As state conventions devolve into yelling and political rallies make the news for unsavory reasons, there can be no doubt that the 2016 election season is particularly contentious. But what feeds into these heightened emotions? Jackson Katz’s Man Enough examines one classic (presumed) cornerstone of the American presidency—and how assumptions around leadership and masculinity factor into intense political campaigning.
While bringing up gender in relation to leadership is bound to provoke fiery responses, Katz’s book examines the topic in a methodical, reflective, and convincing way, parsing campaigns past and partisan talk between them to show how playing up the notion of masculinity became an entrenched means of forging ahead in politics. Regardless of one’s candidate of choice, these insights are invaluable when approaching not just the topic of American politics, but of how individuals ultimately choose to vote.
This election season, what have been the most striking examples of the gendered nature of pursuing the presidency?
One of the most significant developments in this election year is that Donald Trump’s candidacy has made gender visible in a way that previous male candidates never did. When I first set out to write Man Enough?, I assumed that Hillary Clinton’s second run for the White House would catalyze a national conversation about gender and power. But like so many others, I had no idea that Trump would be taken seriously by so many voters, and that his retro performance of dominant white masculinity would become the major story of the season. From his serial misogynous comments to his gauche braggadocio about the size of his penis, he provides endless fodder for insight and commentary about the state of gender politics.
For example, Donald Trump’s widely discussed comment that if Hillary Clinton were not a woman she would get less than 5 percent of the vote was unintentionally self-revealing, because if Donald Trump were a woman he’d probably get less than 5% of the vote. That’s because in his march toward the Republican presidential nomination, he draws the majority of his support precisely because he is a man – a certain kind of man. His entire candidacy is based on the idea that the problems we face – specifically the struggles of downwardly mobile white men—can be solved by electing an unabashedly belligerent white man who is not afraid to offend anyone and won’t back down from a fight.
You argue convincingly that the DNC has failed to appreciate how masculinity plays in to the presidency in recent decades. Other than electing a woman, what would be the best first step toward addressing that blind spot?
I believe the necessary changes are more than merely cosmetic or performative—although those things matter. The president occupies an incredibly important symbolic role in our culture. (He) doesn’t just run the country; (he) represents it. (He) literally embodies the nation. And for a country that sees itself in very masculine terms, this puts even greater emphasis on the need for presidents to be able to act the part.
Acting well is a crucial part of the job description of the American president, especially in the media era. How do candidates for president navigate this terrain? Not everyone comes out of central casting, and obviously the role was not originally written for women. What to do?
In brief, the performance of presidential “masculinity” is not confined to perceptions about physical appearance. It also has to do with displaying leadership skills, and not just in the stereotypical sense of talking tough or being willing to order aggressive military action. It also means taking positions that are sometimes unpopular and sticking to your principles in the face of vociferous opposition. For example, technocratic management style and cautious corporate centrism do not motivate passionate support. Look at what the Bernie Sanders campaign has demonstrated: he is not remotely “presidential” in traditional terms, but he attracted the support of millions of white men (and women) with his bold, blunt talk about breaking up the banks and making the rich “pay their fair share.” It wasn’t his size and stature many voters found attractive. It was his street-fighter attitude.
Tell us about the experience of working with Interlink to bring this project to light.
Interlink’s publisher, Michel Moushabeck, was interested and supportive of Man Enough? from the moment we first communicated. He saw the value and potential of the topic right away—and obviously the timing couldn’t have been better. Interlink does an exceptional job of producing a well-edited, good-looking book, and offering it at a price-point that makes it accessible for people—political junkies, students, and assorted book lovers, who don’t have the resources of a library.
When did you first realize that the political sphere had these particular hang-ups, and why is addressing them important to you?
I think that along with race, gender is and always has been one of the great subtextual forces in U.S. politics, especially at the presidential level. I’ve understood this both viscerally and intellectually since I was a college student in the Reagan era, watching his administration masterfully push political discourse and priorities to the right through a combination of ideological zeal and carefully managed stagecraft.
My book has its roots in a slide lecture I produced and presented on a number of college campuses and communities back in 1992 that looked at these themes at the time. It was entitled “Fighter Pilots and Draft Dodgers: presidential masculinity from 1972-1992.” Among other points, I argued that one of the keys to Bill Clinton’s political success was that he remasculinized the Democratic Party after the Reagan-Bush I era by moving the party to the right, especially on issues of law and order like the death penalty.
As we have seen, this has hurt Hillary Clinton in her primary fight with Bernie Sanders, as the 1994 crime bill promoted by Bill is now seen as a major factor in accelerating mass incarceration. But at the time, Bill was trying to bring back white working and middle-class voters who had left the party, in part due to concerns about its “softness” in the face of violent crime.
Of course this entire debate has a racial foreground and subtext. In Man Enough? I argue for a more gendered understanding of race, and a more racialized understanding of gender.
What projects can we anticipate from you next?
I’m working on a book about the socialization of boys in a culture of violence. It’s a big topic, but closely connected to my long-standing work as a violence prevention/social justice educator and activist.
Looking back on history: can you name a non-hyper masculine person who you think might have made a great president, and say why?
Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, the liberal Democratic nominee for president in 1972. He was a fighter pilot in World War II who became an outspoken critic of the US war in Vietnam, was attacked by the right as a weak leader who would destroy America, and [was] subsequently dismissed by the political mainstream as a countercultural dreamer.
He lost a 49-state landslide to Richard Nixon. He was a smart, strong and principled man from a traditional family background in the Midwest, who, if he had been able to win, might have succeeded in fending off the growing conservative backlash to the progressive social movements of the 1960s by keeping more working-class white men in the Democratic coalition. Then again, now I sound like the countercultural dreamer!
Michelle Anne Schingler