Shock, surprise, handwringing, sadness, recrimination, and analysis by social commentators, academics, activists, and politicians themselves followed the 2016 presidential election. Certainly there have been no shortage of explanations as to how a rich white man with no political experience, multiple failed businesses and marriages, who is on trial for sexual assault, whose recent claim to fame involves starring on a reality television series, and whose supporters feature bumper stickers reading things like “Trump that Bitch” will become the 45th president of the United States. As many of these commentaries have pointed out, this election is the perfect storm of intersecting inequalities: inequalities of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nation among others. Indeed, the anger that fueled this election reflects the conservative and populist movements across the globe in recent years.
Sociological research and theory on masculinity and gender inequality explain, in part, the success of a man who uses “locker room talk,” regularly objectifies women, calls them “nasty,” and looms over them in a way that is recognized as dangerous by survivors of violent relationships or sexual harassment. The easy answer is that men are voting for the continuation of an unequal gender system that privileges them.
Economically struggling white men were among the most eager to embrace (or overlook?) Trump’s support for gender inequality. 53 percent of men voted for Trump, while 41 percent voted for Clinton. 72 percent of white men with no college education supported Trump; less than one quarter of that group voted for Clinton. Given Trump’s advocacy of gendered (and raced) inequality, this may come as little surprise. What might be more complicated to explain is that 62 percent of white women with less than a college education and 45 percent of college-educated white women voted for Trump, too.
It’s not just men voting in men’s “interest.” It’s women as well. This might be best understood with a concept that never gained much traction in the sociology of men and masculinities, but is worth revisiting—sociologist Arthur Brittan’s concept of “masculinism.” As Brittan wrote almost three decades ago, “Masculinity refers to those aspects of men’s behaviour that fluctuate over time…. Masculinism is the ideology that justifies and naturalizes male domination… Moreover, the masculine ideology is not subject to the vagaries of fashion – it tends to be relatively resistant to change” (Brittan 1989, emphasis ours). Brittan’s work reminds us that, despite incredible change, ideologies that justify inequality are most visible when the forms of inequality they justify are under siege. It is under those moments that we get a good look at how ideologies perpetuate inequality. When systems of inequality are challenged, questioned, and made to sweat, ideologies can’t be passively relied upon to work for those in power. They require work, renewed efforts to maintain legitimacy if they are to stand up to such attacks. Masculinism was publicly challenged this election; a spotlight was shown on forms of privilege and inequality that are rarely so visible to the naked eye.
The workings of masculinism might have been intensified by a sort of collective version of what social psychologists refer to as “moral licensing.” Research shows that when people are presented with the opportunity to demonstrate that they are good, moral people, they are more apt to follow that opportunity by expressing support for inequalities that they might otherwise not be willing to admit to (e.g., Merritt, Effron, and Monin 2010). That is, given the opportunity to demonstrate that we are “good” people, we’re more likely to engage in “bad” behavior. We’re more likely to support racially prejudiced views, for instance, after having been primed with an opportunity to say that we’d be willing to vote for a Black presidential candidate (e.g., Effron, Cameron, and Monin 2009). When we demonstrate “good” moral qualities publicly, we feel more justified in supporting systems of inequality in public ways, too.
On a collective level this process might look something like this: We became a liberal enough nation to accept a Black president. We became a liberal enough nation to even consider a woman president. From this perspective, electing a Black president didn’t usher in a post-racial society; in fact, it might have “morally licensed” the expression of more intensified racist sentiments. The fact that for the first time a woman was one of the major party presidential candidates may have had a similar effect, morally licensing many to feel justified in supporting the misogyny, racism, and xenophobia that characterized this election.
Considered this way, the election of Donald Trump is at least partially the result of the “progress” we’ve been making. Ideologies like masculinism—those ideologies that uphold the durable systems of inequality in societies—are resilient. Indeed, they may even be intensified by the gains made by marginalized groups over the past several decades. This election, perhaps, is a testament to the work that has been done to challenge inequalities and a reminder that such gains are never fully secured.
This post was originally published in ASA Footnotes, 2016 44 (8).
Brittan, Arthur. 1989. Masculinity and Power. New York, NY: Basil Blackwell.
Effron, Daniel A., Jessica S. Cameron, and Benoît Monin. 2009. Endorsing Obama Licenses Favoring Whites. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45(3): 590-593.
Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, and Benoît Monin. 2010. Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 4(5): 344-357.