Overthrowing Democracy Requires Overthrowing Feminism
“Democratic Jewish state.” The Israeli government uses the phrase constantly. But is it an oxymoron? Can a state be democratic—can the whole people rule—while also elevating one group of people, Jews, over another, Palestinians? In a recent essay in the journal Liberties (subscription required), the Israeli-born philosopher Moshe Halbertal answers yes. In his new book, Haifa Republic, the Israeli-born philosopher Omri Boehm says no. I’m honored that these two brilliant men will join us this Friday, November 19, to argue the point.
Speaking of democracy, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley delivered a speech earlier this month warning that progressives have declared war on men. “The left,” he argued, “wants to define traditional masculinity as toxic. They want to define the traditional masculine virtues—things like courage, and independence, and assertiveness—as a danger to society.” That, Hawley explained, is “a crisis for the republic.”
To grasp the significance of what Hawley is saying, you need to remember who he is. He was the first Republican Senator to announce he would oppose certifying Joe Biden’s electoral college victory. He infamously raised his fist to the mob that stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn last fall’s election. Now he’s putting the defense of manliness at the center of his bid to become Trump 2.0.
There’s a reason for that. For today’s hyper-nationalist authoritarians, fear of women’s empowerment and fear of liberal democracy are deeply intertwined.
I didn’t understand that until I came across the work of a political scientist at Texas A&M named Valerie Hudson. (I wrote about Hudson’s work in a 2019 essay for The Atlantic, which I draw upon here.) Hudson argues that in many societies throughout history, government has rested upon a social contract between men: “Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” In those societies, male political dominance appeared legitimate—like adults ruling children—because it mirrored the hierarchy of the home. Women’s rule, by contrast, was considered unnatural. In the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Youths oppress My people, and women rule over them. My people, your leaders mislead you.”
Because men have traditionally deemed women’s political power illegitimate, insurgents have often used the specter of female power to undermine existing regimes. Then upon taking power, they have subordinated women to legitimize their rule. The French revolutionaries made Marie Antoinette the embodiment of the moral corruption of the ancien regime. After overthrowing it they banned women from inheriting property. In the 1970s, Iranian revolutionaries fixated on Princess Ashraf, the powerful and unveiled sister of the Shah. After the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini required all women to wear the veil in public.
A version of this dynamic continues today. In recent years, authoritarian populists across the world have made powerful women symbols of supposedly corrupt political order they wish to overthrow. Again and again during his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump tried to humiliate prominent women—from Fox News’s Megyn Kelly to Republican primary contender Carly Fiorina to MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski to Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren—by making demeaning comments about their bodies and personal appearance. After his second debate with Hillary Clinton, he declared that she had “walked in front of me,” and “believe me, I wasn’t impressed.” Trump’s message was clear: As president, he would put women in their place. He promised a new political order in which all women—no matter how elevated their status—would be graphically reminded that their worth is determined by men. In so doing, Trump tapped into an anxiety among his supporters, more than two-thirds of whom said in an April 2016 poll that American society “is becoming too soft and feminine.” When he led crowds in chants of “lock her up”—something Republican crowds never chanted about John Kerry, Barack Obama or Joe Biden—he incited a fantasy of revenge. In a de-feminized America, women who threatened male power would be not merely defeated but punished.
In other nations, Trump’s ideological cousins have done something similar. To undermine fragile liberal democracies, they have associated them with emasculation. And to signal their restoration of male dominance, they have humiliated powerful women. When Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, voted to impeach his predecessor, Brazil’s first woman president, Dilma Rousseff—who had been tortured by Brazil’s military rulers in the early 1970s—he dedicated the vote to one of that regime’s most infamous torturers. In 2015, he told a Brazilian congresswoman, “I would not rape you, because you are not worthy of it.” When Bolsonaro ran for president, crowds at his rallies chanted that they would feed dog food to feminists.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte—who like Trump and Bolsonaro intermingles extreme misogyny, contempt for the rule of law, and threats of violence—publicly told soldiers in 2018 to shoot female rebels “in the vagina,” because that would render them “useless.” When a female senator called for an investigation into his murderous drug war, Duterte pledged to “make her cry.” His government then arrested her on drug-trafficking charges and leaked evidence supposedly proving, in Duterte’s words, that she was “screwing her driver” like she was “screwing the nation.”
It is this company that Hawley now seeks to enter. Like Trump, he is evoking an American golden age, presumably before the 1960s, in which “traditional masculine virtues” were honored. As it happens, women were largely disempowered during that “golden age.” There was no constitutional right to abortion. There was barely any legal recourse against sexual harassment and assault. Women enjoyed little representation in Congress and a woman president was inconceivable. Not coincidentally, most Black Americans could not vote.
Now Hawley’s party is trying to make it harder for Black Americans to vote, and to ensure that any election won with their votes can be deemed illegitimate and overturned. Which is to say, he’s trying to snuff out America’s brief post-‘60s experiment in multi-racial democracy. And one of the ways he’s trying to do that is by associating that democratic experiment with emasculation, just as Bolsonaro and Duterte have in their countries. It’s no coincidence that Hawley is road-testing this message in the run-up to a presidential election in which the Democrats may nominate a Black woman, Kamala Harris.
When Hawley claims that the attack on men constitutes a “crisis for the republic,” he has it exactly backward. What imperils American democracy is the backlash against Black and female power. That backlash will be on the ballot in 2024.
In Jewish Currents, I argued that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s vision of “shrinking the conflict” between Israel and the Palestinians is not new. Every Israeli government since 1967 has promised Palestinians autonomy and economic development. And it never works because you can’t treat people well while denying their basic rights.
On November 19, for The Foundation for Middle East Peace, I’m interviewing Hasan Hammami, a survivor of The Nakba, along with Nida El-Muti and Dina El-Muti, the daughter and granddaughter of Nakba survivors, in an event entitled, “The Nakba and its Generational Impact on Palestinian lives.”
I haven’t read Karl Marx in a while but I’m pretty sure he didn’t envision communist party leaders eating steak flecked with gold.
See you on Friday,