Political polarisation by gender: a matter of aesthetics?
In which I opine on the origins and nature of the growing gender polarisation and sketch a vision of a very grim future, one in which we'll have to choose between The Longhouse and The Gooncave
This weekend, The Financial Times released an article highlighting a growing divide in political leanings between men and women. Nothing entertains and inflames us very online people quite like gender discourse. However, non anon people mostly engage with these topics quietly, typically as observers or 'lurkers'; That’s mostly because openly debating gender issues is seen as a bit gauche. But a data-driven post from the Financial Times was a good pretext for even the most respectable people to indulge this guilty pleasure. On that note, John Burn-Murdoch (let’s call him JBM from now on) has directed the sanitising light of data science and nice FT branded plots on a lot of online debates stuck in the abyss and chaos of twitter anonymity. By doing so, he has elevated these discussions to a certain level of credibility. And for that, we must thank him.
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So *everyone* ended up chiming in (JBM’s post had 19K quote-tweets and retweets!!!). There were a lot of people with ready-made explanations shoehorning their pet issue into the discourse1. The liberal feminist professors said that of course it’s men who are feeling threatened that are getting radicalised by Andrew Tate and hate women. Right-leaning people said but of course it’s feminism. The people who do not like phones and social media said that of course it’s phones and social media. Those who want teens to have more sex said that of course it’s because teens have less sex now. Balaji said that of course this heralds a new era for The Republican party, the party of strength. And so on, you get the idea. And you know, they might all be right to an extent…
I must admit: I love some good gender discourse as much as the next very online person so I cannot not participate in this. It’s also personal: as a (female) member of the now widely discussed gen Z, I often feel like I need to correct my (often male) elders (yes, it’s you Millennials, you’re the elders now) on any incorrect assumptions. I am a direct observer of dynamics most of the readers of this Substack only theorise about. So sit back and let me illuminate you.
The FT plots are not the whole story
Some people on twitter pointed out that maybe we should not take the FT piece at face value.
For example, some took issue with the fact that only the US data was based on actual Liberal vs Conservative self-ID. The data from the other countries relied on whether the parties women and men voted for were more likely to be liberal or conservative as a proxy for political identification. Using voting trends in this way seems fine to me, so I do not think there is much to this objection.
But there is another, more substantial type of criticism that has caught my eye. Consider these plots from Jan Zilinsky using Nationscape data, which show that, when it comes to actual policy positions (operational ideology) young women and men don’t differ that much. In his tweet, Jan points out that the gap on substantive issues has not changed much across generations, with a 0.15 SD for 18-29 yrs olds. It is only when it comes to self-assigned labels of liberal vs conservative that the difference becomes much bigger.
He then shows a plot where he breaks this up on specific issues. It further underscores his point: young men and women don’t differ that much in their support for specific, Dem vs Republican policies. If you want to look into this more, check this tweet and this one.
There are other criticisms, including the fact that this trend towards polarisation does not seem to replicate using GSS data (JBM used Gallup data which has much higher sample sizes - thousands vs 250 for GSS, so I tend to trust Gallup more).
I think the FT article might be overstating the case, but I do not believe it’s entirely an artefact, as some claim. There is a lot of corroborating evidence (see also here) that women are becoming increasingly culturally liberal. From what I have seen, the wealth of evidence supporting an increasingly polarised youth is hard to ignore. And I believe the apparently contradictory observations from above can be explained by a simple idea: women and men are becoming more and more polarised not on classical Republican vs Democrat substantive police issues (e.g. gun control) as much as on “aesthetic”, cultural issues. It’s all about VIBES. When forced to self-ID with a party, they choose one that better reflects their cultural grievances. But at heart, conservative and liberal become broad stand-ins for diverging views on culture. Indeed, we have quite robust evidence there is a growing “cultural progressiveness” gap. Let’s look at one such cultural topic, where young women and men increasingly differ: agreement with “Women seek to gain power by getting control over men”. This is not a question that is tied to a specific policy question. It’s also not something that was particularly salient to older generations - it seems to be a belief increasingly espoused by my generation - gen Z.
I will go even further than this: it might very well be that, even on cultural issues, a lot of the polls are intrinsically poorly designed to capture what exactly it is that separates young women and men, since they are embedded within an old-fashioned view of what being liberal and conservative means. The fights of our parents are not our fights. Our cultural grievances are not theirs. We need new terms to deal with new times.
I thinkmakes a good point that illustrates what I mean. In her excellent recent post on the topic, she highlights a study that examines the phenomenon of 'modern sexism' across the European Union, focusing on the perspective of younger men.
It finds that these men are more likely to believe that the promotion of women's and girls' rights has been excessive, to the point of jeopardizing opportunities for men and boys. This resentment is particularly strong among men who perceive state institutions in their region as unfair and reside in areas experiencing increasing unemployment and intense job competition.
This might seem at odds with other polls that show young men are becoming increasingly gender egalitarian, at least by “old school definitions”. Alice has a response to this too: the type of anti progressivism seen in young men is different from that of their grandfathers. While in theory more “egalitarian” on topics previous generations would not have been, they are simultaneously more resentful. The times they are changing…
Conservatism has given women “The Ick”
During my university years, there was a prevailing attitude among many female students encapsulated in the catchphrase "I have never kissed a Tory2." This slogan transcended specific policy positions, instead reflecting a broader sentiment about the Tory party's general image. It suggested that being associated with the Tories carried a social stigma, a sort of inherent uncoolness that wasn't necessarily tied to their specific political stances. In many ways, UK Tories are only an inch to the right of the US Democrats. Yet no-one would consider a Biden-style Democrat uncool. Sure, better be a Bernie-bro or AOC-stan, but liking establishment Democrats was fine. It was all about vibes.
We talk a lot about male violence, but have you ever experienced the look of disdain on the face of a young woman? That cuts deep. And that’s what happened. Conservatism has given women the proverbial “Ick” and they reacted to it much like Regina George in this picture.
So what has caused this? A part of it is that women are more empathetic on average and Conservatives are perceived as “mean”, “bad” and “hateful” (again, aesthetics rules supreme). We might endlessly hypothesize about how this perception came to be. A part of it is unavoidable: by their very nature Conservatives are the “Tough Love” people, which is easier perceived as being mean. But there’s a reason why Tough Love exists as an idiom: we have a common understanding that it’s still Love and hence, Good. Yet women decreasingly perceive it as being valuable... Why might that be? Part of it is actual policy positions that are deeply unpopular among young educated women which have come to be associated with the Republican Party (and due to the importance of American Culture, all right wing parties), such as the anti abortion stance. Women also reject the machismo displayed by some overly interventionist types: I do not think it’s a coincidence that the artists who got “cancelled'“ (Dixie Chicks) or almost cancelled (in the case of Madonna) for opposing the Iraq War were women. There’s also, of course, social media, which has created and amplified female dominated echo chambers.has written at length about the ways in which the early days of Tumblr let to a rise of extreme progressivism among young women, which then slowly percolated into our most prestigious institutions.
That the difference between young women and men might be driven mostly by diffuse cultural grievances rather than say a disagreement about taxes is not reassuring in the least. Firstly, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt has noted, extreme forms of liberalism interact rather negatively with the already prone to anxiety personality of young women. Indeed, we can see that the mental health of all teenagers has taken a turn for the worse in the last decade, with liberal women leading the way. He blames in part the elements of liberalism that glorify anxiety and what he calls an “anti-CBT mindset”3. Instead of applying a much needed “tough love” approach to foster resilience in young women, we are indulging their participation in a culture that often enhances their anxiety and renders them less agentic.
Such elements become particularly pronounced in online echo-chambers, as writer Freya India points out:
“But because girls suffer when we sell them self-pity wrapped up as empowerment. They suffer when we bombard them with a bleak, fatalistic view of the world and of themselves. And both sexes will suffer if we pull any further apart.”
Going beyond individuals, a trend of increased polarisation will probably also affect relationships. One might argue that a sense of shared morals and values, which are tied to one’s cultural affiliation, are much more important for average couples than their positions on corporate taxes. I have written about this issue of misaligned values for couples at length in one of my Notes. The well-oiled machine of technocapital shall continue to work in the background. Maligned as it is by everyone, it will nevertheless quietly increase our standards of living, unless some overly inane regulations completely smother it. But relationships have always been hard and adding another layer of difficulty on top does not help. So a divergence on cultural values is in many ways more worrisome than one on concrete fiscal policies.
The Longhouse versus the Gooncave
I've discussed how young women often label conservative views as unappealing and increasingly gravitate towards online liberal communities. The data from the FT suggests that the gender divergence is driven primarily by women, which are increasingly gravitating towards progressivism. However, as highlighted by Alice Evans, men are also experiencing a shift towards a form of “modern sexism”, though less condoned by prestigious institutions than its female counterpart4. As someone deeply online and an amateur anthropologist, I've observed such male-centric groups, often brought together by shared grievances. These groups form what I like to term 'Intellectual Gooncaves' - sordid communities characterised by anger and bitterness (if you do not know what a Gooncave is, you have the opportunity to google it now).
An example of such a 'Gooncave' is the Right Wing anonymous community on Twitter. If you have spent any amount of time lurking there and you are a sane person, you will come away with the feeling that it’s a deeply insalubrious place, devoid of any decorum, where cruelty for the sake of cruelty and edginess reign supreme. Despite its facade of being logical and adhering to the principle that "facts don't care about your feelings," this group ultimately lacks true epistemic credibility. In contrast to "The Longhouse5," which it frequently criticizes for prioritizing comfort and safety, its motivations are not to safeguard emotions. Instead, it is driven by a relentless pursuit of transgression and a need to affirm feelings of anger and hostility.
There is a lot of resentment towards women, of the kind Alice Evans was talking about. To give just one example, this is the kind of tweet that periodically goes viral on that side of twitter. Suffice to say, seeing such tweet won’t make women more likely to view Conservatism sympathetically…
You might dismiss this kind of stuff as just an online phenomenon, but I think it is quickly percolating into the mainstream. For example, see this tweet from UCLA Republicans:
The following tweet perfectly illustrates my point about being transgressive for the sake of being transgressive:
But Ruxandra, UCLA Republicans are a rather obscure student association! Ok, fine.
What about Andrew Tate, H. Pearl Davis and so on? What about one of our ex-presidents? A very real manifestation of The Intellectual Gooncave is Donald Trump, who has given up the pretense of any sort of decorum and openly declares in his Truth Social posts that he wants to lock up his enemies and that a President deserves complete immunity from prosecution. The macho image is complete if you consider that he is hiring lawyers seemingly for no good reason other than the fact that they are attractive, makes weird comments about his daughter and so on. Of course the Online Right largely supports him.
Some salute this with enthusiasm. In a twitter post, Balaji Srinivasan, investor, start-up founder and noted libertarian, has declared that The Republican Party has become the party of “Strong Men” and will usher a new era of Nietzschean strength. I beg to differ: educated people, including men, are disproportionately fleeing away from the Republican Party and Conservatism more broadly. The thing is, most decent educated men do not want to be associated with The Gooncave either, regardless of what they think about taxes. The men who openly embrace the Gooncave are often those who, quite frankly, belong there (so not high quality men). On the other extreme of the spectrum you also have those who are so successful and secure in their success (6 sigma level), that they have completely transcended the status hierarchy. And on top of that, maybe a few nerds who follow their intellectual interests wherever it leads them. But asdetails at length in his excellent post, you cannot properly govern based on these demographics. He outlines the challenges the Republican Party faces in losing appeal among educated individuals.
Replace everything Trace is saying about Politics with Culture, and it still holds true. Libertarians such as Balaji may dismiss college graduates and the typical upper middle class as mere "conformist strivers," but a vibrant and healthy culture requires their contribution. Relying solely on the extremes — the most eccentric and dubious figures online and the exceptionally rare 6 sigma individuals — isn't sufficient. Indeed, while it's possible to create a culture with just these elements, it will most likely look like The Gooncave.
I am not interested in being cornered into choosing between the Gooncave and the Longhouse. This highlights the importance of addressing and understanding cultural polarization.
The most extreme version of this is this guy who somehow managed to tie this entire thing to birth control pills
Tories are the main Centre Right party in the UK
Lukianoff and Haidt, in their discussion of the "anti-CBT mentality," refer to a pattern of thought that contradicts the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which aims to challenge and change unhelpful cognitive distortions and behaviors. They suggest that this mentality, often observed in contemporary social and educational contexts, encourages individuals to interpret situations in the most negative way possible, fostering harmful thinking patterns that CBT typically seeks to correct.
An important reason why these male echo chambers might be easier to ignore is that they are usually low status, hence their rhetoric is somewhat absent from prestigious institutions
The term "Longhouse" in online discourse, particularly among right wing communities, is a metaphorical concept that describes a society characterized by matriarchal control and the suppression of non-conformity. This concept emphasizes the prioritization of emotional safety and the avoidance of direct conflict, often at the expense of privacy and individual liberties.