Why Some Women Still Vote Republican and What Can be Done About It

by Valerie Tarico

Cross-posted from ValerieTarico.com

Republican women 2Lists of crazy comments about women by Republican men have been an internet staple for years. If the party agenda were to alienate as many females as possible, they should be doing quite well.

Worse yet, from an impact standpoint, the policy priorities of Republican electeds match their expressed attitudes. Equal pay? Contraception? Abortion? Paid family leave? Childcare support? Forget it.

And then there’s behavior.

As Leonard Pitts Jr. put it, here is where we stand:

After supporting senatorial candidate Roy Moore (a credibly accused child molester) President Donald Trump (a confessed perpetrator of sexual assault) has nominated to the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh (a credibly accused attempted rapist) who would, if confirmed, serve alongside Clarence Thomas (a credibly accused sexual harasser).

The Grand Old Party isn’t much of a party for women; it’s more like a frat party—a power-drunk letch-fest. The Grand Old Boys Party.

One might think by now that Republican and woman would be a contradiction in terms. Granted, college-educated women are trickling away from the GOP; that should be no surprise. The head scratcher is that any stay. WTF. Before you decide that all female Republicans must be brainless or bad, and therefore hopeless, consider the following:

Dominance Hierarchies—Left-leaning activists often want to upend traditional power structures, but all of our nearest animal ancestors and many other social species are hierarchical—most often with dominant males at the top. Hierarchy is adaptive for them, and the preferences that create it are rooted deep in evolutionary biology. There’s reason to believe that we humans carry some of the same instinctive social dynamics. That is not to say we have no alternatives, either as individuals or as societies. One of the awesome things about our capacity for higher-order reasoning is that we don’t have to live according to instinct. But it should come as no surprise that some not-brainless women find traditional power structures efficient, familiar, comforting, or otherwise attractive.

Religion—There’s a reason that devout religionists are fundamentally conservative. Religion takes instinct and transmogrifies it into immutable rules and rituals. What may have started out as a biologically-based inclination or simply a practical part of life at a given time and place (like gender roles in the Ancient Near East 2500 years ago) gets locked in as self-perpetuating, inflexible dogma.

Religious ideologies can arouse powerful moral emotions in believers so that protecting traditional religiously-sanctioned social structures feels good and righteous. For religious women, this can make ideas like gender equality and reproductive freedom feel wrong. As is clear from stories of those who have left conservative religious communities, no other force in our society so strongly organizes women against women. Even if you think that religions are mind viruses—essentially socially-transmitted infections, some worse than others—(as I do), one can still concede that bad kinds of infections can happen to people who are otherwise decent and healthy.

Tribal Identities—None of us are as independent in forming our political opinions as we like to think. Our sense of reality is socially constructed, and one of the most powerful forces shaping our beliefs is the kinds of reactions we get from people around us. Secularists point out that religious belief is geographically distributed—that most born-again Christians have simply acceded to the beliefs of their childhood communities and if they had been born in India would most likely be Hindu or Muslim. But once we belong to a tribe, no matter how we got there, the worldview of the tribe feels right and righteous.

The same is true of political tribes. About 7 in 10 teens say their political views are “about the same” as their parents. A similar percent say they follow the same religion as their parents. These two facts are not independent. As testimonies of former Christians show, when people change their religion, their politics often change too. Whether this is primarily because their internal world gets reconfigured or because their external world gets reconfigured, we don’t yet know.

Information Silos—One of the ways that tribes maintain separate identities is by regulating information flow—by sanctioning some written texts but not others, elevating some authorities but not others, promoting some information channels (literally) and encouraging insiders to associate with insiders. The Christian New Testament puts it this way: “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” But even without the encouragement, we tend to gravitate toward people who think like us and reinforce our existing biases and points of view.

The end result in an age that offers thousands of media channels, some of which adapt content to our individual likes and dislikes, is that Republican women on the whole are living in a very different narrative universe than the one Democratic women are living in. The Donald Trump they voted for is not the Donald Trump you voted against. The Brett Kavanaugh they think they support as a Supreme Court Justice is not the teenage sexual assailant or slippery ideologue you think should be no-where near the nation’s high court.

Left-Wing Excesses—Republicans aren’t the only ones who live in intellectually-gated communities. One of the accusations hurled against progressives is that we like every kind of diversity except diversity of thought. When we isolate ourselves from people who don’t think like us, the stories we tell ourselves about class, race, gender, immigration, the environment—and hated Republican ideologues—become more and more streamlined, less nuanced, and—if we are honest—less reflective of the complicated realities that govern our lives. The robes of our heroes get bleached; those of our opponents get blackened—until we find ourselves in a satisfying world of saints and epic villains. Small wonder, with the narrative world split like this, that there are conservatives who play up our excesses, and middling folks who can’t see past them.

Multifaceted Political Priorities—Even setting aside these factors, identity isn’t as neat and clean as our intersectional grid of oppressed and oppressor identities would have us believe. Yes, women have been subject to men for millennia, with our subjugation sanctified by religion and culture. And yes, women who adhere to this worldview are disproportionately Republican. But even for women who have unshackled from conservative culture and religion—who prefer real gender equality—there is no reason to think that gender issues should dominate their political agenda.

I spend much of my time writing about how Abrahamic religion denigrates women, turning us into literal chattel. I feel so strongly about reproductive autonomy that I once wrote an article titled, “Why I’m pro-abortion and not just pro-choice.” But I think that climate change is the core moral issue of our time; and if I had to choose between a political candidate who would do something about climate and one who would protect abortion rights, I would choose the former. I’m grateful that I haven’t faced this choice. But we need to recognize that women who vote Republican may have to make equally tough choices when their values are in conflict. I need to grant them the same complicated individuality that I grant myself.

So, Simply Accept This Ridiculous State of Affairs?

No. That is not what I’m saying. The Republican Party has become a haven for sexists to the point that hostility toward women predicted Trump support better than authoritarianism and as well as racism.  Some things need challenging, and this is one of them.

People do change, less than we previously thought—and we don’t fully understand the process—but they do. Also, a meaningful shift in policy priorities or candidate preferences may not require much change at all. Because we all contain a myriad of values and priorities, sometimes it’s just a matter of what grabs our emotions or is front of mind. Remember, it’s not always a matter of winning someone over to your point of view or your tribe. Shifts in priorities within the Republican Party are consequential. So, it’s worth doing what we can.

Be appealing. When you encounter a Republican woman online or in real life, imagine that you might end up neighbors or co-workers—or even (radical thought) friends. Comport yourself as if this were the case. Listen, be respectful of what there is to respect, show your own humanity, challenge selectively and carefully within a context of relatedness. You’re never going to complicate the perspective of someone who you don’t like and who doesn’t like you, and a steady diet of disagreement is a formula for dislike. Marital therapists say that we need five positive points of contact for every negative. Even Evangelicals—who are bound by their religion to be constantly on the make—have figured this out and have cultivated expertise in what they call “relational apologetics” and “friendship missionaries.” And who knows? Sometimes even missionaries learn a thing or two.

Challenge the power of religion in society. The gloves come off when it comes to institutions, and to my mind the corrosive power of religion in modern life signals that it’s time to stop genuflecting and start fighting back. As the Catholic pedophilia cover-ups, the political “Moral Majority,” and the emergence of ISIS demonstrate, religion doesn’t deserve the free pass it has gotten for so long.

Because the Church claims to be a fount of truth and goodness, one of the most powerful ways to fight back is to expose the complicated realities that belie these claims. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has long published a “Black Collar Crime Blotter” as part of their monthly newsletter. They also fight in court to prevent aggressive religions from imposing their theologies on the rest of us.

The ACLU has dedicated staff working on the problem of Catholic hospitals, which are more than 90 percent funded by public dollars and patient fees but deny patients the full range of care based on religious theologies. Support their work. Advocate to end the tax-free status of religious institutions, which allows them to rely on public services they didn’t help to fund. Support survivor groups and lawsuits against religious institutions and leaders that engage in bad behavior. The wealth of the Catholic Church, one of the world’s richest real-estate owners, has given them particular undue political influence.  Some of that wealth should be going as restitution to address the harms they have done.

Inoculate your children against fundamentalisms. Your children will be voting sooner than you think. More importantly, they are going to face the challenge of living well in our complicated world. But as they come of age conservative fundamentalists will be targeting them for conversion, offering a simplistic set of answers to life’s big questions. (See Katherine Stewart’s book, The Good News Club, or related articles.) To understand our world, your kids will need to understand how religion works and how science works and why only one of them helps us to understand and solve real world problems. Don’t assume that raising them in a free-thinking or liberal religious mindset is enough. Even good people can fall for bad ideas—and for girls, traditional religious ideas can lead them to loathe their own curiosity and independence, or to support institutions that do.

Create space for flexible men. Right now the left is telling white males that there is no place for them in our aspirational future. You’ve had your turn on top, we say, as if one man were interchangeable with another—as if the son of an unemployed Appalachian coal miner were somehow one of a kind with the coal baron who employed his grandfather. As if he were, consequently, more privileged than the daughter of an Indian doctor with a Harvard degree, and more worthy of our compassion. Roles for men are changing and, yes, some have reacted by retrenching into contempt and arrogance and attempts to reassert old race, class, and gender privilege. But what alternative are we offering them? We’ve spent almost two generations now telling young women that they don’t need to abide by traditional gender roles; that they can be anything they want. But young men haven’t gotten the same message. A lot of young men are trapped in traditional roles, with the culture at large saying those roles are obsolete. Trapped animals fight to the death; those that have other options often take them.

What might it mean to invite both women and men into a flexible future in which they can picture themselves with dignity, respect, and opportunity?

Capture territory. The Right gained a lot of power in the last 30 years by being intractable and irrational, by acting as if the world were black and white. Anyone who’s not for us is against us. At first, the Gingrich strategy of hyper-partisan obstructionism caught sensible people off guard. Think of Barack Obama patiently trying to court Republican support for what had been their own version of healthcare reform. Later, many of us on the Left decided we had to fight fire with fire. We amped up our own rhetoric and intransigence and built communications outlets that—even if they couldn’t out-crazy Breitbart or Infowars or Fox—at least created a counterweight. But the middle couldn’t hold, and that has left some people feeling politically homeless despite the fact that they consistently vote for—or even fund—one side of the aisle.

This leaves a lot of territory—policy priorities, constituencies, and rhetoric—wide open. Who, for example, puts the interests of the middle class above both rich and poor? Who speaks for people who both believe that capitalism improves lives and also believe in market failures—or that greed is destructive? How about those who believe that polities should manage immigration while also believing that our current system is cruel and unjust? How about those who value a social safety net and also worry about national debt? Our rhetoric has become so incendiary that someone espousing these positions is likely to be seen by each side as a member of the other. That’s a problem. It’s also an opportunity, because  family-friendly, woman-friendly economic policies can cross the aisle.

Support bridge builders. If Republican women are going to walk away from fraternity island and settle in somewhere else, they need bridges to walk on, and that takes bridge builders. Some people are trying to play that role, and they need your support or engagement. Van Jones and his work at Rebuild the Dream comes to mind as a smart example. Several smaller start-ups are explicitly working on helping people figure out left-right communications (especially the listening part).

We can write off Republican women if we choose. We can walk away with an incredulous WTF, a shrug, or a sigh of hopelessness. I’ve done this many times. Persisting in an attempt to reach out, either collectively or individually, can be harder than fighting the good fight. It’s viscerally less righteous, and it doesn’t always work. The only thing guaranteed is that we can’t make a difference if we don’t try.