Over at Slate, Amanda Hess takes issue with my analysis of the “gender gap” in American politics. She accuses me, in effect, of a male arrogance for imagining I know better than women what they really think and want.
It’s 2014, not 1974, and “How dare you speak for women!” is a tired trope. And in any event, it wasn’t my ambition to speak for anybody other than myself. My goal was to reflect on why single women find the GOP message so off-putting, and what that means for social conservatives like me.
This requires making some observations and assumptions.
Observation: The gender gap is real, but there’s also a marriage gap. What this means is that married women vote very differently than do single women. A married woman is not more or less likely to vote Republican than a man. For example, in 2012, 52 percent of male voters went for Romney; 53 percent of married women voted for him. Single women? Only 31 percent of them voted for Romney.
This marriage gap begs for an explanation, which I try to provide.
In that explanation I make an assumption: The overwhelming majority of women want to get married. This isn’t controversial and it doesn’t involve me telling women what they “really” want. A 2013 Gallup poll shows that only 9 percent of single 18- to 34-year-olds don’t want to get married; only 3 percent of 35- to 54-year-olds. Moreover, those with college degrees desire marriage more fervently than those without college degrees.
In short, my imagined 35-year-old single McKinsey consultant tracks social reality very closely.
I then make a second assumption: It’s not easy for single professional women to find mates. Here I can’t cite survey data. Instead, I point to the huge number of articles in recent years in places like The Atlantic and elsewhere written by women anguishing over the problem of finding men to marry. Or consider the great uproar over Susan Patton’s open letter to female Princeton undergraduates warning them that they’d be wise to land a good man while in college, because our culture has otherwise made such a hash of the mating game.
Add these two assumptions together and you get unhappiness. And not just unhappiness, but a sense of vulnerability. My imagined McKinsey consultant has done everything right. She’s knocked the ball out of the park in school. She’s disciplined herself to succeed in her job. She’s saved for retirement. She’s exercised and avoided fatty foods. But in a very important and fundamental way her life isn’t working out.
Here, my explanation of the profound difference between single and married female voters involves a final assumption: The Democratic Party is the party that promises to expand government to take care of people whose lives aren’t working out. This doesn’t mean Republicans are cold-hearted. It’s just that, for many different reasons, Republicans don’t think government can or should take care of all our needs.
Put those assumptions together, and I have an explanation for why single women vote so heavily for Democratic candidates: Their inability to achieve a core life-goal (marriage) makes them feel vulnerable, and so they vote for the party that promises to use government to protect the vulnerable.
We are told the big issue women are concerned about is unequal pay. Count me among the skeptics about that claim, both a skeptic about whether such inequalities reflect real inequities and a skeptic about whether the vast majority of women anguish over this issue. Instead, I think the big issue for women (and much less so for men) is their lack of confidence in their ability to fulfill their life-goals, which is why marriage, family, and the extremely fraught issues of sexuality loom so large in our cultural politics.
I’m a social conservative who thinks there are moral truths we need to promote simply because they’re true. But I also think those truths humanize and fulfill us. For example, a pro-marriage culture that affirms the male-female difference is true—and true to the way we are.
The problem I address is that promoting such a culture makes single women feel more vulnerable. Not only are they frustrated that they’re not married, but they’re also feeling judged and marginalized as “failures” by people like me who are saying that marriage should be the norm. This is politically counter-productive—and not my goal as a person who, though I don’t want government to care and provide for us, does want a culture of care and provision.
What I find so frustrating about our liberal establishment is that people like Amanda Hess don’t face up to their problem. They support a cultural politics that deconstructs traditional modes of authority for the sake of individual freedom. Good, to a degree. But she and others ignore the fact that this cultural politics creates the conditions that make single women feel vulnerable.
America’s progressives are like free-market ideologues when it comes to culture, saying that they’re not standing in the way of anybody’s choices. “Hey, anybody can start a company if she wants,” says the free marketeer to those who speak of glass ceilings. “Hey, anybody can get married if she wants,” says the progressive to people like me who speak of the ways in which our deconstruction of marriage has disoriented people.
I find this a painfully simplistic way of thinking about our responsibilities to each other.