Girlie Men and the Great Democratic Disconnect

This summer Boston and New York hosted two pageants of militarized manhood, the Democratic and Republican conventions respectively. Viewed through a gendered lens, the spectacle of Bush and Kerry competing for strongest Male Warrior was hard to watch and even harder to take. One was thrust violently back in time, not just to Vietnam days but way, way back along a timeline stretching from the Cold War to the Crusades.

The strategy worked for Bush whose approval ratings soared, but not, alas, for John Kerry. The Democrats like to pin the blame on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but the truth is they blew it. Militarized Manhood may sell well on the Right, which is already solidly behind Bush, but the rest of the culture has mercifully moved on and Kerry’s swift boat has not proved swift enough to keep up with it.

At a time when gender roles are rapidly changing, especially among the young, when gay marriage is on the table, when a majority of the public doubts the wisdom of the Iraq war and many fear the reimposition of the draft, playing the male military card is not the way to win the game. Belatedly, the Democrats are beginning to figure this out.

In early September, they appealed to their own Great Communicator, Bill Clinton, in the hospital for heart surgery, to put heart back into the campaign. From his hospital bed, Clinton reportedly told Kerry that he needed to de-emphasize Vietnam and emphasize jobs and healthcare instead. At least look like a liberal, even if it’s a sham.

But is Kerry up to the task ? or for that matter, is the Democratic Party?

The trouble is that under the leadership of the conservative DLC, the party has all but severed itself from its liberal roots, becoming the flagship of neoliberal austerity. It was Clinton, after all, who in 1996 signed welfare ?reform’ measures into law that overturned 60 years of guaranteed federal entitlements to poor families.

Punitive measures against immigrants also escalated on Clinton’s watch, and the prison-industrial complex grew at an unprecedented rate. The main strategy for dealing with the poor, especially men of color, was to call them enemies in the war on drugs and herd them into prisons. It is a sad irony that in the 2004 presidential election the Republicans benefited from this mass incarceration in states like Florida where felons are disenfranchised.

With this heartless legacy, it’s hard for a Democrat to look like he has a heart, unless it’s on the operating table. Maybe that’s why Kerry and Edward’s words ring so phony and passionless. There is no real liberal fire in them. There was some in Howard Dean, but it got extinguished when the media decided he let out too much of a shriek. Acted too emotional. Too hysterical. Acted like a woman, or as Arnold Schwarzenegger might put it, like a “girlie man.”

On the other hand, if Bush can lie so well, why can’t Kerry? Why can’t he pretend he’s a liberal and put some passion back in the campaign? Embrace all those girlie men issues like reproductive rights and keeping libraries open and educating children and ending poverty and war and protecting the environment and keeping the judiciary free of neanderthals. Be a strong man in a girlie man sort of way. It might just win him the support he so desperately needs.

At this point I don’t care if Kerry lies. I just want him to lie better than Bush because I want him to win. Granted it’s not a great choice, but I’ll take the neoliberals over the neocons any day.

— Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and the author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs and a political thriller about the Far Right, The Truth about Fire.

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