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CommentaryMental Health, Employment, Education & Skills, Black Boys & Men

To Save Democracy, Help Men

Jan 5, 2024
Rachel Kleinfeld

When most people consider how to save U.S. democracy, they think about which candidates they want in office. Some go further and focus on issues like reforming primaries to disincentivize extremists from running, or ensuring that only candidates with a majority of votes win. In this election year, political work to ensure democracy prevails will be crucial. But while those efforts can avoid catastrophe, they cannot save democracy—because the challenges go far deeper.   

Radical politicians are responding to demand. There’s a reason that moderate Republicans like former Ohio Senator Rob Portman and soon-to-be-former Utah Senator Mitt Romney have been leaving office in droves, while more than fifty people who took part in the January 6 riots have entered politics —including the QAnon Shaman, who is running for Congress in Arizona. The resurgence of political violence in the U.S., epitomized by January 6, 2021, is another issue that can’t be solved through electoral work alone—members of the violent Oath Keepers and Proud Boys are taking over key non-elected roles in state and local Republican Party politics. Lest it look like I’m picking sides, perpetrators of violence on the far-left may remain outside mainstream politics, but they cannot be ignored either.   

U.S. democracy won’t be safe until we address the growing demand for anti-democratic and often violent political options.

A significant part of that demand has to do with men—and particularly, the ways masculinity is being weaponized to disproportionately drive men and boys towards anti-democratic goals.

Populists, popular with men

A microphone in front of a crowd showcasing populism

Globally, men vote for radical parties at rates much higher than women. Spain’s far-right, populist, and conspiracy-minded Vox party received roughly double the number of votes from men than from women. So did Slovakia’s similarly-inclined Slovak National Party.  While men and women voted for Poland’s anti-democratic Law and Justice Party at similar rates, men voted for the even more extreme Konfederacja nearly three times as much as women. A 2009 study of European parties that leaned authoritarian or populist found that men were generally around twice as likely as women to vote for them—and up to five times more likely in the case of the nationalist-populist Swedish Democrats. 

It’s not just Europe: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro performed 10-points better among men than women in the 2018 election which brought him to power. Roughly the same gender difference pushed Argentina’s new populist libertarian leader over the top in November. 

In some countries, gender aligns very closely with other social or demographic variables like class, education, and employment—but in a number of places, being male makes a big difference, independent of other factors. 

The U.S. is no exception to these trends. The gap between male and female voting was greater for Trump than in a half century of exit polling. Men started leaning Republican in 1976, such that Mitt Romney had an 8-point lead among men – so some of the gap reflects real policy preferences rather than a mark of more extreme politics. But the lead among men for a candidate who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy was much greater.

While much has been written on the role of race in recent elections, gender is playing a crucial and different role. White men formed Trump’s core support in 2016, but by 2020, Trump polled 12-points better with Black men than Black women, winning 18% of the Black male vote. Among Latino men, 44% voted for Trump in 2020, 6-points more than in 2016, and 10-points more than Latina women.

As with international trends, these numbers are not confined to an older generation who will soon leave the stage. In fact, the tilt is even more pronounced for young men. While 18- to 29-year-olds had been becoming less conservative since the early 2000s, something about Trump generated a resurgence of support. The change was most pronounced among the youngest part of that demographic: the number of twelfth graders who claimed to be conservative or very conservative skyrocketed when Trump was on the ballot.

The status of men 

People who care about democracy could read these numbers and conclude that they should simply double down on getting women to vote. But giving up on half of one’s country is not good civics—nor is it smart electoral math.

Moreover, this approach gets the diagnosis wrong. The problem is not that men are natural crusaders for authoritarian populists. In fact, U.S. men are much more likely to be politically apathetic, and most young men are better characterized as confused and drifting. The problem is that anti-democratic and violent forces are trying to weaponize that aimlessness. Politics is coming into most men’s lives subtly. They look for belonging, purpose, and advice, and find a mix of grifters, political hacks, and violent extremists who lead them down an ugly road. And few people are fighting back.

American men are facing multiple problems, and aren’t getting many answers. Popular culture focuses on Elon Musk, Davos CEOs, and the other men flourishing at the top of society’s heap. But that’s not where the majority of men exist. Nearly two-thirds of white men over 25 do not have a college degree—a figure that rises to 78% for Black men and 82% for Hispanic men. These men face daunting odds.

Men with only a high school diploma earned $1,017 a week in 1979, according to AIBM President Richard Reeves’ calculations—now they earn $881. More than one in ten men in their prime aren’t working at all—three times the percentage in 1969, and a much higher percentage than their European counterparts. 

It’s not just about money, but about status and life satisfaction. Women are out-graduating men from high school and vastly out-competing them in college where almost 1.5 women graduate for every man. These women aren’t so interested in men who are less educated and earn poorly, so men without college degrees are marrying less. Over 1.5 million men aged 20 to 24 aren’t in school, training, or work, and these men are having a lot less sex than past generations and their more productive peers.

Unsurprisingly, young men without college degrees report that they have the least optimism and purpose in life among all the groups of men surveyed by Equimundo. Many have lost a reliable way to earn a living. They also claim to have the least social support, and are uncertain how to have basic relationships—with friends, let alone romantic partners.  They feel their low status acutely, but because popular culture aggregates their lives with the men at the nosebleed top, they are told by much of the left that they are privileged and should take a back seat.

Many men turn these feelings inward, with the result that nearly three in every four deaths of despair—largely from opioids and suicide—are male. These deaths became so common that they were causing a decline in life expectancy for U.S. men even prior to COVID-19. That is a tragedy for these individuals, their families, and their communities.

But some men seek someone else to blame. That has become a tragedy for our democracy.

Lost man seeks connection 

A lost man in front of a moving train

Globally, there’s no correlation between poverty or unemployment and support for political violence or political extremism. But having no ability to provide and no mate cuts deep into the self-image of many men. The fact that so-called “alpha males” remain at the top of society’s ladder likely increases the shame of men whose lives have degraded in every sphere since the 1970s. While progressives branded much of masculinity toxic, and pro-democracy forces did nothing, a violent, anti-democratic underworld began reaching out.

For the two-thirds of young men who were willing to admit to Equimundo researchers that “no one really knows me well”, a sense of community might mean a lot. It might mean even more to men who report having no social activities at all—as one in six of all men with a high school education or less claim. That leaves a lot of time for websurfing and gaming.

And that’s where Steve Bannon found them. Bannon told journalist Joshua Green that he first noticed the “monster power” of “these rootless white males” when he bought a gaming company long before he entered politics. In 2012, when he took over the Breitbart News Network, he hired the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to “activate that army”. Yiannopoulos declared that feminist bullies were tearing the video game industry apart and poured fuel on what became the Gamergate controversy, which catalyzed a harassment campaign against women developers. As Bannon explained, “They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.” 

Bannon was hardly alone in noticing a pool of possible recruits. Gavin McInnes, the founder of the violent Proud Boys movement of male Western chauvinists, focused more than half the videos that launched his movement on male victimhood. “Feminism,” he claimed, “Isn’t about equality anymore. It’s about taking masculinity away from men.” He cited the accurate statistics on deaths from opioids and suicide rates, but explained them as symptoms of a lifetime of being told “you suck”. He offered violence as a way for men who felt their manhood had been threatened to demonstrate their strength and virility. Like martial artists, men can move through four degrees to gain status in the Proud Boys hierarchy—first by submitting to violence from other members of the group (getting punched in the stomach until you can name five breakfast cereals, ostensibly to demonstrate “adrenaline control”), and in the end, carrying out political violence against others in American society.

McInnes follows a long tradition. Globally, violent extremists often look to give men who feel disenfranchised or emasculated in other parts of their lives a way to feel powerful.  White supremacists have been recruiting young men on gaming platforms for years, and they are getting more prevalent—the frequency of their recruitment efforts more than doubled after 2021, with nearly one in five people on gaming platforms reporting that they had seen white supremacist content in 2022.

But more and more often, men are being recruited into extremist politics and violence not via far-right ideology or racism, but simply by trying to figure out how to be a man in a world where gender roles have changed precipitously. Go online and start looking for typical questions that a man might ask in the absence of any friends or role models—like how to find a date, or how to build muscle. Before long, the algorithms pull these unsuspecting guys into the “manosphere”—a world of online men’s support communities that begins with many appealing on-ramps for someone trying to figure out how to live, but ends in a swamp of men endorsing misogyny, hate, and violence.

Nearly half of young men aged 18 to 25 told Equimundo that they trust one or more of the “men’s rights”, anti-feminist, or pro-violence manosphere influencers such as Andrew Tate, a self-described misogynist, MAGA supporter, and one of the most famous stars on TikTok (until he was taken off the platform). The manosphere takes the very real problems that men face, and blames them on women, cultivating a zero-sum world where men lose if women gain.

Grievances can lead to violence

These grievances are dangerous for democracy, and not because of more votes for extreme politicians. Very few men commit political violence. But nearly all political violence is committed by men.

The number one factor that predicts support for such violence in the U.S.—on the left, as well as the right—is hostile sexism.  Of the nearly one in four Americans who believe that “things have gotten so far off track [that] true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” 38% believe in patriarchal gender roles. In both cases, hostility to women trumps racism in its correlation with support for violence.

Many people see political violence as confined to January 6—but in fact, it has continued to tear apart our country. Before the 2017 Unite the Right rally, only international terrorists drove cars into peaceful protestors. Since 2017, there have been over 150 politically-motivated car rammings across the United States. Hate crimes have surpassed the post-9/11 spike to reach their highest point in the 21st century. Threats against members of Congress rose tenfold from 2016 to 2021. And a fifth of America’s election officials—the neighbors who give us our ballots—have faced threats in 2023, which should have been a sleepy electoral off-year. 

Sparring between the sexes has moved from an amusing movie theme to a deadly illness for our civic fabric.

And just as the manosphere offers a polarizing, zero-sum frame, so too do some women’s rights groups who view efforts to help men as harming the unfinished work of women’s equality. But the way men’s troubles are being weaponized in our democracy is fueling a backlash that sets back decades of work creating equality for women.

Prosocial masculinity 

A group of men looking out into nature

Americans spent decades building a path for empowered women and girls, without any accompanying effort to craft a broader and more secure sense of masculinity for the men who needed to stand alongside them. Now we are reaping the backlash.

To achieve an inclusive democracy in which women are equal, we need a positive, pro-social vision of masculinity.

Some of the answer undoubtedly lies in concrete goals that will help men feel more secure—such as higher wages for blue-collar, traditionally male jobs, and paths to success that hinge on skilled manual labor rather than college degrees.

But the connection between democratic backlash and men falling behind is not direct.  Sweden’s economic inequality is laughably small by American standards—but it has been on one of the swiftest rises in Europe, which may play a role in the sizable gender gap in voting for its radical political party. Canada has one of the highest gaps between male and female university graduation among OECD countries, while Germany’s is the smallest in the OECD and smaller still in the eastern state of Saxony. Its strong vocational track and economy provides a high-status place for skilled manual laborers. But it is Germany where men are voting for the extreme AfD party, which is doing best in Saxony, while Canada’s political options remain reassuringly normal.

Material facts and cultural change together seem to create vulnerable men, but it takes a political storyteller to turn vulnerability into anger. 

So, in addition to improving men’s situation materially, we need to consider how men can have a sense of purpose and status alongside empowered women. Years of cultural tropes have depicted strong, able women and bumbling men who fail to launch, but we need to depict both as competent adults. Women have been leaning in to mentoring young women for decades—men need to do the same to build real relationships that counteract online manosphere influencers taking over the roles of dads and big brothers.

Women have been told they can climb mountains and still wear patent-leather shoes (as a children’s book my daughter brought home memorably depicted). Can boys be nurses and enjoy chain saws?

Authoritarian forces have always supported patriarchal gender roles. Pro-democracy efforts to help men need to understand the power of that siren song.  

Psychologists have a saying: “hurt people hurt people.” Many men in our society are feeling lost, hopeless, and helpless at being unable to articulate their problems in the face of a society focused elsewhere. It’s hurting them, hurting women, and hurting our democracy, too. We must advance, whole, together.

Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where she focuses on issues of rule of law, security, and governance in democracies experiencing polarization, violence, and other governance problems.
Rachel Kleinfeld
Senior Fellow, Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program
Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where she focuses on issues of rule of law, security, and governance in democracies experiencing polarization, violence, and other governance problems.