US Election: Gender wars – Liberals vs authoritarians

by | Wednesday 20 January 2016

Jane Caro believes that the US Presidential election is not a battleground of clashing ideologies, but of gender roles in the new century.

The British philosopher Stephen Law believes – despite the tendency of the Internet to divide people into “loony lefties” and “right wing nut jobs” – that the old industrial divides of left and right have been dead for a long time. Instead, he believes the world is facing a long, drawn out, struggle to the death between liberals and authoritarians.

Liberals are those who believe in leaving people alone to decide the shape of their own lives, and are sceptical of authority. Authoritarians are those who have a more rigid definition of right and wrong and largely want to impose their views on others. I say “largely” because human beings are complicated creatures. Organised religions are by their very nature authoritarian yet many devoutly religious people are very liberal. There are also many conservative liberals and progressive authoritarians. I may as well confess that in this battle, I am on the side of the liberals. How could it be otherwise when I am also a woman?

After all, the battle between the authoritarians and the liberals sometimes looks as if it is being primarily fought out over gender. Fundamentalist religions and dogmas (including the fascist ideologies of the recent past) are characterised by their rigid view of acceptable roles and behaviour for women. They are also extremely hostile to homosexuality. Authoritarians want to control others but they particularly want to control women. Freedom (a slogan that is almost exclusively spouted by authoritarians in the US) is something they are keen to claim for themselves but not so keen on offering to others. The absurd, through-the-looking-glass argument that allowing gay marriage impinges on the religious freedom to discriminate is an example of how authoritarians warp “freedom” to mean their right to control and limit the life choices of others. LGBTI rights, like women’s rights, are a bedrock liberal value.

The authoritarian versus liberal struggle in the current nominations for the 2016 US Presidential election also looks as if it may well be fought out over gender. As I write, the two likeliest candidates are Trump as the Republican nominee and Hillary as the Democrat, and I use his last name and her first name because they are the ones most commonly used for the two candidates. And this is revealing.

Trump is never referred to by his first name (once, he was known as “The Donald” but no longer), only his last. And it is a good name for a Presidential nominee, resonant with the sound of trumpets and fanfares, triumphalism and winning. When you one-up someone you are often said to have “trumped” them. It is a very dominant, male and authoritarian name. And the candidate is all of those things to a fault. His authoritarian policies include building a wall to keep out Mexicans, banning Muslims from the US, open slather on guns (yes, I know, gun enthusiasts trumpet (ahem) this as about liberty, but it isn’t; owning a gun helps frightened people feel more in control), opposition to gay marriage and punitive policies around women’s reproductive rights.

Hillary is not actually referred to by her first name just because she is a woman. Like George W who had to be differentiated from his father, her name is used to distinguish her from her husband. Nevertheless, use of her Christian name is both a handicap and an advantage. It is an advantage because it clearly marks her out as a liberal. (Well, more liberal than Trump, anyway.) It avoids the male values of bombast and triumphalism. It makes her seem more approachable and human. It is more personal and egalitarian to call someone by their first name. For those suspicious of authority this is a good thing. However, it also carries with it the perceived weaknesses of being female – softness, vulnerability, lack of ability to take charge and lead. It is a constant subtle reminder that the “natural” domain for women is the private and domestic, not the public.

Like Trump, Hillary’s policies are consistent with her persona. She is becoming much braver about stating her liberal values than she was in her previous tilt for the Democratic nomination. She has been open about her desire for sensible gun control (yep, despite the use of the word “control” this is a liberal value). She has been outspoken in her support for the besieged organisation Planned Parenthood and unequivocal in her support for women’s rights and gay marriage. Her rhetoric towards Islamic and Mexican communities in the US has been restrained and courteous. In her previous attempt at gaining the Democratic nomination she tried to minimise her gender and her liberal credentials. This time (no doubt, win or lose, it will be her last time) she seems to have decided to go for broke. “Here I am,” she appears to be saying, “take me or leave me.”

Obama was a radical Presidential candidate because he is black. Hillary would be another because she is female and Bernie Sanders (currently gaining in the polls) another because he is a self-declared socialist. Mind you, they all seem rather tame in comparison to the radical authoritarianism of the Republican nominees.

The 2016 Presidential race could set the direction of the Western world for the foreseeable future. Will the liberals continue the progress they have been making since the Enlightenment? Or will fears about climate change, the world wide rebellion of women, LGBTI and other out groups and the bewildering advance of technology mean we, as is already happening in the Middle East, turn backwards and seek the false safety of authoritarians?