Why Men Are Drifting to the Far Right
Many men are falling behind. They need meaning and belonging.
Last week, a widely-circulated analysis in the Financial Times confirmed what many researchers had long suspected: The ideological gap between men and women is growing.
Over the past fifteen years, men across the globe have voted for radical right-wing parties at much higher rates. Spain’s far-right, populist, and conspiracy-minded Vox party polls roughly twice as well among men compared with women. While men and women voted for Poland’s anti-democratic Law and Justice Party at similar rates last year, men voted for the even more extreme Konfederacja nearly three times as much as women. Data from a 2009 study of European parties that leaned authoritarian or populist found that men were generally around twice as likely as women to vote for them—and up to five times more likely in the case of the nationalist-populist Swedish Democrats.
It’s not just Europe: Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro performed 10 points better among men than women in the 2018 election which brought him to power. Roughly the same gender difference pushed Argentina’s new populist libertarian leader, Javier Milei, over the top last November.
In some countries, gender aligns very closely with other social or demographic variables like class, education, and employment—but in a number of places, being male makes a big difference, independent of other factors.
The United States is no exception. As women moved strongly to the left, men have moved to the right, creating a gap between male and female voting that was greater for Trump in 2016 than in a half century of exit polling. While much has been written on the role of race in recent elections, gender is playing a crucial and different role. White men formed Trump’s core support in 2016, but by 2020, Trump polled 12 points better with black men than black women, winning 18% of the black male vote.
People who care about democracy could read these numbers and conclude that they should simply double down on getting women to vote. But giving up on half of one’s country is not good civics—nor is it smart electoral math.
The problem is not that men are natural crusaders for authoritarian populists. In fact, American men are much more likely to be politically apathetic, and most young men are better characterized as confused and drifting. The problem is that anti-democratic and violent forces are trying to weaponize that aimlessness. Politics is coming into most men’s lives subtly. They look for belonging, purpose, and advice, and find a mix of grifters, political hacks, and violent extremists who lead them down an ugly road. And few people are fighting back.
Popular culture focuses on Elon Musk, Davos CEOs, and the other men flourishing at the top of society’s heap. But that’s not where the majority of men exist. Men with only a high school diploma typically earned $1,017 a week in today’s dollars in 1979; now they earn $881. More than one in ten men in their prime aren’t working at all.
It’s not just about money, but about status and life satisfaction. Women are out-graduating men from high school and vastly out-competing them in college. These women aren’t so interested in men who are less educated and earn poorly, so men without college degrees are marrying less. Over 1.5 million men aged 20 to 24 aren’t in school, training, or work, and these men are having a lot less sex than past generations and their more productive peers.
Unsurprisingly, young men without college degrees report that they have the least optimism and purpose in life among all the groups of men surveyed by Equimundo. Many have lost a reliable way to earn a living. They also claim to have the least social support and are uncertain how to have basic relationships—with friends, let alone romantic partners. They feel their low status acutely, but because popular culture aggregates their lives with the men at the nosebleed top, they are told by much of the left that they are privileged and should take a back seat.
Many men turn these feelings inward, with the result that nearly three in every four deaths of despair—largely from opioids and suicide—are male. These deaths became so common that they were causing a decline in life expectancy for American men even prior to COVID-19. That is a tragedy for these individuals, their families, and their communities.
But some men seek someone else to blame. That has become a tragedy for our democracy.
For the two-thirds of young men who were willing to admit to researchers that “no one really knows me well,” a sense of community might mean a lot. It might mean even more to men who report having no social activities at all—as one in six of all men with a high school education or less claim. That leaves a lot of time for websurfing and gaming.
And that’s where Steve Bannon found them. Bannon told journalist Joshua Green that he first noticed the “monster power” of “these rootless white males” when he bought a gaming company long before he entered politics. In 2012, when he took over the Breitbart News Network, he hired the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to “activate that army.” Yiannopoulos declared that feminist bullies were tearing the video game industry apart and poured fuel on what became the Gamergate controversy, which catalyzed a harassment campaign against women game developers. As Bannon explained, “They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”
Bannon was hardly alone in noticing a pool of possible recruits. Gavin McInnes, the founder of the violent Proud Boys movement of male Western chauvinists, focused more than half the videos that launched his movement on male victimhood. “Feminism,” he claimed, “isn’t about equality anymore. It’s about taking masculinity away from men.” He offered violence as a way for men who felt their manhood had been threatened to demonstrate their strength and virility. Like martial artists, men can move through four degrees to gain status in the Proud Boys hierarchy—first by submitting to violence from other members of the group (for example, getting punched in the stomach until you can name five breakfast cereals, ostensibly to demonstrate “adrenaline control”), and in the end, carrying out political violence against others in American society.
McInnes follows a long tradition. Globally, violent extremists often look to give men who feel disenfranchised or emasculated in other parts of their lives a way to feel powerful. White supremacists have been recruiting young men on gaming platforms for years, and they are getting more prevalent—the frequency of exposure more than doubled after 2021, with nearly one in five people on gaming platforms reporting that they had seen white supremacist content in 2022.
But more and more often, men are being recruited into extremist politics and violence not via far-right ideology or racism, but simply by trying to figure out how to be a man in a world where gender roles have changed precipitously. Go online and start looking for typical questions that a man might ask in the absence of any friends or role models—like how to find a date, or how to build muscle. Before long, the algorithms pull these unsuspecting guys into the “manosphere”—a world of online men’s support communities that begins with many appealing on-ramps for someone trying to figure out how to live, but ends in a swamp of men endorsing misogyny, hate, and violence.
Nearly half of young men aged 18 to 25 told Equimundo that they trust one or more of the “men’s rights,” anti-feminist, or pro-violence manosphere influencers such as Andrew Tate, a self-described misogynist and MAGA supporter. The manosphere takes the very real problems that men face and blames them on women, cultivating a zero-sum world where men lose if women gain.
Americans spent decades building a path for empowered women and girls, without any accompanying effort to craft a broader and more secure sense of masculinity for the men who needed to stand alongside them. Now we are reaping the backlash.
Some of the answer undoubtedly lies in concrete policies that will help men feel more secure—such as higher wages for blue-collar, traditionally male jobs, and paths to success that hinge on skilled manual labor rather than college degrees.
But it takes a political storyteller to turn material vulnerability into political anger. In addition to improving men’s situations materially, we need to consider how men can have a sense of purpose and status alongside empowered women. Years of cultural tropes have depicted strong, able women and bumbling men who “fail to launch.” We need to depict both men and women as competent adults. Women have been leaning in to mentoring young women for decades—men need to do the same to build real relationships that counteract online manosphere influencers taking over the roles of dads and big brothers.
Authoritarian forces have always supported patriarchal gender roles. Pro-democracy efforts to help men need to understand the power of that siren song.
Psychologists have a saying: “Hurt people hurt people.” Many men in our society are feeling lost, hopeless, and helpless at being unable to articulate their problems in the face of a society focused elsewhere. It’s hurting them, hurting women, and hurting our democracy, too. We must advance, whole, together.
Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
A version of this article was originally published by The American Institute for Boys and Men under the title “To Save Democracy, Help Men.”
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