White Men and the G.O.P. Mastery of Identity Politics

"I don't think Barack Obama is half the man Sarah Palin is. He can't take a punch, he's weak, and he whines," Limbaugh says of the Democratic nominee.
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Identity politics is back on the front page, now that John McCain has picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. This surprising new development in a long and tumultuous campaign is all the more notable because Republicans have traditionally criticized Democrats for playing the politics of race and gender - as if they're the only political party that would stoop so low.

But Republicans have long been the unrivaled masters of identity politics. The difference between their identity politics and those of the Dems is that the GOP uses race and gender the old-fashioned way - in order to get the votes of white men. They have been doing it successfully for decades.

Since at least 1980, the heart of Republican electoral strategy in presidential campaigns has been to "secure the base" of white male voters in order to compensate for the party's weakness with voters of color and women. The calculus is simple: if a Republican can win the votes of white men by a wide enough margin, it cancels out overwhelming Black support for Democrats, as well as the gender gap, which has favored the Democratic Party since the election of Reagan. The latest example of this was 2004, when George W. Bush beat John Kerry among white men by 62 to 37 per cent.

How does the party whose chief domestic priority is to cut taxes for the wealthiest 1% manage to get such huge majorities of white men to vote for them, including working-class white men, whose wages and standard of living have declined dramatically throughout several decades of conservative rule? Most likely a combination of factors is responsible, among them a perception among many white men that gains by people of color and women in recent decades have come at their expense, the decline of organized labor's political influence, hot-button issues like gun control, gay marriage and the death penalty, and the rise of conservative media venues such as talk radio and Fox News.

But another factor helps to explain the Republican hold on the white male vote: the relentless attack on the masculinity of Democrats and liberals by Republican and conservative activists, writers, and media personalities. Conservative ideologues long ago successfully labeled the Democrats as "soft on communism," "soft on crime," and "soft on terrorism," the "blame-America-first" party of women and passive, feminized men. At the same time they've branded the GOP as the party of "real men" and the women who love them.

Anyone who thinks these attacks have not played a powerful role in scaring white men away from the party that was responsible for Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, workplace safety regulations, widely accessible public higher education and a multitude of other programs that have dramatically improved the lives of millions of hard-working American families - and working men -- has not spent much time over the past generation in male culture.

To get a sense of how relentlessly right-wing propagandists attack liberal and progressive men's masculinity, all you need to do to is turn on the radio and listen for a few minutes to the most popular radio talk show host in the country, the conservative icon Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh's influence goes far beyond his circulation of Republican Party talking points to his legions of "dittohead" listeners. As the long-time Bush advisor Karl Rove said of Limbaugh, "He's a leader. If Rush engages on an issue, it gives others courage to engage." In other words, when Rush attacks liberal men, it helps set a tone for political discourse that reverberates in bar rooms and back halls but also in the corridors of Republican power at the local, state and national level.

It is no secret that Limbaugh mercilessly demeans "the libs" for just about every imaginable social problem. But he seems to take special glee in belittling liberal Democratic men. In classic bully-boy style, Limbaugh targets certain personal characteristics of liberal men whom he dismisses as feminine, such as when he labeled former Senator John Edwards the "Breck Girl" because of his famously stylish hair, or when he traded in a popular stereotype about the supposed effeminacy of the French by derisively referring to Senator John Kerry as "Looks French" Kerry. Limbaugh mocks CNN commentator and former Clinton strategist Paul Begala as "The Forehead." He calls the thoughtful and even-keeled TV commentator David Gergen "David Rodham Gergen," a reference that serves to indict him for supposedly going easy on feminists like Hillary Clinton and to question his manhood.

In Limbaugh-land, Democratic women are castrating "feminazis," and Democratic men are neutered wimps. Late last week on his show, Limbaugh reported a news item about how business at Denver strip clubs was supposedly slow during the Democratic National Convention. Instead of praising male Democratic delegates for not participating in the sexual exploitation of women, Limbaugh took the opportunity to ridicule their manhood. "This is easily understood by me," he said. "...How many real men were in Denver this past week? That's the question you need to ask."

Socially conservative women who consider him a hero might want to ask Rush Limbaugh if he thinks "real men" - who in Limbaugh's moral universe are all conservative Republicans -- were out in the strip clubs in Minneapolis-St. Paul during the Republican National Convention, getting lap dances from naked women even as their party nominated a woman who the thrice-married talker has referred to as a "babe."

Characteristically, some of Rush Limbaugh's most cutting criticisms of Barack Obama have to do with the Illinois senator's manhood. His latest anti-Obama line, which he repeats frequently, is that "I don't think Barack Obama is half the man Sarah Palin is." James Fallows quotes Limbaugh as dismissing Obama in the September issue of The Atlantic magazine. "He can't take a punch, he's weak, and he whines," Limbaugh says of the Democratic nominee. "I'm sure some women find that attractive because they would look at him as a little boy and would want to protect him...But it embarrasses me as a man."

Presumably Limbaugh is unembarrassed -- as a man -- that while he mercilessly ridicules liberal men as "linguini-spined," emasculated wimps, he himself avoided military service in Vietnam by claiming an anal boil rendered him unfit for service.

Since the 2006 mid-term elections, the Democratic Party has slowly awakened to the fact that Republicans have won seven of the past ten presidential races in part because they understand better how to play the politics of masculinity, especially in a political culture that is dominated by media narratives and staged televisual performances. The answer for the Democrats is not to try and "out-macho" the Republicans; that would further degrade a process that is already making a mockery of democratic decision-making regarding important, substantive issues. And Democratic attempts to "butch up," such as Dukakis in the tank, or the Kerry campaign staging a hunting event have often come off as contrived and inauthentic -- the cardinal sin in our cynical age.

At the risk of oversimplification, what the Democrats need to do to win back the votes of many of the white men who have deserted the party in recent decades is to take strong, progressive positions and stand by them, even when they might appear unpopular. Win or lose, most men like a fighter, which is why Hillary Clinton rose in esteem even as she was losing in the primaries to Obama. Given that in recent decades significant numbers of white men have agreed with the Democratic Party on key issues, isn't it possible that many simply didn't want to identify with a party that had been rhetorically emasculated? The Democrats could learn something on this subject from Ronald Reagan. Millions of Americans voted for Reagan even though they disagreed with him on issues. What they found attractive was not his right-wing ideology, but the strength and likability he managed to convey in his public persona. They identified with it.

Obama needs to continue doing what he managed to do so effectively in his acceptance speech last week. He needs to respond directly to Republican attacks on his leadership skills and preparation, and show that he won't back down in the face of attacks from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. If in so doing he manages to win back to the Democratic side only a small percentage of the white male voters the Dems have lost over the past generation, and combines that with a substantial victory among women, people of color, and an infusion of young voters, he and Joe Biden will have cobbled together the elements of an electoral coalition that could form the basis of a new progressive era.

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