Friday, May 30, 2008

Ezra Klein - The Politics of Masculinity

Do we want a politics that demands old school, tough guy masculinity? And do we want women to have to measure up to that out-dated standard to run for national office, as Hillary seems to think she must?

Ezra Klein, writing at The American Prospect, looks at The Politics of Masculinity. It seems to me that Obama has tried to create a more balanced masculine politician, but that he has succumbed to the traditional crap of national politics. Will he be able to redefine masculinity in politics if he gets the Democratic nomination? I'm losing hope for this, but not completely, not yet.
I've been sort of struggling with whether to write this post, but after Daniel Larison and Matt Stoller both toed around the point while offering their takes on Webb, I guess it's worth doing. Let me start by saying that this isn't really about James Webb. He is who he is, and this post has nothing to do with his positions on the issues. But then, nor does most of the excitement around his candidacy. Rather, Webb represents something of almost transcendent importance to some post-Bush liberals: The opportunity to out-tough the GOP. A candidate who's not only a liberal, but in no way a sissy. He is the daywalker, combining a progressive's positions with a southern militarist's affectations.

But this is not a sustainable approach to politics. Democrats can't out-tough the GOP. It's possible that James Webb can do it. But he's sui generis; a Democrat who can win at politics when played under Republican rules. Democrats love those candidates, because they think of presidential elections as an away game, and they're endlessly hunting for the candidate who plays best under those conditions.

But Democrats can't win at politics when played under Republican rules. Progressivism can't prosper when politics is played under Republican rules. It needs to make its own rules.

Barack Obama's effort to do exactly that has been, by far, the most exciting element of his campaign. His policies -- particularly his domestic policies -- have not been half as innovative as his politics. But his willingness to double down on opposition to the gas tax holiday, to battle back on negotiating with dictators, to respond to attacks by pressing the point, has been genuinely exciting. And though he has been confident and even aggressive in all of this, he has not been "tough." He has not pretended to go shooting, or driven on to Jay Leno's show on Harley. He's essentially been making his own rules.

Meanwhile, the sexism of our politics was far less present in Clinton's loss than the fact that she was the single woman on a stage of nine Democratic presidential candidates, and in a field, including the Republicans, of 20. Now, studies show that women do not, in fact, perform worse in primaries than men. In fact, in Democratic primaries, the evidence since 1990 is that they do better (see my article in the forthcoming American Prospect for more on this). But they run less often -- for a host of reasons, but one of which is that they think they're more likely to lose. And that idea is inextricably intertwined with a political culture in which progressives and conservatives alike get very excited over hypermasculine candidates. That's not a fight women can win, and nor, according to the election results, is it one they need to win. But perception matters when women are deciding whether to run for office, and the perception that the dudelier you are, the more likely you are to win, is a dangerous one.

To be clear, this isn't a commentary on Webb. But the argument for his elevation to the national ticket -- which is to say, to become one of the faces of the party -- is about the electoral benefit of a hyper masculine, effortlessly tough, culturally conservative (seeming) candidate who can win back those Reagan Democrats and white males. As I wrote the other day, I don't think the Democratic Party should be orienting itself towards reknitting that particular coalition. I think there are other, more plausible, paths to a majority coalition; paths that are more durable because they aren't so candidate-specific, and that could create a political model better for progressivism and for broad participation in electoral politics.

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