Race and Class Are Old Bases of Political Divisions. Gender is Different.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Demonstrators protest against Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court in Washington. 

The other day Gallup released some striking survey data on migration. No, it wasn’t about how many people want to come to America. It was about the rising proportion of Americans who say they want to leave the country, up to 16 percent under Donald Trump from 10-11 percent under his two predecessors. One finding jumped out: 40 percent of women under 30, twice the proportion of men their age, say they’d leave America if they could.

I’m not expecting a mass exodus of young women, but the Gallup report was one more sign of the depth of their alienation from America in the age of Trump. This didn’t happen overnight; women’s anger about both politics and everyday culture in America has been building for a while. Until the past few years, however, it didn’t seem as though national politics would be fought out on the battleground of sex.

In the debate on the left about the social basis of American politics, the chief focus has long been on the relative importance and interconnection of race and class. Each of those has deep historical roots as a primary determinant of both social conflict and party alignments. Sex is different. At least in electoral politics, it is a relatively recent axis of partisan divisions. The major parties didn’t used to be identified with one sex or the other, much less with the acceptance or rejection of a variety of fluid gender identities.

Women during the post-World War II decades generally voted the same as men, or somewhat more Republican. A significant gender gap in voting began showing up in the 1980s, but that gap emerged only because men became more Republican, not because women became more Democratic. 

That’s all changed since then, especially now that Democrats have experienced a surge of support from women.

In the 2018 election, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of exit polls, 59 percent of women voted Democratic, 40 percent Republican—a 19 percent edge for Democrats that was double the difference in 2016. Since men gave a four-point edge to Republicans in 2018 (down 8 points from 2016), that’s a total gender gap of 23 points—a record, though only one-point higher than in 2016 since men as well as women moved toward the Democrats.

The continuing differences by sex are clearly connected to race and class. Overall, white women were evenly split between Democrats and Republicans in 2018; the Democratic edge comes entirely from women of color. The split among white women, however, is the result of two drastically different patterns: non-college-educated white women voted Republican by 14 points, while the college-educated voted Democratic by 20 points (59 percent to 39 percent). 

The movement of college-educated women to the left shows up dramatically in data on the political views of college freshmen. When the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute began its national survey of freshman in the 1970s, men were more likely than women to self-identify as “liberal” or “far left.” Now it’s the reverse: 41 percent of women describe themselves as “liberal” or “far left,” compared to 29 percent of the men.

Conservative pundits may ascribe the ideas of college-educated women to their liberal professors (and as a professor, I certainly hope they get some ideas that way). But the UCLA survey reports the views of students in their first year, when they have just arrived on campus. Even at that point in life, among the social stratum going on to college, women have moved to the left and men to the right since the 1970s. 

The 2016 election and subsequent developments, such as the #metoo movement and the confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh, have put misogyny in the spotlight more than ever before. But for an explanation of the historical shift that lies behind those events, we have to go back to the enormous—but incomplete—upheaval that’s taken place in gender relations and the economy since the 1970s. (The new Ruth Bader Ginsburg bioepic, On the Basis of Sex, is a great reminder of the magnitude of those changes and how they came about.)

Here the idea of a “stalled revolution” that Arlie Hochschild laid out in her 1989 book The Second Shift seems to me particularly helpful. Revisiting that book in a 2014 interview, Hochschild explained it this way:

Women have gone into the workforce, that was the revolution, but the workplace they go into and the men they come home to have changed less rapidly, or not at all. Nor has the government that could give them policies that would ease the way, like paid parental leave, paid family medical leave, or subsidized child care…. So what you’ve got are three sources of stall. What’s happening to men. What’s happening to the workplace and missing government help.

In national politics, it’s not just that the changes have stalled. The Republican Party has stalled them. It has become the vehicle and symbol of intransigent traditionalism. When the party chose Trump as its presidential nominee, it heightened the polarization of sexual politics in the first election with a woman as a major-party candidate. The revolution in women’s roles set off a backlash, and Republicans have taken advantage of it, just as they have become the party of racial backlash. The shift of women away from the Republicans is the backlash against the backlash.

I’m not saying Democrats personally or politically are innocent bystanders in the stall. But as things have worked out, while the Democrats have opened themselves to change, the Republicans have identified themselves with reactionary impulses. They know that the entry of women into the workforce and public life is irreversible, but they are refusing to recognize the changes in culture and public policy that have to follow.

If I believed that progress was always inevitable, it would be easy to say that Republicans are on the wrong side of history. But entrenched power doesn’t always yield. I do think, however, that the party that pledges to “make America great again” has worked itself into a position that’s a recipe for American decline.

The United States is experiencing a precipitous drop in the birth rate. A decade ago American women were averaging about 2.1 children, which would keep the population steady, but the rate has fallen to about 1.78. Immigration would be one way of avoiding the kind of demographic and economic problems Japan is experiencing, but Republicans want to restrict the number of immigrants, legal and illegal. Reducing the costs of raising children would help boost the birth rate. That would mean supporting an array of policies that benefit young families: paid parental leave, subsidized child care and health care, housing assistance, and college tuition aid. But Republicans want to leave everything to the marketplace. Not only do they have nothing to offer the young women who are especially feeling the stresses of the stalled revolution; they also have no long-term way of ensuring a vital and prosperous society for the future.

Under the circumstances, I don’t think it’s surprising that so many young women would tell Gallup they’d rather live somewhere else. The only way forward for America is to finish the stalled revolution by overcoming the entrenched forces opposed to changes the country needs to make.

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