On the Gender Divide In Politics and Why It Might Just Save Us All
There has been a lot of consternation over the direction of these arrows. They come from a report in the Financial Times on evidence of a growing gender divide in politics. In societies around the world, young women are increasingly likely to identify as liberal or progressive, while young men are staying (relatively) more conservative. The FT finds evidence for this from the UK, US, South Korea, Germany, Poland, China. If you can’t access the piece, the data journalist John Burn-Murdoch, author of the report, has posted a summary of the article’s findings.
Before we get carried away, let’s bear in mind this is happening at the margin: most of the variation in political leaning can still be found between generations rather than within them. It’s still true, for instance, that young men in Britain are likely to be more liberal on immigration than older men, it’s just that they haven’t grown more liberal on it in the past few years, whereas young women have:
It’s also true that some of this data, like that represented by the first chart above, is based on the self-reporting of a pretty vague question - Are you liberal or conservative? If you’re a 25-year-old I imagine you have a quite different idea of what it means to be ‘conservative’ than a 65-year-old. Indeed, when it comes to actual policies, these liberals and conservatives are probably closer than the labels suggest. Each country also has its own, very specific context - here’s some background on South Korea, where the divide is starkest.
But while the data is noisy, the global consistency of this trend, or some version of it, is striking. It’s evident in countries the FT didn’t include in its initial report, like Switzerland and Spain. A common thread seems to be that women are driving the divergence, by becoming more liberal. Young men are just kind of staying where they are. It’s like they’ve stopped on a walk, folded their arms, and agreed to go to the pub while the women march on.
Burn-Murdoch sees this as a reaction to Me Too. I’m sceptical - was Me Too really that seismic a cultural shift, or does it just seem that way to those of us who use Twitter a lot? And I’m not sure why it would affect men’s views on immigration or racial politics. What are the other possible causes? In Western countries, at least, women are now considerably more likely to go to university than men, and university life encourages more liberal beliefs. There’s also the technology factor; anytime we see such a wide, cross-cultural trend we have to ask if it’s The Phones. It could be that the sexes are building different TikTok or WhatsApp bubbles, in which women push each other towards more radical or extreme views, while men find allies in the resistance.
The sociologist Alice Evans has put together a mess of interesting thoughts and data in response to the FT article, here. She shares with other commentators on this story a tendency to pathologise conservative views (being wary of immigration is equated with ‘xenophobia’).1 She writes, “Young women are publicly criticising inequalities; some are also educating their male friends.” Hmm, I think people who are “educated” in that sense often push back against it. However I think she’s probably right to connect this trend to “zero-sum mindset”, a concept I wrote about a few months back: the belief that my gain is your loss and vice versa. Zero-sum attitudes flourish under conditions of scarcity, and young people are at the sharp end of slow or stagnant wage growth, rising accommodation costs, and increasingly fierce competition for university places and elite jobs. In those circumstances, somebody else’s gain is more likely to feel like - and indeed to be - your loss, and vice versa.
Some young men have seen their life chances diminishing at the same time as the rhetoric of social liberalism has intensified. If so it shouldn’t be surprising that they are saying they’d rather not go any further down this political path. A recent survey of attitudes in EU countries found that, “young men are most likely to perceive advances in women's rights as a threat to men's opportunities”. I’m not sure that ought to be construed as sexism or bigotry (partly because it depends on those “advances” are taken to refer to), rather than a reflection of experience. It’s easier to be a male feminist if you already have a secure and well-paid job. We could say that the political views of these young men are being shaped by naked self-interest, but we could equally say this of the young women. Zero-sum mindset is also associated with a stronger belief in affirmative action.
Self-interest can act as a trigger for more developed kinds of thinking, however. Members of each of these groups may become genuine, thoughtful adherents of the positions they hold, whether liberal or conservative. And in that sense, the divergence could well be a good thing. This is where I find myself in disagreement with Evans and with nearly all of the people I’ve seen commenting on this story. This trend has generally been treated as a worrying development over which hands must be wrung. I see it as containing the potential for a better public discourse and better relationships.
Think about it the other way around for a moment. Liberalism (or some combination of liberalism and capitalism) has been bad for marriage and organised religion and traditional institutions. But in some ways this has made space for more rational and intelligent debates. Supporters of those institutions and traditions can no longer rely on deference or orthodoxy, which means they (or some of them) have constructed more evidence-based arguments for why, say, marriage is good for society (Louise Perry provides a good example here). Conservatives are having to find and give reasons in a way they didn’t when their positions were just prevailing wisdom.
Among young people, progressivism is the orthodoxy. It has been for years, to the extent that its positions aren’t argued for anymore, just assumed and asserted. Any orthodoxy that isn’t challenged or interrogated will tend towards stupidity over time. Insofar as ‘woke’ is a useful term, it describes a form of leftist cultural politics which has become sclerotic because of its deafness to intelligent dissent. Generally speaking when I use it I’m not referring just to the substantive position but to the way that position has been adopted - unreflectingly, robotically, obliviously, without the slightest grasp of counter-arguments. Wokeness is social liberalism with the brain removed. It’s often compared to religion, but the major religions are diverse ecosystems of denominations and sects, whereas this ideology has to date been a monoculture.
Now, however, we’re seeing evidence of a schism forming, within the youngest adult generation. The initial cause of this polarisation might be brute economic interest, but the eventual effect could be a better quality of thinking and dialogue which raises the standard of public discourse. Of course, polarisation doesn’t inevitably lead to more elevated debates, as a glance at American politics tells us. But Republicans and Democrats avoid the onerous business of disagreeing directly with one another. They move to different towns, consume different media, inhabit different realities. When polarised groups are forced together in the pursuit of a common goal, their differences become strengths. A study of how Wikipedia’s articles get written found that politically polarised teams of editors create better work, as each side forces the other to up their game.
A crucial factor in the Wikipedia study, common to any example of productive disagreement, is that the participants have a common project. They want to engage with and argue with each other, not just because they like winning arguments, but because they all care about the outcome of the process - in this case, an accurate and high quality article. In everyday life, without the discipline of a shared goal, we look for ways to avoid this kind of deep disagreement, which makes us uncomfortable. Much of modern society, including our endlessly fragmented media, protects us from having to truly engage with those who don’t share our politics.
That’s why the development of a political rift between the genders is so promising. What’s the most compelling common project of all? Sex - sex and love. Short of a mass conversion to homosexuality, many or most of these people are still going to hook up together and form partnerships and families, caveats about declining birth rates aside. Conservative-leaning young men who only seek out conservative-leaning young women will be fishing in a small pool; liberal women will only diminish the size of their pool if they stick to men who are as liberal as they are. Both sides therefore have a powerful incentive to forge relationships with people who hold political views different to their own. They can then infect each other with their different ideas, generating new syntheses, and moving us all along.
For most couples a difference of political opinion needn’t be an insurmountable problem, since for most people, politics and ideas are only a part of life, and hardly the most important part. Here’s The Economist’s Oliver Morton, responding to a question from me about whether this trend is necessarily a bad thing:
Living with someone whom you love but who has quite different ideas about the world can also make the world more interesting. I don’t know Oliver’s friends, but it’s possible that for the atheist and the vicar, this difference of opinion over the nature of the universe is a feature and not a bug of the relationship.
Having a partner who has radically different, fiercely held views to your own might be uncomfortable or even unworkable, but within a certain range, difference sharpens the mind and enlivens the relationship. In CONFLICTED I cover a fascinating body of research showing that couples who argue more tend to have more enduring and satisfying relationships. I suspect it makes them smarter, too. Having your beliefs endlessly confirmed is just bad for your thinking. Long-term couples have a habit of becoming their own echo chamber, an insular micro-culture detached from reality, vulnerable to every passing conspiracy theory. Being with someone who has a very different perspective on the world might help keep your critical faculties from atrophying.
When it comes to viewpoint diversity, I’m a fundamentalist. I believe it’s good for teams and institutions and societies, good for couples and families, and good for individuals. The almost universal assumption that an ideological difference between genders is a bad thing only shows how fearful we have become of challenges to our beliefs. Rather than spelling doom for romantic or social harmony, I think this trend could augur a more profound, albeit more arduous, form of dialogue and connection, beyond the facile comforts of affirmation. Or maybe I just like the idea that romantic attraction can save us all, and that Auden was right: we must love one another or die.2
I’m going to be away next weekend, attending Social Science Foo Camp on the Meta campus in Menlo Park, fitting in a short visit to San Francisco beforehand. I will still do a Ruffian though probably not in the usual format.
I wrote a review of a new book on paranoia, for The Times (paywalled) which I may reproduce here at some point.
Fans of classical music who live in London may be interested to know that my choir is performing Antonin Dvořák’s Stabat Mater, at Cadogan Hall, on March 14th. It doesn’t get performed much, which is ridiculous, because it’s as lusciously melodic as you’d expect from Dvořák. Tickets are on sale now.
After the jump, my thoughts on Poor Things, plus a rattle bag of Excellent Things - including a painting by the Beatles, just sold at Christies.
If you haven’t yet signed up for a paid subscription, please consider it. It gets you access to most of the good stuff. Paid subscriptions are also what enable me to write this newsletter.