The Big Picture: Women Voters, Left and Right

This is the 19th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. RSVP for The Big Picture event at NYU on November 7, 2017.
Trump won the presidency despite being recorded saying “grab ‘em by the pussy,” and despite numerous accusations that he had sexually abused women over a period of decades. There is misogyny at the ...

Trump won the presidency despite being recorded saying “grab ‘em by the pussy,” and despite numerous accusations that he had sexually abused women over a period of decades. There is misogyny at the core of Trump’s persona. So it isn’t surprising that, in office, he has championed policies that would harm millions of women in the US and abroad.

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently produced a list of the worst effects of the proposed “replacements” for Obamacare, and they would disadvantage women particularly. The Center for American Progress lists one hundred ways the Trump administration is harming women and families. There are negative impacts in health, violence against women, immigrant family security, education, medical and scientific research, drug and food safety, employment, wages, and many more areas. The most familiar are the attempts to cut Medicaid and birth control coverage, to strip gays and transgender people of protection, to allow medical insurance providers to make maternity coverage optional, and to reinstate the “Gag Rule” that prohibits aid to any foreign organization that considers abortion as a realistic option for female clients. Meanwhile opponents of abortion rights in the US cheer the vice president, whose anti-abortion rights positions are second to none in his opposition to reproductive justice.

Just as important are policies that appear gender neutral but disproportionately hurt women. A few choice examples: threatening to rescind an Obama-era requirement that retirement advisers must put clients’ interests first (women live longer and earn less so they need this help more). Cutting $200 billion from the supplemental nutrition program for children (whose caretakers are overwhelmingly women). Allowing government contracts to companies that use forced arbitration of worker complaints (disproportionally affecting low-wage workers). Cuts to Meals on Wheels (women outnumber men among the frail elderly).

But lists alone do not get at the heart of what’s happening. Surrounding the incoherence of the administration there is a larger coherence, and what makes it cohere is a sensibility in which antifeminism and even misogyny are inextricable from other hostilities.

Just as racism and anti-Semitism nourish each other, as Eric K. Ward in his “Skin in the Game: How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism,” so do racism and antifeminism. Also militarism and anti-feminism, homophobia and antifeminism: there are many pairs like these. Value systems that support imperialism, religious bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and individualism—which often boils down to claims that the profit motive is the best, perhaps only, force for progress—all these are all mutually nourishing, even mutually constitutive, and all play a role in anti-feminism, even misogyny.

There is a particularly female, private version of the absence of hope: the conclusion that we women just have to put up with men’s disrespect.

I would use Raymond Williams’s notion of a “structure of feeling” to characterize these kinships.1 His concept is particularly apropos at this moment, because it directs our attention to attitudes and emotions as political forces themselves, part of an infrastructure that supports political ideologies. These are constructed not only cognitively, but also through what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called “feeling rules.”2 The common-sense understanding of emotions imagines them as individual attributes—as if they had some sort of ur authenticity—when in fact feelings can be taught just as ideas are—as when schoolchildren learn to feel national pride through reciting the pledge of allegiance, or anti-abortion discourse “teaches” women to feel guilty after abortions.

I’m not going to try to identify the root or coherence of these structures of feeling. But I do want to make clear that I am pointing not only to Trump’s angry core constituency, the people who find satisfaction in Trump’s aggressive “fuck you” directed at what they consider the political elite. I am thinking also of his establishment voters and enablers. This in turn requires questioning the journalistic drumbeat that blames his election on a white male working class suffering from deindustrialization. That analysis is not only partial but also seriously misleading, as Nate Silver and numerous others have shown. During the primaries, for example, Trump support came disproportionately from high-income Americans. Although a majority of white working-class men apparently supported Trump in the general election, only 35 percent of Trump supporters had earned less than $50,000, while 53 percent of that income group supported Clinton. Even the much-touted non-college-educated voters were relatively prosperous.3 An economic explanation—a class analysis—of Trump’s victory works less well for his angry, cheering, bullying, and impoverished enthusiasts than for his prosperous supporters, who put up with his braggadocio because they are counting on him to deliver neoliberal policies, namely deregulation and tax cuts.

Trumpism may arise from bitterness and envy, even despair, but the demagoguery directs that anger downward, at the least powerful. If we want to consider Trumpism a form of populism—a label I consider misleading and unuseful, but that is another story 4—what makes it rightwing populism is that its fury never aims upward at those with political and economic power. Racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, sexism, misogyny—these structures of feeling have been learned.

But what about female Trump supporters? Many observers who were, like me, inexcusably naïve, expected Trump’s crude and abusive behavior to turn away white women—women of color were already hostile to Trump—but it did not. If white women had rejected his sexism as much as people of color rejected his racism, he would of course not be president. For many the motivation for a Trump vote was hostility to Clinton, and women were among these who hated her. Some of that hostility came from sexism, from which women are not immune. But Clinton also represented Wall Street. (My favorite voting instruction, from early in the campaign, was that in a choice between Goldman Sachs and fascism, you have to choose Goldman Sachs.) Better voter data would help us understand which women supported Trump; we don’t have class or income data among them, although the fact that so many were college graduates suggests that many were quite prosperous. And we don’t yet have the benefit of interviews asking, respectfully, why female Trump supporters were undeterred by his abuse of women.

On the basis of what information we have now, it seems likely that most female Trump supporters do not identify with feminism. In considering this, bear in mind that feminism has not always been marginal or far left. For example, in 1974 the majority polled by Roper said that they approved of feminism; in 1989, 78 percent of women polled by CNN/Time did so, and a third called themselves feminists.5 Today, 6 in 10 women and one-third of men self-identify as feminist.6 What we are confronting is a large minority’s rage against feminism, revved up by media that have labeled feminists as “feminazis.” The anti-feminist rage is, in turn, a facet of the multivalent anger fueled by the demagoguery and falsehoods of right-wing talk shows and social media.

For this many share the blame. The media from which right-wingers get their information; the ministers and priests who make opposition to abortion and gay marriage their top priority; the schools that don’t teach the history of feminism; the Democratic Party leaders who derided welfare and taxes and allied with Wall Street; the journalists—including liberal ones—who misrepresented feminism by focusing disproportionately on issues such as rape, abortion, and sexual harassment, while neglecting feminist campaigns for equal pay, jobs and promotions, family leave, prenatal care, athletic opportunities, and much more.

Some of the blame attaches to we feminists ourselves. The 1960s and 1970s feminist revival grew first from labor unions and the Old Left, then from civil rights and the New Left. Feminists continued the commitment to collective action they imbibed from these roots. Feminism was then—as it was historically—a political ideology and strategy. More recently its most visible streams are redefining it as an assertion of individual ambition and lifestyle choice. (The development of “choice” as the slogan for abortion rights prefigured that transformation.) In the current vernacular, “feminism” is often merely a label for individual determination and assertiveness, expressed through working harder or working out or eating healthily. Some, like philosopher Nancy Fraser, call it neoliberal feminism, thereby embedding the transformation in global developments. Journalist Andi Zeisler refers to the marketization and celebrity-ization of feminism; although she acknowledges that something is gained when, say, Beyoncé declares herself a feminist.7 But when feminism is identified primarily with cool celebrities and corporate ambition, it is small wonder that many women don’t see it as useful to them.

What makes this incoherent administration cohere is a sensibility in which antifeminism and even misogyny are inextricable from other hostilities.

Let me add a corollary hypothesis: that the less wealthy female Trump supporters are pessimistic. Despite the ideology that anyone can “make it,” or that luck might happen, many in Trump’s base aren’t hopeful. Their neighbors are often strung out on meth or opioids, beset by obesity and other disabilities. There is a particularly female, private version of the absence of hope: the conclusion that we women just have to put up with men’s disrespect. When I wrote about domestic violence I saw how often abused women were told by other women, “that’s the way men are.” It’s not that female Trump supporters like seeing women humiliated, but they may lack confidence that men can learn to behave better; some may even interpret abusive behavior as a sign of strength and confidence. By contrast, feminism, far from man-hating, rests on confidence that men can change. And they have evidence: for example, when Trump’s predatory braggadocio was excused as “only locker room talk,” none of the men I knew reported ever hearing such talk in locker rooms. Feminist optimism was particularly strong in the New Left generation because we saw men and women change, and become happier in the process.

None of this lets the Democratic Party off the hook. Obama, whose intelligence and careful speaking were balm for liberal intellectuals, bailed out Wall Street at the expense of cutbacks in collective social provision, and deported millions. These policies function as cause as well as effect: they feed the myth that people of color and immigrants are getting ahead because of handouts. A single-payer federal health insurance plan, which was ruled out at the beginning of drafting Obamacare, might have counteracted some of this: precisely because it would have been universal, it could have alleviated the impression that the middle class was subsidizing the poor. Lily Geismer’s Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party shows in part how the Party began to represent millionaire donors and prosperous suburbanites, “affluent knowledge professionals,” rather than working-class or low-income people.8 All these factors helped move feminism away from its social movement roots.

Amidst the collateral damage of Trumpism is the resuscitation of an old intra-Left strategic division that feminism tried to bury: between “identity politics” and an allegedly universal economic appeal. Some left-of-center magazines and social media are denouncing Clinton and the Democratic Party for focusing on racism, sexism, and xenophobia. They call this “identity politics,” which is code for black, Latino/a, women’s, and LGBTQ movements. (As if billionaires and white nationalists don’t have their own “identity politics.”) They argue for a strategy that focuses on economic policies, remaining silent regarding racism and sexism in the hope that doing so will win over the “white working class.”

Much is wrong with that strategy. It rests on the assumption that the white working class was primarily responsible for Trump’s victory. It rests equally on the assumption that a successful progressive economic appeal to that group would tamp down the racist and sexist furies that drove the 2016 election. (For some, that assumption derives from a simplistic “Marxist” idea that racism and sexism are mere epiphenomena of class exploitation.) Runaway shops (aka globalization), deindustrialization, and automation have made “working class” more and more an abstraction, no longer a shared position among lower-income people.  Then there’s the most important defense of so-called identity politics: that racism and sexism will ultimately undermine any struggle against inequality. We don’t have the luxury to choose between “identity” and economic issues; they are inextricably entangled. Worse, the call to scrap “identity politics” only feeds the racism and sexism being revved up by Trumpism.

Perhaps worst, the either/or binary ignores one of the most important lessons of social movements: that progressive strategies need to ally with people in motion, such as Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, Fight for $15, and campus campaigns against rape, as well as those campaigning to get rid of statues and building mottos honoring defenders of slavery.

In this regard it bears noting that the “identity politics” concept derives from this strategic understanding. First used by the Combahee River collective, an African American socialist feminist group, in a 1977 manifesto, it expressed the premise that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” One might add, the most effective politics. icon

  1. Raymond Williams, a great British social and cultural critic, first used this phrase in A Preface to Film (1954), then elaborated it in his later books The Long Revolution and Marxism and Literature. He uses “structure of feeling” as a concept that argues for the material reality of culture, but employs the term “feeling” in order to “emphasize a distinction from more formal concepts of ‘world view’ or ‘ideology.’ … We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a ‘structure’: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.” Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 132. This concept is related to another Williams theorization: cultural materialism.
  2. Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California, 1983).
  3. For example, a March 2016 NBC survey that we analyzed showed that only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000. Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more; and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites. The report’s authors confirmed these findings again just days after the election. See also Skye Gould and Rebecca Harrington, “7 charts show who propelled Trump to victory,” Business Insider, November 10, 2016.
  4. See my “What Do We Mean by Populism?” in American Historical Association, Perspectives (September 2017).
  5. Karlyn H. Keene, “Feminism vs. Women’s Rights,” quoting from a variety of polls, in The Public Perspective (November–December 1991).
  6. Weiyi Cai and Scott Clement, “What Americans Think about Feminism Today,” Washington Post Jan. 27, 2016, data from a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll.
  7. Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (Verso Books, 2013); Andi Zeisler, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (Public Affairs, 2016).
  8. Princeton University Press (2015). Bias-check disclosure: the book appeared in a series that I co-edit.
Featured image: Women's March on Washington, January 21, 2017. Photograph by Ted Eytan / Flickr