The political divide corresponds increasingly to a gender divide

Did you know that Mitt Romney won the 2012 presidential election? Among men he did, by an eight-point margin. Among women, of course, he lost to Obama by an even greater margin, 12 points. The net 20-point gender gap was the largest Gallup ever recorded in a presidential election.

Republicans these days are much concerned with narrowing this gap, just as Democrats—with their “GOP war on women” slogan—are trying to widen it. But it’s a struggle that isn’t unique to America. Canadian politics features a similar gender gap, and the UK’s David Cameron, one finger to the wind, has just conspicuously replaced several of his male cabinet members with women.

Perhaps it is possible for conservatives to close the gender gap somewhat, or at least reduce its rate of widening. Candidates that don’t make misogynistic gaffes probably would help. Giving women prominent roles in government might help some too—not that it hasn’t been tried before (e.g., Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Condoleeza Rice). But there are reasons to suspect that conservative parties, to the extent that they really are conservative, will never in the long run do better than liberal parties at winning support from women.

What women want

Gender-based differences in human psychology and behavior have long been obvious, and not just in the realm of sexuality. Women traditionally have been much less violent than men, for example, and prison populations have been overwhelmingly male.

Perhaps most relevant to modern politics, though, is a feminine trait that Aristotle noted more than two thousand years ago: women, he wrote, seem generally “more compassionate” and “more easily moved to tears” than men. In other words, women are more empathetic—a trait presumably adaptive for mothering. “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy,” the Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has concluded.

Similarly, social scientists have found that women on average prefer more compassionate state policies concerning welfare, immigration, civil rights and law enforcement, and are less willing to support wars. These are the true “women’s issues,” unlike abortion which often shows little or no gender gap in polling. Unsurprisingly, given these policy preferences, women also are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats.

Men and women have had distinct roles in the family and society from the dawn of humankind, and that distinction began to blur only a few generations ago. Male and female brains also are structured differently—they even have significantly different volumes on average—and experience different patterns of hormonal stimulation during development and adulthood. It’s thus a pretty safe bet that human genes tend to enforce gender differences across many domains of brain function.

Yet feminists, fearing that such differences will be used against women, have largely decided to deny that they exist. Sadly, in a scientific culture where grants are hard to come by, and may easily be denied because someone on your grant proposal review committee considers you “sexist,” such antiscientific political correctness increasingly prevails. Thus the more prominent academic explanations for the gender gap in policy preferences and party affiliation have pointedly avoided citing innate differences. Instead they have referenced, for example, “structural and situational factors that differentiate the life experiences of women and men”—e.g., women are more likely to rely on welfare—with some concession to “socio-psychological differences that reflect gender role socialization in childhood.” [my italics.] Never mind that America and other Western societies have deliberately sought to reduce gender differences in socialization and life experience in recent decades—schools and parents are told to treat boys and girls more equally, for example—as the political gender gap has widened. (See graph below; and remember that the depicted trend intensifies with a big spike upward in 2012).

Why hasn’t the political gender gap always been evident and more or less steady, if it is based on genetically determined psychological differences between men and women?

Some of the explanation has to do with the particulars of American politics. The current gender gap in presidential elections—which wasn’t really tracked at all before the 1950s—emerged only in 1964 when the Democrats began to move sharply away from Republicans on civil rights, welfare and immigration issues. Women clearly liked those compassionate policy shifts more than men did. And clearly there have also been election-specific differences in candidates and their personalities and platforms.

Another likely reason why this gap emerged only recently is that women until recently felt less empowered to express their distinct preferences. In the 1950s they could vote, of course, but on the whole were much more dependent (than they are in 2014) on husbands for their financial needs. Not enough research has been done in this area, but there seems to be consensus now that women in traditional stay-at-home situations rely more on men for their voting choices as well.

Since the 1950s, of course, women have moved en masse into public life. Their labor force participation rate has nearly doubled—whereas men’s has dropped substantially. They are also now much more likely to stay single. Small wonder that they have become independent of men in their voting choices.


The broader influence of gender

The gender gap in voting preferences and party affiliation is a genuine problem for modern conservatives, and an insoluble one to the extent that conservative policies conflict with female psychology. But the ascendancy of that psychology has had an impact that goes far beyond party politics.

In the US the main liberal party has aligned itself more and more with the sentiments of women, and, thus empowered, has grown more boldly compassionate and “progressive.” Just how far it has shifted has been partly obscured by the fact that conservatives also have moved with the times—they now frequently embrace a mix of economic libertarianism and social liberalism (sometimes called “compassionate conservatism”). There is still a striking gender gap, and it is getting wider as conservatives run out of ideological leeway, but it is tiny in comparison to the cultural gulf between America in 2014 and America in, say, 1960. Even a typical Democrat in 1960 would have found the notion of same-sex marriage and parenting—to take one policy example—not just wrong but dystopian.

Yet the present flourishing of social progressivism clearly has stemmed from the more empathetic, compassionate policy trends that began around 1960—trends that have intensified as women have acquired unprecedented cultural and political influence: as lawyers and scientists, reporters and editors, mayors and senators, etc. Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but are we to believe that those two factors (women’s rising cultural influence, and the increasing use of compassion to guide policy) are merely coincidental?

Moreover, the move towards empathetic compassion in policymaking has had effects beyond welfare, immigration, and core civil rights policies. For example, doctors, employers, the courts and the welfare system are now much more sensitive to people who have undergone psychological trauma, mental illness or addiction. The military has been transformed by the fact that women and overtly gay men are no longer barred from serving in combat units—units that are now increasingly used for “humanitarian” missions instead of actual combat.

American foreign policy now frequently emphasizes not the building of realpolitik alliances but the broadcasting of progressive ideals, even in conservative societies—such as women’s rights in the Middle East, and LGBT rights in sub-Saharan Africa. American educational culture now appears to favor girls, who have made up an increasing majority of college graduates in the US since the mid 1980s. American workplace culture also appears to favor women, who now find jobs more easily than men do.

Many of these shifts have been problematic—e.g., the surge of women into the military has been greeted by an epidemic of male-on-female sexual assault—but my point here is: these shifts have happened, and it’s hard to imagine that they could have happened in a male-dominated culture or even in the somewhat less feminized American culture of a few decades ago.

Incidentally, empathetic compassion may not be the only “female” trait that has been driving social change. Women, compared to men, appear to have a greater affinity for environmentalism and ”natural” medicines, two other major cultural themes of recent decades. What if anything in women’s innate (or even socialized) psychology would bias them towards feeling that way? Could it have something to do with the germ- and toxin-avoidance behaviors (food aversions and nesting instincts) seen in pregnancy?

I’m only speculating, and of course none of this is meant to suggest that men don’t have their own psychological biases (e.g., towards violence). Yet even as male-female differences in brain wiring and the response to brain-acting drugs have become impossible for scientists to ignore, a chill has descended on research in gender differences in psychology. Already it is widely considered a no-go area (see this account by an academic scientist), and feminists are hinting that it should formally be forbidden. Thus for the foreseeable future it will be hard for anyone to do definitive research in this area—and thus academics and journalists will continue to have an excuse for ignoring or underestimating this “elephant in the room” of American politics and culture, namely the new influence of women and their mindset.

Aside from having an excuse, everyone seems to have a strong motive for ignoring that influence. Conservatives’ motive is that they fear alienating women even more than they have already. Liberals don’t want to talk about women’s influence because they would thereby reveal, and in so doing deconstruct and depreciate, an essential source of their power.


Postscript: The WSJ (6 August 2014) discovers the huge male/female difference in political attitudes, but fails to grasp the underlying reason. (How could it, when one of the article’s writers is a woman?)