Q&A with Jackson Katz on How the Right Plays the Man Card
To get a better read on the 2022 midterm elections, especially the persistent and widening gender gap in American politics, we talked to author and political analyst Jackson Katz, the creator of our documentary The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump, a collaboration with acclaimed filmmakers Peter Hutchison and Lucas Sabean.
Q & A with Jackson Katz on How the Right Plays the Man Card
Jackson Katz, Ph.D., the creator, co-writer, and co-producer of the documentary film The Man Card, is internationally renowned for his pioneering scholarship and activism on issues of gender, race, and violence. He is co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the longest-running and most influential gender violence prevention programs in North America, and the author of Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity. Jeremy Earp is the Production Director of the Media Education Foundation, and the co-writer of The Man Card.
JEREMY EARP: The Man Card looks at how the right has been able to capture the votes of working-class white men since the late 1960s and early ‘70s. How do the trends you cover in the film link up with what just happened in the midterm elections?
JACKSON KATZ: Exit polls from the midterms show very clearly, once again, that Republicans won the white vote overall thanks largely to their continuing strength with white men, especially working-class white men. Look at the exit polls from the Georgia Senate runoff, in which the deeply flawed and unqualified GOP candidate Herschel Walker beat Raphael Warnock by nearly 50 points among non-college white male voters! This is only the latest in a pattern we’ve been seeing in the white male vote since the 60s, when blue-collar and working-class white men, especially, started abandoning their traditional home in the labor-friendly Democratic Party and started voting Republican despite the party’s well-known history of hostility to labor. The Man Card offers insight into why so many white men – and to an important but lesser extent white women – have been voting for Republicans, even when on many critical issues, especially on the economy, those same voters agree more with the Democrats.
JE: One of the things you talk about in the film is how right-wing political operatives working for Nixon and other candidates, beginning in the late 60s, start to expertly target working-class white male voters not only with messaging that plays into white racial resentment during the Civil Rights era but also and especially to their growing resentment and cultural identity as men.
JK: That’s right. This is a phenomenon hidden in plain sight. Republican Party strategists and media consultants have known since 1972 that a key way to dismantle the New Deal coalition and the advances it generated for tens of millions of working and middle-class people was for the party to position itself not only as the party of white grievance in the post-Civil Rights era, but also as the party of “real men” in an era of feminist and LGBTQ ascendance. Consultants like Roger Ailes, who worked for Nixon before taking the helm at Fox News in the ‘90s, and Lee Atwater, who worked for Reagan and George Bush, achieved this by combining powerful media images, messages, and narratives with stances on issues designed to position their candidates as straight-talking tough guys at a time when white male authority was under threat. By now, a significant portion of the country considers it commonsensical that self-respecting blue-collar men – especially but not exclusively white men – should vote Republican.
JE: Even if this conflicts with their economic interests.
JK: Yes. But if you get your economics education and analysis from the Rupert Murdoch-owned, Roger Ailes-infused Fox News and right-wing talk radio, you’re going to be bombarded with the line that the GOP is the “working-class party” and the Democrats are a bunch of snobby coastal elites. They repeat this grossly distorted mantra all day long. You would have no idea, for example, that the vast majority of labor activists and scholars – people whose jobs and lives are devoted to improving the quality of life for working people — vote for the Democrats. And when progressive Democrats or Independents like Bernie Sanders — or even Tim Ryan! — take policy positions that advance the interests of working people, the right-wing propaganda machine proceeds to discredit them as wild-eyed socialists and communists. They’re drawing from an old playbook, but it still works, because like all effective political propaganda, it sidesteps policy substance and instead plays to emotions like fear and anxiety.
JE: And in the film, you’re saying that these class-based and race-based resentments the right plays to are always gendered?
JK: Yes, in The Man Card we show how this perception is fed daily on Fox News and right-wing talk radio, where hosts and guests declare repeatedly that Democrats and liberals “hate white men,” and mock the manhood of any man who supports liberal and progressive policies. Conservative media rarely allow any airtime for inconvenient facts that might complicate the narrative that “real men” should vote Republican. Every day in the right-wing universe of political angertainment, (white) men hear the twin messages of impending apocalypse (our civilization is under existential threat) and inspirational calls to them as its saviors (we need you to save it).
JE: Now that the midterms are almost behind us, people’s attention will turn to the presidential race of 2024. What do the political trends you explore in The Man Card have to say about the possibilities and prospects of a viable female presidential candidate if Joe Biden decides not to run for re-election?
JK: I’ve long believed the main reason we have not had a woman president in this country has to do centrally with issues of national identity. Because the United States sees itself as an incredibly masculine enterprise, with the president as its figurehead, having a woman in that position – especially an explicitly feminist woman – would profoundly disrupt the national psyche. Women politicians need to navigate the symbolic realm as much as they need to raise money and build support within party organizations. I hope this happens one day soon, but it remains an extremely vexing political challenge.