” against Clinton’s plodding, eat your vegetables “march” to the nomination. There were times when Clinton allowed herself to stop and enjoy the moment. On the night of her landslide win in South Carolina in late February, Clinton took the stage at a college gym in downtown Columbia looking visibly relieved. The results made clear that Clinton would win big with minority voters, and build an insurmountable delegate lead. Super Tuesday was still one week away, but at that point her Democratic primary battle with Sanders was effectively over.
The atmosphere at her South Carolina primary night rally was celebratory. But the win represented a bittersweet tradeoff for advocates of gender equality, regardless of their political affiliation. Yes, Clinton was going to win the nomination, but largely because women and non white voters were supporting her candidacy. White men appeared much more comfortable voting for Sanders.
That’s exactly what ended up happening. In the months that followed, Clinton won diverse states and Sanders carried predominantly white ones. The racial divide was startling. During one stretch in late March and early April, when Sanders won seven consecutive contests, the Democratic electorate in the states that he carried was on average 72 percent white. And the gender gap in white states remained constant. Sanders won the male vote by 29 points in Wisconsin, and 19 points in West Virginia, to name just two examples. Sanders developed a loyal following, but it mainly consisted of young people, including a vanguard of “Bernie Bros,” and older white men.
Not all male Sanders supporters are flagrant sexists, of course. Most aren’t. They responded to Sanders’ economic message and unvarnished campaign trail persona. He successfully cast himself as an outsider candidate despite his decades long career in Congress, which is no small feat. The 74 year old socialist senator from Vermont turned out to be a much better fundraiser than anybody expected. Bernie struck a nerve. At the same time, it’s not a coincidence that so many white men chose him over the female alternative.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s gender bias,” said Ryan Geiser, 29, an ardent Sanders supporter from Bellevue, Pa. Geiser, who is white, said that he didn’t base his decision on gender, but knows plenty of Sanders supporters who did. “If Sanders had gone up against a man who had the same politics as Hillary, he wouldn’t have done as well because more white men would have voted for the other guy.” There is strong evidence that subconscious bias shaped the way white men viewed Clinton in the primaries. So just imagine how much sexism could impact the general election, now that Clinton is running against Donald Trump.
In late May, I interviewed a group of five white men who get together each afternoon at the Mountaineer Cafe in Berlin, in southwestern Pennsylvania. The day we met at the diner, where a cup of coffee costs $1.55 and comes with a view of the main intersection in town, a light rain was falling outside. Don Williams, a 91 year old retired welder, and Max Bowser, who is 75 and worked as a truck driver, were the first to arrive. They were soon joined by Elmer Altfather, 83, a retired carpenter; Ted Robb, 80, who worked for a railroad company; and Larry Pritts, 75, a retired heavy equipment operator and former member of Berlin’s town council. The longtime friends are split along party lines: two are Democrats, and three are Republicans.
“Donald Trump scares me,” Bowser, who is a Republican, said as our conversation got underway. “But we need a change, and I’m willing to give someone the right to change it.”
Williams, who is also conservative, and has followed the election closely despite his advanced age, chimed in: “We need a big boom.”
“Yeah,” said Bowser. “But not Hillary. I don’t like the way she lies. They’ve caught her in so many lies.”