20 January 2010

The Real Gender Issue in the Massachusetts Election

In 2004 Thomas Frank published What’s the Matter with Kansas?, analyzing why so many middle- and working-class Americans voted against their economic interests and instead chose candidates based on symbolic and social issues. The UK publisher retitled the book What’s the Matter with America?, which I think is fairer to the central state, and also gives a sense of how Britain sees the US.

How does Frank’s thesis relate to Massachusetts’s recent special election for Senator? The race here wasn’t decided on the issues, meaning that voters preferred Scott Brown’s policy positions to Martha Coakley’s. That’s because in the sped-up campaign Brown didn’t provide detailed policy positions.

Brown advocated broad ideas like lower taxes and a balanced budget—but offered no clue about how he’d reconcile those opposites. He said he’d “start over” with health-care reform, but didn’t say what that meant—especially since he voted for a similar law in Massachusetts. It was easier to find Coakley’s policy positions because she promised to vote with the Senate majority on many matters, and there are specific bills in Congress. However, without clear stands from both candidates, it’s untenable to say voters preferred one set over the other.

Voters therefore decided on more amorphous factors, starting with a general mood. People are worried and resentful about the worst recession since the Great Depression, a legacy of the previous administration; it’s been a whole year, and unemployment is still higher and property values lower! Most of us heartily dislike something about the health-insurance reform bill, though we disagree on what. Lots of people perceive that things aren’t working in Washington, though fewer seem to notice the Republicans’ obstructionism.

Beyond mood, another factor that I think deserves study is gender. Obviously our society still has double standards for male and female politicians. Consider how folks reacted to the fact that Brown had posed nude for Cosmopolitan magazine when he was in college. Then imagine how voters would respond to a little-known female candidate after learning that she’d been one of Playboy’s “Playmates of the Ivy League.”

On the election-night coverage I heard local political journalists list three “turning points” of the main election, which made undecided people change their thinking:

  • Brown’s audacious use of footage of John F. Kennedy in a TV ad. (Because both he and JFK advocated cutting taxes for the very wealthy; Kennedy lowered the top rate to 70%, twice what it is today.)
  • Brown’s statement in his ads and many other places that, “I drive a truck.”
  • Martha Coakley’s remark that former Diamondbacks and Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan, which people treated as a gaffe rather than a weak joke.
What’s the subtext of all those details? They’re all about being a traditional man. And Brown has the chin and hair for that role. (There’s a reason Cosmo chose him.)

Hours before the results were announced, a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish wrote about Brown’s appeal to fellow white men and Coakley’s contrasting image:
She's a lawyer and a female DA, so doubly emasculating in their eyes. She didn't help herself after the primary by only relying on the old Hillary base, which is other ball-buster female lawyers. That's a strong enough group to win a four-way primary but no way big enough for the general election.

In that context, all Scott Brown had to do was show up and 1) be white 2) be male and 3) come off as anything other than an elite. Hence the truck and hunting shirts, a brilliant touch on his campaign's part, and one that will probably win him the election.
Too reductive? Consider how progressive Massachusetts politics has really been when it comes to gender. The state has elected only two women running on their own to statewide offices, Coakley being the second. From 1982 to 2007, the state had no female Representatives in Congress. Massachusetts voters continued to reelect Ted Kennedy at the height of his womanizing, before his second marriage. And if JFK continues to be a political ideal in the state, as Brown’s advertisements suggest, let’s recall how much being a healthy, active man was a (manufactured) part of JFK’s public persona.


Brigid said...

I think the bigger problem is that the Democrats have a weak farm team in general. I have lived in Massachusetts for just over 20 years now, and although I'm a card-carrying liberal Democrat, I often wince at my party's offerings. John Silber? Mark Roosevelt? Shannon O'Brien? All were just grating in speech or manner, and none filled me with enthusiasm for how they were going to improve the world.

Brown has a lot of flaws, vapidity chief among them, but he channeled people's anxiety about a significant issue that will affect all of us, and that's all it took.

Unfortunately, Brown did it in a lowest-common-denominator, rage-against-the-machine sort of way. I would love to see a candidate who encouraged people's higher impulses, not their rage, resentment, and prejudice—but that seems to be the order of the day, and with little opposition, it gets you elected.

J. L. Bell said...

Silber in 1990 was an anomaly and a political outsider; the real Democratic “farm team” that year were his primary opponents, Evelyn Murphy and Frank Bellotti.

Roosevelt and O'Brien did rise within the Democratic Party. In Roosevelt's case was the designated sacrifice against a popular governor. O'Brien had more of a chance since she'd won statewide office, but she was still up against an incumbent—and she was female.

It's notable that those campaigns never really touched on how O'Brien ran the state treasurer's office, or about how Roosevelt, Bellotti, or Murphy had done their jobs. Similarly, Martha Coakley's record as attorney general was never an issue in the Senate race. The only complaints I've seen about how she did her job came from the left or from critics of particular cases.

But voters haven't looked for competence. Instead, critics of those Democratic candidates focused on personal style, offhand remarks, and how they were part of the state's majority party. And that worked. The same thing happened this year.

Thus Martha Coakley, who's never worked in Washington, somehow became a symbol of Washington. Scott Brown, who's worked on Beacon Hill for over a decade, presented himself as new and non-political.

Now we have a Senator who has few legislative accomplishments and has never shown that he can run anything big except this campaign. He might surprise us in a good way, but also in a bad way. The electorate didn't so much hire a Senator based on policy ideas and competence as cast someone to play the Senator we'd like to see on TV.

J. L. Bell said...

More on how Martha Coakley’s gender affected her success from Wendy Kaminer.

J. L. Bell said...

The first post-election poll I’ve found, commissioned by the Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard, says women voted for Coakley 51%-48% and men voted for Brown 56% to 42%.

Voters choosing by candidates’ positions were evenly split, within the margin of error. Voters choosing by the candidates’ personal qualities (i.e., public images) went for Brown 57%-41%.

Ron Griggs said...

"The UK publisher retitled the book What’s the Matter with America?, which I think is fairer to the central state, and also gives a sense of how Britain sees the US."

It also shows a failure to understand the historical reference of the original title to William Allen White's 1896 essay in the Emporia Gazette. Taking Frank's specific arguments about politics in Kansas and generalizing it for the entire country is a stretch, to say the least.

J. L. Bell said...

True, but I think Americans would be hard put to distinguish the politics of Britain’s Midlands from its northern cities and the like. At a distance, from either direction, it all looks like one big country.