Hey Dems! Stop ignoring the problems of boys and men
Liberals are loud on male problems in private, but silent on them in public
This week’s post is an opinion piece, a departure from my usual wonkier offerings. And yes, OK, I did try and place it in the usual places first. It was my wife who yelled out, “just post it on your Substack!” So here it is.
Actually first, just let me give a huge thanks to all of you who have subscribed to this newsletter, shared it with friends, and to those who have bought my book and especially those who have given it a good rating on Amazon, Good Reads, etc. I’m delighted with the reception of the book so far. So as they say in Tennessee, where I now live most of the time, “appreciate ya”!
I’ll do a fuller update on the book flurry next week, but I want to give an immediate shout out to Matthew Yglesias for his in-depth, thoughtful review of the book over on his Slow Boring site. (Only Matt can call you earnest, even banal, and mean it as a compliment…)
At the school gates and over the dinner table, even liberal parents are more likely to be sharing worries about their sons rather than their daughters. Meanwhile all the outward progressive political energy is being spent on the challenges facing women and girls.
Maybe you are one of those parents who, like me, joined a women’s march before scuttling home to make sure your son had done his biology homework. (Mine had not.)
Even college loan forgiveness was sold by Sen. Elizabeth Warren as a “gender justice issue”, on the grounds that women hold almost two-thirds of student debt.
But we are right to be worried about our sons. The truth is that many boys and men are in fact struggling, and most of all in working class and Black families. Failing to address these in public creates a dangerous political vacuum. That in turn can fuel populism as I’ve argued in a piece for Persuasion.
The reflex to double-down on women’s issues is understandable in light of the fall of Roe v. Wade. There is obviously more to be done to secure women’s reproductive rights, better political representation, more female corporate leadership and much more. But doing more for boys and men does not mean letting up on the fight for women and girls; that is the kind of zero-sum thinking killing our politics.
Democrats should pursue a pro-male agenda that can blunt the political attack from the right, and provide concrete help for the boys and men most in need. This will require two big shifts in the progressive mindset.
First, stop pathologizing men
The term “toxic masculinity” should be dropped. No one reacts well to being told that there is something intrinsically wrong with them.
Telling men and boys that they are possessed by an evil spirit of masculinity, which must somehow be exorcized, has opened up a dangerous new front in the culture war. For her book Boys and Sex, Peggy Orenstein asked dozens of adolescent boys and young men what they liked about being a boy, most drew a blank. One college sophomore told her.
That’s interesting, I never really thought about that. You hear a lot more about what is wrong with guys.
Half of American men now think that “men are punished just for acting like men”, according to a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute. President Biden’s approval ratings have dropped most sharply among young men.
The toxic masculinity framing places the blame for men’s problems on their own shoulders. If men are anxious, it is because they won’t express their feelings. If they get sick, it is because they won’t go to the doctor. If they fail at school, it is because they lack discipline or commitment. If they die early, it is because they drink and smoke too much and eat the wrong things.
The cultural emphasis on masculinity obscures the deep inequalities that cut across gender - especially by social class and by race. One reason elite progressives find it so hard to accept that boys and men are in trouble is that they are only looking around their own workplaces.
They are leaning in, but not looking down.
Gender gaps have narrowed. Economic gaps have widened. Men at the top of the economic ladder have seen wage gains in recent decades; but most men have seen pay stagnating. Boys from upper middle class homes still go to college at similar rates to girls, but there is a massive gender gap for those from low-income homes.
Race and gender must also be considered in tandem. White women have overtaken Black men in the labor market, with 14% higher wages. Black women are doing better than white men on most educational measures. The point is simply that inequalities of gender, class and race have to be considered together, and should feature front and center of any truly progressive platform.
Second, recognize and address gender inequalities in both directions
In 2021, President Biden created a White House Gender Policy Council. This was in place of the Council on Women and Girls, which had been abolished by Donald Trump.
The name change was a hopeful sign, suggesting the new Council might consider all gender inequalities. But, no. The Council’s first strategy document, which binds every Federal department to an action plan, focused solely on inequalities that negatively impact girls and women.
Nothing on the gender gap in college degrees, for example, now 15 percentage points in favor of women compared to 13 percentage points the other way round when Title IX was passed in 1972. (That’s why women hold most student debt, of course). No mention of the six percentage-point gender gap in on-time high school graduation. No discussion of why “deaths of despair,” from drug overdose, alcohol or suicide, are three times higher among men than women. Nothing on the fact that 25% of Black boys repeat a year of school.
Nothing, in short, that didn’t fit the one-way framing of gender inequality. It would have been more honest to leave the name of the Council unchanged. As far as the left is concerned, gender inequality only counts when it hurts girls and women.
We need to be grown-up enough as a culture to recognize that big changes, even positive ones like the dramatic economic rise of women, can have some difficult, unanticipated cultural side-effects, including the deconstruction of the traditional male role. Tackling this directly is not only possible, but necessary. That is simply the nature of progress.
A progressive, pro-male agenda should include big investments in vocational learning, including apprenticeships, which seems to particularly benefit men; a recruitment drive of men into the growing HEAL professions (health, education, administration and literacy); starting boys in school a year later than girls to account differences in maturation; fairer child support and access for unmarried Dads; and generous paid leave for fathers as well as mothers. (As Finland just introduced.)
Even when Democrats do pass laws that disproportionately help men, you could be forgiven for not noticing. Around 70% of the 800,000 new jobs that will be created each year by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, for example, will go to men. That is because the employment sectors set to gain most – construction, manufacturing and transit – skew heavily male.
But we only know this because of an excellent analysis undertaken by the National Partnership for Women & Families, in order to highlight how women will “lose out on this historic investment.” Working class men of color would likely be the biggest beneficiaries from the investment.
Why can’t Democrats claim this as a political victory? Because they are stuck in a zero-sum political calculation that being seen to do anything, even the men who are in most need, will somehow dilute the messages about women.
This badly underestimates the ability of voters to hold two thoughts in their head at once. Most people, whatever their politics, want all their family members, friends and fellow citizens to flourish - male and female alike. It’s not good for anyone – women included – if boys and men are struggling in the education system, the economy, or in family life.
Liberals are loud on the problems of boys in private, but silent on them in public. This disconnect creates a dangerous political vacuum. Anybody who looks hard at this issue knows that the problems of boys and men are real. If the left continues to ignore them, they may well continue to turn right.
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Richard, thanks for this article and your continued work in this space. I do want to address one portion of your piece with some data. As you mention, "many boys and men are in fact struggling, and most of all in working class and Black families." More accurately, White, Black, and Hispanic males from the lowest economic quartiles are suffering equally in educational attainment. An analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data (https://gibm.substack.com/p/education-in-black-and-white) on educational attainment and income from 2012 to 2020 disaggregated by race, sex, and four income quartiles reveals that black males and white males (followed by Hispanic males) from the lowest economic quartile are the least likely to participate in college by nearly the same margins. I know it's unpopular, but talking about White males is necessary at a time when they too are taking it on the chin. It's also important to look at out-of-wedlock births and the critical role it plays across all racial lines when it comes to boys and measurable outcomes. Thanks, and keep up the good work.
Richard, thank you for drawing attention to these issues. I agree with all of your substantive points, but your off-hand dismissal of the term "toxic masculinity" seems wrong-headed to me. There are many forms of masculinity and some are toxic, so we should call those forms toxic masculinity to distinguish them from others. In fact, doing so helps to emphasize the very diversity of masculinity. To suggest retreating from that term because some people say it implies that all masculinity is toxic (it doesn't, because that's not how adjectives work) seems analytically and rhetorically muddled. It's also bad political strategy, as it cedes the terms of debate to the regressive forces pushing back on gender equality. Anyways, I wrote more here: https://dalgoso.medium.com/saying-toxic-masculinity-doesnt-imply-all-masculinity-is-toxic-because-adjectives-are-a-thing-2df1c065f5c