Libertarian populism’s female problem
But the problem with libertarian populism, as it exists so far, isn’t so much the policy prescriptions. The problem is that the story is a boy’s story.
Like most populist movements, libertarian populism is consumed with an elite, entrenched ruling class that has centralized power and is using that control to hold on to their status. For libertarian populists, that privileged class is made of all the big interests – large corporations, big government and big labor – who use their resources to lobby, influence regulation and craft legislation that keeps their pockets lined while harming everyone else, from the middle class on down.
The solution, argues libertarian populist Ben Domenech, is “to tear down efforts of big government and big business, root and branch.”
It’s undeniably true that consolidated wealth and power have been gathering force in the United States. Economic mobility is falling, while the share of national income controlled by the 1 percent continues to rise.
But even taking these facts at face value, any tale that looks to rally the pitchfork brigade against the various groups at the top is, by its very nature, going to be abrasive and confrontational. It creates a simple narrative of “man versus the system,” the hero fighting against the abuses of a corrupt regime. The Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney, one of the first to lay out the case for libertarian populism after the 2012 election, framed the idea as such:
The new Republican populism should declare war on the cronies and special interests who use big government to rig the game in their favor and deny opportunity to those trying to climb the ladder and live the American dream.
Now, it isn’t that women aren’t cognizant of the very real ways that institutions can be rigged against them. After all, we’re not so far from entrenched institutional paternalism that kept (and in some ways, still keeps) women’s voices from being heard. It’s just that framing the problem this way isn’t likely to connect with women. There’s a reason, after all, that “Rocky” and “Rudy” don’t typically rank very high on most women’s lists of favorite movies. It’s just not a story that intrinsically resonates.
Of course, there is no generic “female” personality that is completely distinct from the “male” personality. But it’s relatively uncontroversial to assert, based on a wealth of surveys and psychological profiles, that men and women tend to respond differently to different kinds of narratives. Whether that’s more the result of nature or nurture is a separate debate, and one that’s ultimately not terribly relevant to the matter at hand. If libertarian populism isn’t pitched in a way that appeals to women, then it’s unlikely to prove terribly helpful to Republicans, who desperately need to make inroads with the single largest demographic bloc that has turned its back on the party.
Commencing with the broad generalizations: women are more likely than men to see shades of gray. While they may agree that it is far to hard for those in the bottom 95 percent economically to rise to the top, they’ll tend to reject overly simplistic conspiracy theories in favor of recognizing that the causes are likely to be complicated.
For example, while teachers’ unions do frequently stand in the way of educational reform, the factors that contribute to failing schools are numerous and intricate. Women who interact with school bureaucracy may find it difficult and frustrating, and certainly some teachers do embody the worst of that bureaucracy. But moms simply aren’t going to buy into narratives that demonize teachers when they can see firsthand that many are good-intentioned public servants struggling to succeed in a complex environment, while saddled by paperwork and often out-of-touch standards.
The same complexity applies to many other issues where libertarian populist rhetoric pushes an “us versus them” storyline. As the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat notes:
Principle matters, but context matters too, and conservatives simply cannot make economic policy successfully (or credibly cast themselves as a populist party on these issues) if they ignore the actual performance of the American economy over the last generation, and if they refuse to see that distributional issues as well as arguments from efficiency and liberty have to play a role in the way that we reform our tax code and our welfare state.
Other research has found women are more trusting than men and consistently score higher in sensitivity than men do. Libertarian populism rests on the idea that mistrust of the system will lead people to tear it down, rather than fix it. At the moment, Americans’ level of confidence in government and other institutions is relatively low, but these things are cyclical and have been in flux for decades, if not centuries. Back in 1997, Charles Murray noted in the Wall Street Journal that 74% of Americans believed government was run for the benefit of a few big interests.
Mistrust of those currently in power shouldn’t be conflated with long-term mistrust of the system in general and in our ability to change it for the better. This is particularly important to bear in mind when crafting solutions that will appeal to women, who tend to be slightly more anxious and, on average, more risk averse than men. Take, for example, this passage from a piece Domenech wrote recently for Real Clear Politics:
Where the traditional trends of Thomas Dewey tend Republicanism toward fixing the institutions of government and society, this new strand had more in common with Charles Murray, whose ‘What It Means to Be a Libertarian’ makes the case not for fixing the departments of Commerce, Agriculture, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development, but for eliminating them and replacing them with, and I quote, ‘Nothing.’
Women may have voted for the “hope and change” offered by candidate Obama, but his message came with a clear understanding of who would act to bring about that change: government. The libertarian populist rhetoric, on the other hand, advocates a complete winding down of something that is known (though admittedly failing) in favor of returning power to state and community structures that, in some communities, just don’t exist anymore. A natural impulse of women is to worry and wonder about what happens next, particularly for their own families but also for the poor, in whatever in-between stage of indeterminate length the populists have in mind.
It is true that high levels of anxiety could help libertarian populists attract some interest in their cause. The myriad factors stacked against even a firmly planted middle class family are overwhelming. Between the rising costs of college tuition, health care and energy prices, the future for those without access to upper-class resources looks bleak.
But it isn’t clear that this gives an edge to libertarian populists over other reform movements – on the left or right — or an edge over those who focus more on making changes to existing systems rather than ending entire government departments. As Josh Barro correctly notes, none of the common middle-class worries listed above necessarily suggest Americans are worried about “bigness,” per se. Even if bigness really is a contributing cause of many of these problems, framing the issue in those terms doesn’t guarantee voters will take the leap with you.
It would be worthwhile for populists to examine the nature of their rhetoric, and whether there might not be other ways to express similar sentiments that would be more palatable to a broader swath of the electorate, such as those with two X chromosomes. The idea that many problems should be addressed at the level of civil society, or that barriers to opportunity and entrepreneurship should be removed, are both populist ideas that don’t require an “us versus them” mindset. They just require a problem-solving mindset. A libertarian populism that leads with this storyline seems much more likely to achieve broad acceptance across the gender gap.
Because in the end, while the “peasants with pitchforks” version of libertarian populism might help Republicans shore up the working class white male vote, the GOP will never win the White House without a resurgence in interest from women. The female vote went for Obama 55 percent to 44 percent in 2012. Republican presidential candidates haven’t managed to win the female vote since a narrow 51 percent to 49 percent victory in 1988.
To win women to their cause, the libertarian populist movement needs less overheated rhetoric about exploding the regime and more concrete details about how their agenda will help. And the agenda itself does have much to offer, from winding down licensing requirements that hold down entrepreneurs to re-energizing America’s failing schools. Women can get on board with many of the proposals, but they need to feel those pitching them have a responsible plan to make sure no one falls through the cracks.