Is the GOP man enough for the 21st century?

The party of "stuffy old men" needs to catch up to contemporary (and fluid) ideals of manhood

By Marc Shaw - Elwood Watson
Published July 7, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)
                                            (AP/Jay Laprete)
(AP/Jay Laprete)

Watch ESPN for 30 minutes and you will discover a wide range of images of manhood. Commercials for Samsung smartphones and Dove skin-care products feature Miami Heat stars at home playing with their children in cozy, high-definition fatherhood. The Old Spice guy (“The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”) and Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World pitch their products from their peaks of exaggerated manly perfection. And the summer blockbuster "Man of Steel" appears all over the network as an NBA-playoff sponsor (although Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, may be a more intriguing masculine type to us mortals). Sports TV still traffics in certain stereotypes, but it does offer a lot of different visions of what it means to be a man.

Now click over to CNN/Fox News/MSNBC lately and you will witness another sort of masculinity, not fluid, but frozen in time.  It’s the crisis of a dying political party. What was once the Grand Old Party now gazes in the mirror at the Grumpy Old Person, and that body is increasingly male, aging, white and out of touch.

We are not being insolent with these remarks: These are all ideas coming from the Republican Party itself in recent months. Republicans know about their increasingly dated identity, and they want to change. In separate self-studies conducted by the Republican National Committee and the College Republican National Committee since last November’s national election loss, the conclusions point to the need for a more open-minded, inclusive and caring GOP.  From the RNC study:

[F]ocus groups were conducted in Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa, to listen to voters who used to consider themselves Republicans. These are voters who recently left the Party. Asked to describe Republicans, they said that the Party is “scary,” “narrow minded,” and “out of touch” and that we were a Party of “stuffy old men.” This is consistent with the findings of other post-election surveys.

And from the CRNC:

In the focus group research conducted in January 2013, the young “winnable” Obama voters [voters who might have switched their Obama vote to Romney] were asked to say what words came to mind when they heard “Republican Party.” The responses were brutal: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned. When someone purchases a product, in some ways they are buying into the value system espoused by the brand. With a list of attributes like that, who would want to buy the product the GOP is selling?

In June, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham advanced the “stuffy old men” persona even further, warning that his party is in a “demographic death spiral” -- making all future national elections a certain-death experience unless the GOP makes positive strides on immigration reform (and, we would say, other issues too).

The GOP needs to act differently to change its identity. But can it act or will it just talk?

Voters see the GOP as “stuffy old men” because they have gendered themselves thus nationally.  With Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin’s departures from office, only Kelly Ayotte and Nikki Haley come to mind as female elected leaders moving up the party ranks. The CRNC survey showed the diverse group of “Pelosi, the Clintons, Obama, Kennedy, [and] Gore” named as leaders of the Democratic Party by the “winnable” young voters; however, the same surveyed group considered “Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, [and] Glenn Beck” as current Republican Party heads. You can make your own conclusions about that homogeneous trifecta as “stuffy old men.” But most surprising, those Republican leaders are literally “all talk” outside of political office — none elected by the people.

What changes can be made?  If our identity, like gender, is a fluid thing, always in motion and re-creating itself, what new direction can the GOP take? We consider gender to be a repeated set of actions (the way you act your masculinity or femininity every day repeats and repeats until it becomes “natural” to you).  Women, minorities and youth are leaving the GOP nationally because of the party’s repeated set of inactions on issues that matter to them.

This might help: The CRNC report, “Grand Old Party for a New Generation,” concludes that the GOP should be more “open-minded” and “caring.” While the report concedes that those two positive attributes are more naturally a part of the Democrats’ identity, it insists, “’Caring’ does not have to equal ‘giving out free stuff,’ and ‘open-minded’ does not have to equal ‘being liberal.’ It’s time we [the GOP] try to take these attributes back. Even if we don’t win them, we must put up a fight.”

Gov. Chris Christie exemplified open-mindedness and caring after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey in late 2012. He was open-minded enough to meet and praise President Obama, which stemmed from a genuine desire to rebuild his Garden State. Christie’s caring motivated his conciliatory reach across party lines. He did not try to outdo or “out-muscle” his opponent.   The political result for the governor: His approval ratings skyrocketed in a state that voted for Obama.

If the Republicans want to reform themselves “for a new generation,” they could start with more open-mindedness on immigration reform, gay marriage and reducing student debt. They could demonstrate more caring toward the 47 percent. They should work to create jobs and lift the poor instead of blaming them behind closed doors.

Becoming more open-minded and caring lies in how Republicans see masculinity. Their shift to a party for the 21st century is partially linked to how they can be more flexible and modern in that masculine identity — moving away from “stuffy old men” and becoming more open-minded and caring people. For years the Republicans have seen themselves as the party of traditional manliness. They cast the Democrats as weak or effeminate or too caring. In a Darwinian world, they are proud to be the party of the strong and rich (they are viewed this way by many surveyed in the CRNC report). Despite calls for “compassionate conservatism” our “kinder, gentler nation” has suffered recently because of Republican attempts to prove their manhood.

In our anthology, "Performing American Masculinities: The 21st Century Man in Popular Culture" (Indiana University Press, 2011), we examine the notions of masculinity present in the conservative ranks during George W. Bush’s presidency. While Bush was known for his cowboy swagger, others outside the White House enacted a traditional masculinist style too.  It’s worth quoting ourselves a bit here to show the mind-set of some conservative thinkers only 10 years ago:

In September 2003, the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank and a contributor to many of the Bush administration’s policies and ideas, focused its American Enterprise Magazine on the no­tion of traditional masculinity. […] The cover stated in thick, bold, black letters: “Real Men: They’re Back.” Throughout the magazine, it was suggested that, in the post–9/11 era, we are in need of manly men to protect us at all times. One article, for example, is named “The Return of Manly Leaders and the Americans Who Love Them.” Other articles are titled “Political Virility,” “What Men Think about Modern Manhood,” “What Women Think about Modern Manhood,” “Is Manliness Optional?” and “Can Art Be Manly Again?” In his article in the same issue, “Why We Need Macho Men,” Steve Sailer wondered if one of the reasons Al Gore lost in 2000 was because he has a sibilant lisp, making him sound a bit gay. The author did not men­tion that, according to the popular vote, more Americans actually voted for Gore than for Bush; the general public could not have been put off that much. The magazine systematically presented “real men” as super­men, as hypermasculine constructions that we were supposed to believe described Bush and his administration—typified by the edition’s cover, showcasing the silhouette of a tall, muscular man standing in the flam­ing wreckage of the Twin Towers, or the Baghdad Green Zone. This superhero figure stood poised to take on the world or, to the contrary and ironically—if more recent history is our guide—to leave massive destruc­tion in his wake.

The future of the GOP should stand in contrast to that superhero image. Men are not supermen. There is no such thing as a singular “real man.” You are not inherently better because of your masculinity, your sex or your sexuality.  As we witnessed on ESPN, there are a range of masculinities: some domestic, some nerdy, some active and muscular, some working-class, some average Joes. Save the hypermasculine absolutes for comic commercials and superhero fictions.  And, looking forward, it will be interesting to see how masculine anxiety will rise to the surface if Hillary Clinton is the 2016 presidential nominee.

Look at the contrast between the lasting images from the recent election. The most shared image on Twitter was the president hugging Michelle Obama with the caption “Four More Years.” (Obama inhabits an authentic, cool, domesticated-but-tough fatherhood that he astutely leverages in political situations: publically evoking his position as a father during national debates on Trayvon Martin, gay marriage and the Aurora massacre.)  Unfortunately, the most memorable image of masculinity from the Romney/Ryan ticket was of Paul Ryan pumping iron in Time magazine.

Awareness is a step, but the GOP can’t change its gray and aging persona with focus groups and talk.  It needs to take active, fresh steps in policy to move toward a more open-minded and caring identity.

Marc Shaw

Marc Shaw is an associate professor of theatre arts at Hartwick College.


Elwood Watson

Elwood Watson is a full professor of history, African American studies, and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.

MORE FROM Elwood Watson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Gender Gop Masculinity Republican Party Republicans