Doubling Down On Sexism Won't Help Republicans In The Midterms

Support for Judge Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation correlates strongly with sexist views.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the wake of Thursday’s hearing on allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Republicans are attempting to plow ahead with confirmation. This is despite public opinion polls prior to the hearing showing a plurality of Americans disapproved of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. If Republicans confirm him regardless, the question now turns to how they may be punished for it in the midterms. Whether or not they are depends partly on whether support for Kavanaugh is motivated by partisanship or whether other factors are involved that may cause voters to abandon the GOP.

Analysis from my think tank, Data for Progress, suggests they should be worried. In a poll last week (conducted entirely after Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations had been made public but prior to Friday’s hearings), we found support for Kavanaugh was heavily concentrated among people, regardless of party preference, who deny the reality of sexism and oppose policies to reduce sexism.

In that poll, we asked whether respondents supported confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In addition, we included a series of questions that measure sexist attitudes and support for policies to reduce sexual assault. This included a specific battery of questions designed to identify views that are referred to as “hostile sexism” in the literature. Academics distinguish hostile sexism, which involves the objectification of women and expressions of inferiority, in contrast to benevolent sexism, which suggests in a paternalistic way that women are better at things (such as being more empathetic). Respondents were asked if they agreed with the following statements:

  • Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for equality.

  • Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.

  • Feminists are not seeking for women to have more power than men.

  • Feminists are making entirely reasonable demands of men.

We then used those answers to generate a sexism score for each respondent. In addition, we asked respondents several questions about their support for certain specific policies designed to reduce sexual harassment and assault:

  • Currently, when companies fire executives who engage in sexual harassment in the workplace, those executives receive large severance packages. Should Congress pass a law that would allow men (or women) who are found guilty of sexual harassment in the workplace to be fired without severance?

  • Would you support or oppose government requiring sex and consent education in high schools to prevent sexual assault and harassment?

  • Would you support or oppose empowering the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to levy fines against companies with high levels of sexual harassment?

Working with Data for Progress co-founder Jon Green and Data for Progress Senior Adviser Meredith Conroy, I found that ― controlling for education, age, race, party preference and income ― a respondent’s sexism score strongly predicted whether or not they supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The chart below shows that regardless of a respondent’s party preference on the Generic Congressional Ballot (GCB), support for Kavanaugh was strongly associated with sexism.

Data For Progress

This second chart below shows that, similarly, support for Kavanaugh correlates across party preference with those who oppose policies to curb sexual assault.

Data For Progress

Surveys prior to Friday’s hearing consistently showed that support for Kavanaugh was much lower among women than among men, and support for him has polarized across gender. It’s also not just public opinion: Data provided to Data for Progress from Be A Hero’s Crowdpac campaign suggests women make up a disproportionate share of the donors to fund Sen. Susan Collins’ opponent should Collins vote for Kavanaugh. “We’re calling on Collins to do one simple thing: believe survivors. If she refuses, we’ll make sure there’s a candidate who does in 2020 and will fund them to the tune of $2,000,000,” said Marie Follayttar, executive director of Mainers for Accountable Leadership, which partnered with Maine People’s Alliance to build the strategy.

On the other hand, support for Kavanaugh has mostly come from people who have vehemently dismissed the realities of sexism. At National Review, which has turned itself into a veritable war room dedicated to smearing Kavanaugh’s accusers, Dennis Prager wrote that the accusations against Kavanaugh should be ignored, regardless of their truth. Prager had previously written a defense of spousal rape, called “When a Woman Isn’t In the Mood: Part 1,” which includes the following: “It is an axiom of contemporary marital life that if a wife is not in the mood, she need not have sex with her husband. Here are some arguments why a woman who loves her husband might want to rethink this axiom.” In Part 2, he presented “eight reasons for a woman not to allow not being in the mood for sex to determine whether she denies her husband sex.” Needless to say, I suspect that Prager (who supports Kavanaugh’s nomination) would also score quite high on our hostile sexism battery.

Analyzing the Voter Study Group, most Americans reject the ideas that make up the hostile sexism battery. For instance, only 1 in 3 respondents believe that “women who complain about harassment often cause more problems than they solve” and only 1 in 5 believe that “women should return to their traditional roles.” Additionally, according to recent polling, strong majorities of Americans believe that discrimination often costs women jobs and fewer than 1 in 5 believe that workplace harassment “is no longer a problem.”

For years, progressives have wondered how Republicans have managed to float above public opinion, supporting unpopular laws and now the most unpopular nominee in Supreme Court history. That may now change. The 2016 presidential election saw the largest gender gap in modern American history. With the gender gap in the 2018 midterms already poised to be even greater, the Republican Party’s commitment to attacking Blasey and Kavanaugh’s other accusers is only likely to further drive a wedge between the parties on gender.

In confirming Kavanaugh, Republicans would be making a large bet that further polarization won’t hurt their electoral fortunes. I bet they’re wrong.

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher based in New York City and a co-founder of Data for Progress. He tweets at @SeanMcElwee.

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