By Jackson Katz
At first glance, Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders does not project the kind of masculine persona that so many men—white men in particular—seem to be looking for in their would-be presidents. He’s not physically imposing, he’s not a military veteran, and he wouldn’t look remotely convincing in cowboy clothing or accessories. On top of that, he was running for the nomination of a party that has failed to attract a majority of white male voters for decades. And yet despite all of these obstacles, Sanders attracted a passionate following among millions of white middle- and workingclass men. What accounts for this putative paradox? First, what matters most about the kind of masculinity a presidential candidate projects is not a set of objective physical qualities that can be measured easily; sometimes the narrative about who he/she is and stands for is more important. Sometimes it’s about ideology. Take former Republican congressman Ron Paul, who unsuccessfully ran for president three times. The diminutive Paul was not remotely “presidential” in physical stature. But his unapologetic espousal of a radical rugged individualism and his fearlessness in arguing for extreme libertarian positions endeared him to millions of white men, including many guntoting, pickup-driving good ol’ boys, who respected not only his views but also his sincerity in pressing for them, even in the face of impossibly long odds.
Similarly, one of the sources of Bernie Sanders’s appeal was his authenticity at an especially populist moment in American history. He was not a politician pandering for votes; he’d been advocating and agitating for democratic socialist priorities and policies for decades. What is noteworthy is the masculinity politics of his appeal, as well as the downsides of his persona. Let’s start with the downsides. It’s hardly news that Sanders does not fit the central casting definition of an American president. He’s a 74-year-old, white-haired, Jewish politician with glasses who, despite decades of representing rural Vermont, retains his Brooklyn accent. Even though he is intellectually sharp and physically vigorous, his walk and posture make him appear a bit slumped over.
What accounts for his popularity with a significant segment of the Democratic Party electorate? Some of it has to do with the righteous anger he conveys when he talks about income inequality. More than any contemporary Democratic politician, and certainly more than any serious Democratic presidential contender in memory, Sanders communicates not just criticism but also moral outrage about the lack of universal health care, the struggles of workers to make ends meet as wages decline, the increasing shortage of affordable public higher education, and a range of other economic woes. And he does it fearlessly and relentlessly, providing a stark contrast to the cautious corporate centrism that for more than a generation has held such a grip on Democratic Party elites. If, as former Democratic congressmen Barney Frank maintains, millions of blue-collar and middle-class white men have abandoned the Democratic Party in recent decades not because of divisive “social issues” like abortion and gay marriage, but because the party has been insufficiently responsive to their economic plight, Sanders gives them a reason to come back inside the tent. A key part of Sanders’s appeal to men is that he conveys the rough edges of an urban street-brawler who was willing and eager to take on the powers-that-be, especially the “billionaire class” and their representatives in Congress.
Sanders’s candidacy—regardless of how it turns out—might have the effect of helping to remasculinize the Democratic Party by reminding voters that authentic “progressives” are not elitists, as right-wing propaganda maintains, but are the political persuasion—in or outside of the Democratic Party—that actually sticks up for the little person.
Voice Male contributing editor Jackson Katz is the creator of the Media Education Foundation’s award-winning educational documentaries Tough Guise and Tough Guise 2, and author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help. He speaks widely in the U.S. and around the world on violence, media and masculinities.