March 8, 2008


This Bud's for you: Ronald Reagan's ability to get working men to vote for policies that were clearly not in their interests casts a long shadow over US politics post 9/11. The crisis of American masculinity is targeted not only by advertising but also by politics. In the US presidential race, winning the masculinity battle will be crucial (Katrine Kielos, Eurozine)

In the late 1970s, it all collapsed again. Inflation rates in the USA went into double figures, a deep recession followed and unemployment exploded. Japanese industry celebrated fresh triumphs, which the USA perceived as a humiliation. As it did the long delay in releasing the hostages from the Iranian embassy.

Cultural tensions increased among those men who had been hit hardest by the economic crisis. Their sense of powerlessness and of losing control generated a demand for something to explain this identity crisis and to create a new sense of meaning. This time, however, it was not just Budweiser and other companies who rose to the challenge, but also politics. Ronald Reagan entered the scene with a conscious strategy of reaching the American working classes through this very crisis of masculinity.

In 1980, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan's head strategy adviser, made a discovery that fundamentally changed American politics. Wirthlin was a public opinion analyst and as such he had been trained to believe that people vote for candidates on the basis of candidates' stance on issues. When the first opinion polls of Reagan showed that people who did not share Reagan's views at all – and were fully aware of it – still wanted to vote for him, Wirthlin began to study the phenomenon more closely.

It emerged that what tipped the balance was the fact that people identified with Reagan. Identification is the result of a variety of factors, but in Reagan's case the most important of these was his ability to personify a new masculinity. Reagan's image was of a man of action, doing battle against evil: Muammar Gaddafi, Manuel Noriega, the Sandinistas, the Soviet Union.

What is interesting is not the fact that Reagan played on the myth of masculinity; all politicians have to do that. (Female candidates perhaps most of all, as they must constantly juggle with the impossible paradox: how to appear tough enough, but not too tough?) Of far greater interest is the fact that this led to a historic shift in patterns of voter behaviour. Working-class men, many of them life-long Democrats, changed party to support what they perceived as Ronald Reagan's exhortation to restore American masculinity, and with it the USA as a nation.

Ronald Reagan, like John F. Kennedy, played consciously on the prevailing Hollywood ideal of masculinity. But where Kennedy turned masculinity to represent a strong society, co-operation across bloc boundaries, investment in science, and to harness collective efforts to put a man on the moon, Reagan sent the myth off in other directions.

Reagan made himself the independent hero. The solitary hero, intrepidly resisting authority. In order to create a new identity and render itself still useful, American masculinity needed a new enemy. Something to go out and do battle with. Reagan produced such an enemy. Authority was defined as the public sector; Reagan promised to lead the battle and restore American masculinity, which had been feminised and nannied by an over-large, over-protective state.

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help.
Working with skilful political strategists, Ronald Reagan succeeded in pairing the American masculinity myth with the prevailing neoliberal ideology of the time. From Reagan's speeches about "The New Goldrush", middle-class men extracted a new identity in which masculinity meant competition to be the one earning most money on Wall Street, in the Texas oil industry, or the expanding Silicon Valley.

Okay, we get the part about our being too stupid to realize that Reagan was shafting us with our own votes, but how do we explain how much better off this made us? After all, when the Gipper took office world GDP was under $2 trillion. Today American GDP alone is over $14 trillion. Imagine if we'd been smart enough to vote our self-interest?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 8, 2008 8:38 AM

If the world had to endure another 4 years of Carter, when the wall finally came down, the flow of people might have been in the other direction.

Posted by: mike m at March 8, 2008 10:34 AM

Authority was defined as the public sector...

Um, isn't authority always vested in the public sector?

Posted by: Brandon at March 8, 2008 11:37 AM

There's only one Authority and He's not public.

Posted by: oj at March 8, 2008 3:24 PM

Masculinity? All you have to do is act like you won't be bullied. See Margret Thatcher - she didn't act masculine, she just refused to be bullied away from what she knew was right.

The operative word the author is looking for isn't 'masculinity' it is 'spine' - and all of its derivatives.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 8, 2008 4:56 PM

Leftists in general, and Marxist in particular seem to labor under the notion the world is a static, monolithic thing, (paradoxically) incapable of change.

"we are going to take the means of production and divide it up so everything is fair"

The problem is, divided something up -evenly- that is changing rapidly, is a really tough thing to do.

Posted by: Perry at March 8, 2008 7:29 PM