By Jackson Katz (Interlink Books 2016, 313 Pages, 273 of Text)
Almost any book analyzing US elections focuses on how interest groups, contemporary events, policy platforms, and a candidate’s personal qualities impact the outcome. Jackson Katz, on the other hand, argues that one component—gender, specifically “(white) manhood”—is almost never discussed, but is more important than all of these over the last 40 years. The current election campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump serves as a lead-in, but Katz’s analysis is primarily based in what has gone before, back to the 1972 election.
In doing a 44-year look at Presidential politics and how candidates (primarily Republican) utilize symbols of “(white) masculinity” in order to build political support, Katz creates a compelling way to look at these events. Rather than focusing on particular policies, conservatives have tended towards creating an aura of the “traditional” tough guy: able to demonstrate controlled violence, willing to “stand up for America,” almost exclusively white, and in control of his personal space, among other characteristics. Katz argues convincingly that this has been one long reaction to the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s. Certain qualities are defined as feminine, and therefore undesirable, in men, whereas men are almost required to demonstrate that they understand the “proper” order of things, i.e. that they should have control over women.
Katz illustrates his argument with the case-study of the general Democratic unwillingness to play along with this mode of campaigning coinciding with their general defeat in presidential politics. Republicans have understood this craving for a “strong (white) man in charge” since the Feminist movement, and have exploited it masterfully. Actively cultivating “manly” qualities in candidates and photo-ops, Republican politicians and conservative media have effectively cornered the market on defining what a strong masculinity looks like. The media role in this phenomenon is also pursued extensively in this book. From the appropriation of the cowboy to right-wing talk radio, the “feminization” of the Democratic Party and the marketing of the Republican Party as the Party of Men has had many knowing accomplices.
Why is this relevant?
This book gives people interested in US domestic politics another useful and interesting analytical lens. I finished this book right before the 2016 Vice Presidential Debate, and was stunned by how completely Mike Pence stuck to the traditional script outlined by Katz. Rather than using the ideas in this book to understand a hyper-masculine Donald Trump, using Katz’s framework to look at more mundane politicians might provide insights I think have been missing from the political conversation for years. However, I do disagree with Katz that this is a relatively recent phenomena: the political tarring and feathering of professional females and “feminine” men in the U.S. can be traced at least to the Second Red Scare.
Who should be reading this?
The obvious people who should pick this up are those interested in gender studies and presidential politics. While there is a lot to commend this book for, it unfortunately isn’t likely to change many minds that aren’t at least open to the ideas Katz talks about. There are a lot of political non-sequiturs that I feel give people who disagree with his thesis an easy way to ignore the more valid points he makes. If you do read it with an open mind, however, you’ll find a novel way to analyze US politics.