Open University

The "l" Word


by Linda HirshmanI had an interesting experience on the Internet last week after I opined in the Post that women are disaffected from politics. Surprise: Even serious people behave strangely in the blogosphere. Once you clear the noise away, though, sometimes important work gets done. In this case, pressed by Mark Schmitt, a pretty smart thinker generally, I have been digging into the CW that women are reliably liberal. It turns out the disconnect may be not at the voting stage, but between many women's discrete policies and their political identity. With an election coming, and one with a good probability of a female candidate, this is important news.

The bad news is that Schmitt first appeared on, characterizing the Post piece of being "wrong on about sixteen levels." After the usual back and forth and back, it turned out that his "sixteen levels" was actually two criticisms: that I had gotten all my information from D.C. area women, rather than women from Cincinnati, and that men are crazy ("jock sniffers") on the subject of politics, too.

As to men's mental health, I profess no particular expertise, but if you look at the article I wrote, you will see that I spent exactly the same amount of space on the many academic studies of female political behavior as I did on the obligatory human interest interviews. No matter how hard or often I flung the word count at Schmitt (My article is 2,150 words long--641 words or 30 percent of the article were spent describing my chats with the D.C.-area stay-at-home moms), he would not back down. This is nothing but a trivial blog pimple, not a dispute of any real significance. Anyone who wants to see the many studies of women's relative lack of political knowledge and interest can follow the list in my article or just google "women political interest knowledge." But surely it says something about the nature of Internet discourse that two scholars have to spend time over whether my suggestion that a significant number of women approach politics differently from men was based on a handful of interviews with MD Mommies when the answer was so obvious.

The good news is that four rounds into the debate Schmitt forced me to revisit the question of whether significant numbers of women vote against their expressed beliefs, which would be, at least, means/ends irrational. In 2004, women voted an anemic 51 percent for the liberal, John Kerry. Citing the many reports of female liberalism, I argued that women must not be voting their beliefs, ergo, irrational. Women voted exactly as they professed, Schmitt asserted, invoking the Annenberg studies of political beliefs done before the election. Women were 7-9 points more liberal than men on the subject of the Iraq war, according to Annenberg, and 11-15 points more liberal than men on the all important right track/wrong track question. And they voted 10 points more for the liberal, Kerry, than men did.

What this missed, of course, is that for purposes of establishing a disconnect between their beliefs and their votes, it does not matter how much more liberal women are than men; what matters is how liberal they are objectively versus how liberally they behave in the polling booth. But I had thought that women WERE objectively robustly liberal, not just comparatively liberal, and, in 2004, say, were just voting "irrationally" following some ill-considered perception of the male-dominated zeitgeist. Why did a smart woman like me think this? Well, every five minutes, the National Organization for Women or EMILY's List or some such issues a press release, like the one above predicting a liberal, gender driven victory for John Kerry or the one after the 2004 disaster, "Women Voters Maintain Gender Gap in 2004 Elections." NOW never issues press releases explaining how all the good news so often turns into bad news on Election Day.

But Schmitt forcing me to look hard at the actual, rather than the relative, Annenberg data has refined my thinking. The real problem may not be that women see themselves as liberal but vote irrationally. Instead, it looks like women are objectively liberal on most underlying discrete issues, but don't put their positions together to identify their positions as making a liberal stance. They are metaphysically irrational, rather than politically irrational.

As of 2004, according to Annenberg, 69 percent of women thought the government should restrict gun use, 50 percent strongly opposed banning abortions, only 45 percent favored private school funding, 51 percent opposed the anti-gay amendment, and 61 percent thought the country was on the wrong track. In the same survey, the women classified themselves as only 26 percent liberal to 36 percent conservative. Similarly, women expressed a wild disconnect on their opinion of the presidency. Only 37 percent of women thought the Iraq War was worth it and a mere 43 percent approved of the way Bush was handling the economy. But 51 percent of them told pollsters they approved of how he was doing his job as president!

Men, on the other hand, come a lot closer to understanding that their positions on particular issues, bundled together, make a conservative political picture. Men were only 51 percent for additional gun control, but 54 percent for private school funding, 49 percent (more than half the respondents) for the anti gay amendment, 43 percent right track, and 38 percent conservative to 22 percent liberal. (Only on abortion did men tip robustly liberal.) Similarly men approved of Bush as a whole only slightly more than they approved of his domestic and international policies: 46 percent men good with the economy, 46% war worth it, 48 percent Bush doing a good job.

In the end, this should not have surprised me. Women often say they believe in abortion rights and equal employment opportunity, but they are not, ick, feminists. Just as conservatives made feminist a dirty word, they made liberal a dirty word. As I said in the Post, women are very sensitive to descriptions that have become unfashionable. So women make a category mistake--not recognizing that their liberal commitments together make a package called liberal. Then, when it comes time to make the simple binary choice at the voting moment, they have no easy touchstone to know what to do.

What to do to win an election when your largest base is metaphysically irrational? I have already discussed Hillary Clinton's gender strategy. There is a range of other possibilities. A candidate can try to free himself from the gender gap and appeal to the self-consciously conservative men ("forget the ladies"). Men have not voted more than 50 percent Democratic since 1992, including in the last election, but if they move closer to the line, women vote more liberally, so it pays to concentrate on bringing men up to 50/50, counting on women to follow suit. This was probably Bill Clinton's strategy, if he thought about it. A candidate can try to rehabilitate the category "liberal," make it respectable and hope that women make the metaphysical leap to understanding that the whole should at least be the sum of the parts. To some extent that is what Al Gore did and seems to be where John Edwards is going. Or he or she can try to make an end run around the category to bundle a series of policy proposals aimed at women's underlying liberal commitments without uttering the "L" word. Barack Obama's purple state trope may be in this category; it's probably too soon to tell.

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