In simple terms, the story of U.S. democracy is the story of how power and rights first held almost exclusively by white men have been extended, slowly and unevenly, to once-excluded groups. Today, after decades of conflict and change, equality remains elusive, but people of color, women and LGBTQIA+ people have more power than ever before.
But for white men, and especially working-class white men, the changes have often come at a perceived cost. Increasingly, they are turning against democracy itself — and in the view of Berkeley political scientist Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, we should not be surprised.
In extensive research on the psychology of political behavior, Mo has traced how people who feel left behind can be the source of destabilizing discontent within a society.
It happened during the French Revolution, she said in a recent interview. And it’s happening today in the United States, where a powerful bloc of white men — alienated by profound economic, technological and cultural change — are resentful and antagonistic to the status quo.
In the interview, Mo described a pattern of aggrieved men that is flaring up across the globe. While racism has long been a powerful factor in voting, she said, research shows that the relatively recent rise of women in politics has provoked a dramatic, parallel increase in political sexism.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Berkeley News: Looking at the anti-democratic trends in U.S. politics, do you think we can conclude that these are driven to some extent by a backlash against the economic and social changes that have eroded the status of white men — and especially white working-class men — over the past 50 years?
Cecilia Hyunjung Mo: I would say yes. And I say that because the reactions of white males in the U.S. and other Western democracies is not entirely irrational. Some degree of backlash is what we would expect to see given what we know about the psychology of human behavior.
If you’ve been accustomed to being at the top — if that’s what you’ve known, how you’ve been socialized, and what history has taught you — then it is not unreasonable for you to start assuming that, “We’re supposed to be at the top.” As a consequence, if you start believing that there are other groups surpassing you, doing better than you think your group is doing, then it makes sense that you start feeling discontent.
You think, “I feel like I’m losing.” And this may be particularly intolerable for men, given socialized masculine traits. Think of how boys and men traditionally have been socialized. You often learn that as a man, you’re supposed to be dominant and aggressive. You’re supposed to be competitive. You’re supposed to win. So, white men are a group that is increasingly, especially over the last decade, feeling like they have less than they should.
White men have lost some power, but they generally remain in a dominant position in wages, in executive positions, in political representation —
Think about the French Revolution. Tocqueville observed that “the parts of France that were to become the principal center of that revolution were precisely those where progress was most evident.” Tocqueville theorized that this was, in part, because of the gap between what citizens feel they should have and what they actually have — a concept that has been termed the “aspirations gap” by the economist Debraj Ray.
One can feel disaffected in the face of apparent prosperity when expectations far exceed reality. I was part of a research team that saw evidence of the power of an aspirations gap. Feeling left behind can lead to opposition party victories, political protests, and even outright rebellion.
Today, we’re seeing the advancement of women and several minority groups. We’re increasingly talking about issues of inequality. But if you’re thinking, “I’m not on top anymore and I should be on top,” then you might start feeling aggrieved by these changes.
This resentment, this psychological disposition among white men — is this a conscious decision? Is it happening below the surface? Or both?
Disgruntled individuals are likely not fully conscious of the origins of their resentment. And there are leaders who can leverage those feelings. They can pour fuel on the resentment and build support by making these individuals feel like, of course they should be angry.
For example, as many analysts have identified, Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration speech — and campaign — that spoke of “forgotten men and women of our country,” struck a chord with Americans who felt increasingly alienated from Washington, because they felt worse off as they were witnessing success around them.
This sounds like an algorithm that would drive radicalization.
Behavioral models show that when you’re in the domain of loss, you are also more risk-tolerant. When people are more risk-tolerant, it’s easier to convince them to make choices that aren’t necessarily the best choices, like taking part in an insurgency.
It’s sort of a perfect storm: People are angry about what they feel they’ve lost, which results in them being more willing to take risks and more susceptible to listen to rhetoric that makes them feel justified for feeling upset.
I can’t help but notice that this description might apply directly to the movement led by Donald Trump.
This is one thing Trump has done really well. Perhaps due to his experience in World Wrestling Entertainment, he fights opponents like they’re in a wrestling ring with him. He has leaned into the machismo-laden entertainment world of his past, where he makes it clear to his audience that you’re either a winner or loser — and he’s a winner.
He couples that with rhetoric that tells angry, alienated individuals, particularly men, that they are losing, and that people like them used to win. Take his campaign slogan, Make American Great Again. He’s reminding people, “It’s not as great as it used to be, and things should be better for you.”
I think back to Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who was elected governor of Minnesota, or to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played hyper-masculine, agent-of-vengeance roles in films before he was elected governor of California. Were they early signals of the nostalgia for white male dominance?
People like Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger capture the minds and hearts of a subset of the population for a reason. That strong male figure resonates among those who ascribe to traditional views of masculine and feminine roles.
What does that say about men’s political relationships to women?
I’m currently doing some research on the role of general sexism. There’s been a lot of research on the extent to which sexism affected voter support for Hillary Rodham Clinton (the Democratic nominee for president in 2016) because she was a female candidate. But even with the 2020 election, where the candidates for both of the main political parties in the U.S. were men, we are seeing that underlying gender attitudes of voters mattered hugely for what candidate people favored.
There are men feeling left behind relative to women, and simultaneously, there’s more attention to advancing women, whether through quotas or through a range of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging programs.
This subset of men may perceive that institutions are making efforts to help “all of these people that are not me,” which means women and people of color. Racism has long-affected voting behavior, but sexism is now increasingly rearing its head.
But women, like people of color, generally continue to be at a disadvantage — in median wages, in representation in business leadership, in political representation. So why the objection?
Among some people, there is a growing sense that discrimination against women is just not an issue. And we’re seeing that not just in the U.S., but across a number of advanced democracies in both the East and the West.
There is a forthcoming study by Eva Anduiza and Guillem Rico (both of Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) that examined a panel of individuals in Spain over time. They asked their respondents several questions to assess their levels of modern sexism, which is a measure of whether or not you think discrimination against women actually exists and resent efforts to name or address gender inequities. They were asked questions like, “to what extent do you agree or disagree that discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States?”
In Spain, they saw that levels of modern sexism changed over time, especially with the rise of the #MeToo movement. They observed that modern sexism in Spain initially went down. But after a while, it started increasing among some people — especially people more attracted to right-wing candidates. They observed that increases in modern sexism contributed significantly to the recent emergence of the radical right in Spain.
In South Korea, the new conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, won a very close election this year. The group that helped him win were young men. They supported Yoon’s determination to get rid of any quotas to ensure greater female representation in public positions, and his campaign pledge to get rid of South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
Additionally, in current work I’m doing in the U.S., my collaborators and I see preliminary evidence that modern sexism and some other dimensions of sexism seem to be a lot more predictive of voting now than they were in the past.
These constituencies seem to be arguing, “Gender discrimination doesn’t exist anymore. We need to stop caring about advancing women. Women are getting too much. Men are being left behind. And we don’t like government agencies and taxpayer dollars being invested in trying to remedy some form of discrimination that we don’t think exists anymore.”
These men in Korea, or Spain, or the U.S., those who believe society is giving women unfair advantages — what do we say to them?
It’s difficult to have this conversation. You can show people objective measures. There’s still a wage gap. There is a gender gap in political representation, and in some countries like the U.S., we have never had a female president. Women are only a small fraction of CEOs. But it’s not as if those numbers haven’t been out there.
Even if these numbers are known, there are ways in which people may justify the wage gap and the underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership. They might tell themselves that men are perhaps better leaders. Or they may tell themselves that women would rather raise a family instead of focusing on their careers.
Do you see evidence of a generational difference among men in the U.S.? My assumption is that younger men here have been raised in a more egalitarian culture and are more accepting of sharing power with women.
It’s important to note that the absolute number of angry men has not grown. A more visible group does not necessitate a larger group. You can say this about racism, too. Levels of racism has gone down over time. In some ways, however, it feels like racism is much more present right now. And it’s partly because the groups that are angry are more organized.
What Trump and a number of right-wing groups have enabled is the organization of the disaffected. While the number of disaffected, aggrieved white men is not necessarily larger than in the past, they have more influence because they’re organized. They show up to the ballot box, they donate money to candidates that sympathize with them, they protest against candidates and groups that don’t. They’re in the news. They’re more visible.
Are you saying that the advent of social media over the past decade or so is driving this dynamic?
Social media is part of the story. Through these platforms, people can find other like-minded people across geographic boundaries, and entrepreneurial individuals and groups that want to leverage feelings of resentment and anger can more effectively organize them.
But importantly, having a person in a position of power that validates their frustrations and policy preferences is also important. Trump has been serving that role. Having the president of the United States champion their causes emboldened the aggrieved white male, and as their grievances were being amplified, they were made to feel that something could actually be done to address their concerns.
Having a visible leader validate and echo their concerns gives followers the feeling that someone is going to take care of them.
In effect, over the past 50 years or so, we’ve decided to make our society more democratic. We’ve increased rights and opportunity for people of color, women and LGBTQIA+ people. At about the same time, manufacturing jobs plunge, and technology fundamentally changes. With such vast change, didn’t we need to have a conversation with all of the affected communities about the social impacts of this change and how we could temper the impact?
I don’t think we’ve had an effective conversation on what it means to share power. There are feelings that advancement is a zero-sum game and power has to be taken away from one group for another group to advance. If things are seen this way, then people think, “Whatever gains a woman or a person of color achieves necessarily means that there’s less for us.”
The question is: How do we have a conversation, trying to switch from a zero-sum mindset to a growing-the-pie mindset? Where it doesn’t feel like when members of my out-group gains, members of my in-groups necessarily have to lose.
You’ve described this population of men who are often genuinely vulnerable. But their grievance has been cultivated and encouraged by leaders who sometimes are pouring gas on the fire. Their movement becomes anti-democratic. How do we put the fire out?
It is a good first step to try to understand why the backlash is occurring. It’s important to not simply dismiss this group as irrational. There are reasons for why they are upset.
There are consequences if we’re not vigilant about the sources of people’s disaffection. Trust in each other, in our public institutions and in our leaders can be completely undermined. This loss of trust can undermine efforts to build a peaceful and inclusive society, and further widen the gap between the democratic ideal and how democracy is practiced.