Originally published in October 2007.
Can advocating for a new brand of masculinity find a place in the national conversation about next year’s presidential election? Manhood—even with the presence of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the race—is still a central aspect of presidential politics. In post 9/11 America, the question, “Who is the toughest and strongest, firmest and most decisive candidate to best protect me from the terrorists?” is one most voters would admit, on some level, they are asking themselves. For many, “Who is thoughtful, deliberate, compassionate and collaborative?” is not. It’s not a question we read about in the paper or hear a talking head on a television news program ever raise, and rarely see blogged about online.
Gender, of course, is on display in the campaign; so is race for that matter. The candidacies of Senator Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama have helped to assure us of that. But we’d be missing a lot if we only focused our attention there. Each has bowed under the weight of conventional masculinity’s strong grip: Senator Clinton sounding at times like Margaret Thatcher and, with Senator Obama’s strongly expressed sentiments about sending troops into Pakistan and/or Syria, he sounded a “No More Mr. Nice Guy” message. On the Republican side, all the candidates seem to share at least a common desire to be seen as tough, no-nonsense guys whose shoe sizes are big enough to fit into George Bush’s shoot-first-ask-questions-never cowboy boots.
Nothing out of the ordinary here and, of course, that’s the problem. There is very little questioning of the framework in which the manhood debate is presented. “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” still seems to be the subtext of political life in the United States, a life overrun by male bluster and blather. Candidate Dennis Kucinich, the longtime Ohio congressman, would qualify as an exception, but he continues to be marginalized, in part because of his advocacy for creating a Department of Peace. (What kind of a real man would sponsor a bill like that!?)
Senator Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards have offered tantalizing looks at their “kinder, gentler” sides. Yet their campaigns have carefully studied what happens when they do so and more often than not they have retreated, fearful of the way they have been feminized—seen as too kind, too gentle. Blending the best of new ways for men to be—nurturing, vulnerable—with the best of conventional manhood—decisive and courageous (to carefully name a couple of attributes) creates a middle way, a path wide enough for a lot of different kinds of men to pass through. Whatever one thought of his presidency, for those interested in an example of a political figure representing this middle way blend, think of Jimmy Carter in the years since he left the White House. For those interested in a more contemporary example, think of Al Gore. Both spent time after leaving electoral politics learning more about themselves and sharing with the rest of us a lot of what they learned. Each presented himself as more vulnerable, more open, more real. Maybe not perfect examples, but certainly steps in the right direction.
Showing support for candidates at all levels of elective office who are, for example, actively involved fathers (and who acknowledge the stress running for office places on their role as dad) is one step we can take. Even if we don’t agree with other positions such candidates take—and we choose not to vote for them—we can raise the profile of a more balanced way to think of manhood by pointing to that aspect of their candidacies.
Just as the country as a whole has been well served by having the voices of women in leadership positions across the spectrum of government, so, too, will our future be more secure if the voices of new kinds of men are heard.
It’s up to us to help identify those men, to support them to know they won’t be denigrated for speaking from the heart some of the time. There is no aspect of society—education, sports and entertainment, medicine, the courts—that couldn’t benefit from an infusion of men committed to replacing bravado with humility. Male presidential candidates may not be willing to do so in this coming election, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand they do so anyway, or that we shy away from articulating what we want from men in the days—and elections—ahead.