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2018 campaign further widening our gender gap

October 6, 2018

Have you felt it too? With each passing day this campaign season, it’s felt to me as if the sociopolitical wedge dividing men and women in this state and nation is being pounded deeper.

In just four weeks, the midterm election will reveal how wide the Great American Gender Gap has become. But even before the names Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford became household words, a big difference in how men and women perceive and practice politics was already in plain view.

In Minnesota, the numbers showed as much. Take the Sept. 10-12 Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll: President Donald Trump’s disapproval stood at 50 percent among men, 61 percent among women. Take the New York Times/Siena College Sept. 7-9 poll of Minnesota’s Third District: Among men, DFLer Dean Phillips had a 9 percentage-point lead over GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen; among women, it was 25 points.

Consider, too, the testimony of a couple of Minnesota mayors, one metro, one greater Minnesota, at an August gathering of the new group Minnesota Mayors Together that this journalist joined “on background” — no attribution of quotes allowed.

Metro Mayor: “What you hear about politics these days depends on whether you’re talking to men or women. … [I was recently at a gathering of retired people at which] a woman told me, ‘Every guy here, the only thing he only cares about is his 401(k). Every woman here can’t stand Trump.’ ”

Greater Minnesota Mayor: “The rural-urban divide is more male- than female-driven. It’s because there’s a backlash to the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of older rural white males feel like they are being attacked. Their wives don’t feel the same way.”

Greater Minnesota Mayor, you’re on to something.

As Thomas Edsall reported a few months ago in the New York Times, America’s widening gender gap through the past several decades is more a matter of men becoming more Republican than women becoming more Democratic. Political scientists say it’s a trend that can be traced to the 1960s, when more men than women were put off by the civil rights and antiwar movements.

If those nongender-specific movements were enough to move men to the right, how much more motivating might be a rising chorus of female voices complaining about unwelcome sexual advances and contact? If the boys at greater Minnesota coffee shops and taverns already felt under siege when female victims were calling out the misdeeds of a mogul like Harvey Weinstein, how much more aggrieved might they feel when a 53-year-old judge’s promotion is threatened by an account of his behavior as a beer-loving teenager?

Brett Kavanaugh may have been a privileged East Coast preppy in 1982, a world away from rural Minnesota. But as a former teenage girl from a small Midwestern town, I’d guess that quite a few former teenage boys in these parts might have identified with Kavanaugh these past two weeks. Rather uncomfortably, too. And their discomfort could manifest itself in votes for Republicans.

Trump played to that segment of the electorate Thursday night in Rochester. He dismissed accusations of Kavanaugh’s youthful misconduct as “rage-fueled resistance” by Democratic partisans. He encouraged a backlash, saying that bringing forward complaints about Kavanaugh’s past is “starting to backfire at a level that nobody has ever seen before.”

He added: “We love it. Do we love it? We love it.”

Trump has had plenty of practice denying and denigrating women’s complaints about powerful men, including himself. That part of the president’s persona may be disgusting to some, particularly women. It’s evidently appealing too, particularly to men who think they could use a defender or avenger.

Back to Greater Minnesota Mayor: “The guys I know find these topics difficult to talk about. That’s why Donald Trump has such appeal with these guys. He doesn’t worry about what he’s saying or how he’s perceived. He gets these guys saying ‘Yeah! Yeah! That’s right! I’m not going to be politically correct either!’ Whereas women don’t feel that way.”

Whether all of that Trumped-up emotion will lead to a historically wide difference in voting behavior between men and women this year can’t yet be foretold. University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson, whose research includes gender differences in politics, notes that a predicted surge of female voters for Hillary Clinton in 2016 did not materialize.

What’s more, Pearson told me last week, anti-Trump sentiment is strongest among college-educated women. That’s a cohort who already turns out in big numbers in midterm elections. By contrast, “there’s always more room to vote” among the men who are energized by a backlash to #MeToo, she said.

But if a male backlash to the Kavanaugh affair makes 2018’s forecast Year of the Woman fizzle, that won’t be the end of this decadeslong story. That’s because fundamentally, #MeToo is a symptom of something that’s bigger than politics — the evolving independence and growing power of women in a formerly male-dominated society.

That evolution springs from deeply and widely shared human aspiration. So, unfortunately, does the resistance it encounters from those — both male and female — who believe they lose when men share power with women.

The 20th century women’s movement succeeded in allowing women to occupy more positions of power in this state and nation than ever before. But it’s up to that movement’s 21st-century successor to adapt society’s norms and institutions to the changes wrought a generation ago. I’d call that urgent business. As long as that work is incomplete, gender will remain a fault line in American politics, and the gender-based hostility and mistrust it breeds will spill unpleasantly into other aspects of American life.

How can people of good will advance that work without further dividing the country? Greater Minnesota Mayor had something to say about that too. I’ll give him the last word:

“We don’t have deep enough conversations to get to any resolution, to understand what the source of this tension is. Too much of the rhetoric we hear is wholly on the surface, and it leaves white males feeling like they are attacked.

“As communities, we’re the ones who have to have the difficult conversations about race and gender. It’s not going to happen on the national level or the state level. It’s got to happen locally. We still have some trust within our communities, and we can build trust among each other [Minnesota’s mayors]. It’s going to take our leadership at the local level to have those difficult conversations, to get us through these tough times.”

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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