Sen. Josh Hawley walked into the U.S. Capitol on a Tuesday evening in March in cowboy boots and Ralph Lauren jeans.

For most votes, senators are wearing suits. They come from their offices or committee hearings or speeches or meetings with high profile donors. But on evening votes in the beginning of the week, as they trickle in from their home states, you can see how they dress out of uniform.

For Hawley, that meant boots and jeans, two items that have been synonymous with the working man for more than a century.

As he walked down a staircase to exit the building, a reporter asked him how he defined a man.

“Oh, read my book,” Hawley said.

The Missouri Republican’s book, titled “Manhood,” won’t be out until May. But he hasn’t kept his thoughts to just its pages.

He’s done a television hit on Fox News about how men need to quit watching porn. He spent an episode talking about his thoughts on raising boys in a lifestyle podcast co-hosted by his wife Erin Morrow Hawley. He’ll be a keynote speaker at the Stronger Men conference in Joplin at the end of April.

It began with a speech about the crisis among American men in 2021, filtered through the polarized language of the culture war until it landed on his perceived culprit — the political left.

“American men are working less, getting married in fewer numbers; they’re fathering fewer children,” Hawley said in that speech. “They are suffering more anxiety and depression. They are engaging in more substance abuse. Many men in this country are in crisis, and their ranks are swelling.”’

Masculinity can most often be found in the presence of vulnerability — a threat, either physical or existential. For more than a century, moments of cultural change have sparked fears about the emasculation of men. Calls from politicians and cultural commentators to address the masculinity crisis have always followed.

Here is the current crisis in American men: boys are falling behind in school, which means they are enrolling in higher education at a lower rate than women, at a time when a college degree still provides better job prospects and higher income. The number of men participating in the workforce has fallen by 21% since 1950. Manufacturing jobs, an example of a high-paying job available to people without a college degree, have plummeted since the 1990s. Deaths of despair — a term for people who die by suicide and from addictions — have increased.

“Is there a crisis of men? Yeah,” said Daniel Cassino, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey who focuses on how male identity influences politics. “Are men falling behind? Absolutely. I think he has the wrong idea of why that’s happening and that’s leading him to the wrong policy conclusions for it. I don’t think that’s accidental. I think what’s likely happening is he’s reached policy conclusions and he’s using this to support the policy conclusions that he’s already reached.”

Henry Wash, founder and director of High Aspirations, attends a conference call at the organization’s Kansas City headquarters. Wash created the High Aspirations program to help shape the lives of young Black men.© Emily Curiel/ecuriel@kcstar.com/Kansas City Star/TNS

Hawley spent six of his formative years studying Theodore Roosevelt’s political philosophy, particularly how his beliefs about religion and masculinity came to shape the 26th president’s political thinking. Now, two decades later, Hawley has begun carving out his own politics of American manhood that speaks to the non-college educated, white men who have become the cornerstone of the Republican Party. One that blends a populist sentiment with a personal responsibility ethos long espoused by conservatives, as he tries to carve out a path that may one day end at the White House.

Already, Hawley’s focus on masculinity has become a target for his political opponents who often portray the problem as an economic one rather than a cultural one. Lucas Kunce, a Democrat who is running against Hawley for Senate in 2024, has adopted a similar male bravado as Hawley, mocking the senator’s stance on porn while talking about how Missourians are being neglected by the elites.

Hawley did not sit down for an interview, despite several requests by The Star. Instead, The Star asked him questions for six minutes while traveling between the U.S. Capitol and a Senate office building.

The politics of ‘Manhood’: How Josh Hawley is capitalizing on a crisis among American men© Neil Nakahodo/Kansas City Star/TNS

Hawley said he doesn’t believe his book is political. Instead he wants it to prompt people to think about the issues men are facing, like unemployment and fatherhood and suicides and drug use.

“I think that should prompt everybody to ask what’s going on here and what can we do?” Hawley said. “Just the work question alone, we should be asking ourselves how do we get these able bodied men in the workforce.”

Men adrift

Henry Wash is focused on a specific slice of the population, Black boys in Kansas City between the ages of 8 and 18 who are in need of outside support. Wash was once one of those boys. He was in foster care growing up and initially struggled in school. But his life was profoundly changed when Henry Bloch — the co-founder of H&R Block — decided to serve as his mentor after meeting Wash through Bloch’s namesake scholarship program.

In 2003, Wash decided to help others get the same help he did. He founded High Aspirations, a program that connects young Black men with mentors. He encourages the boys to play and learn chess, where they need to learn to think steps ahead. It’s been in place for 20 years now and there are currently 94 young men in the program.

“They need a strong support person,” Wash said. “And the strong support person is that mentor that they need to help them be the best person that they can be.”

Hawley, too, talks about support. But he frames it around fatherhood, citing the declining rate of marriage in America. He has suggested that Congress should revise the tax code to create a marriage bonus, even though there are already some advantages for marriage written into the tax code. Bonuses for someone married without kids can be up to 8% of their income compared to penalties of up to 4%.

“Fewer marriages means fewer fathers in the home,” Hawley said in his 2021 speech. “By 2020, over 18 million American children lived without a father present. That’s more than a quarter of all children in America. And I probably don’t need to remind you that an absent father is strongly correlated with increased childhood poverty, childhood depression, and poor academic performance.”

Experts will tell you that it’s more complicated than that. Jennifer Randles, a sociology professor at Fresno State University, said that talking about “fatherless homes” simplifies the larger problem of what it means to be a father in the home, because just being present doesn’t necessarily make someone a good father.

She spent a year shadowing a fatherhood program that helped provide vocational training for low income fathers of color, and classes on fathering skills and relationship skills. The program had federal funding — it was one of the responsible fatherhood programs Congress has funded in some way since overhauling welfare in 1996.

“The program was really helpful for convincing these men that they did have a role to play in their children’s lives, and also helped to provide some of those supports,” Randles said. “The more employment opportunities, a space to talk with our dads about some of the challenges they were facing, like living in a society that automatically typecasts them as deadbeats. And they really talked about the Fatherhood Programs as being really valuable as a particular social space of fatherhood, where they can really develop these very nurturing ideas of masculinity.”

She has found that these programs work and help men stay involved in their children’s lives, regardless of whether they are still in a relationship with their child’s mother. Overcoming those hurdles can be a challenge. For much of their lives, many men are conditioned to believe that masculinity is synonymous with toughness.

Cody Carter, who is in charge of a program to help men transition out of prison in Kansas, said there are so many expectations for expressing masculinity that it can be difficult to meet them. He offers counseling to men in prison, through faith and character based classes.

“One of the challenges I think that we have as men is trying to navigate all of those different expectations,” Carter said. “In one setting, try and navigate one group’s expectations, then go somewhere else and navigate someone else’s expectation.”

Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who founded the academic journal “Men and Masculinities,” said there are many ways that men police each other’s masculinity. Boys learn from their brothers, fathers, coaches and peers what is considered masculine and what is considered feminine and then, if they want to fit in, conform to those standards.

He said there’s a thing that some men experienced on the playground growing up. Someone, generally a boy, would tell you to check your nails. There was the masculine way to check them — fingers curled in — and a feminine way to check them — hand held out.

“That’s what homophobia is,” Kimmel said. “Homophobia is very often the fear that straight men may have, that other straight men might misperceive them as gay. And that’s what keeps us acting so wedded to that real man model.”

Hawley has denounced efforts to accommodate transgender and nonbinary people and has called for an investigation into Missouri’s sole clinic focused on transgender youth. He’s spoken carefully about same-sex marriage, but he voted against the Respect for Marriage Act and says he believes the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage was wrongly decided.

But that “real man model” is often defined by toughness. And it can have tragic consequences.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat and Methodist pastor, said he has seen efforts to display masculinity come with tragic consequences. A few years ago, he did the funeral service for a neighbor who was shot and killed. A man was walking down the street and dropped a soda can. The man who lived there and was out on his porch asked him to pick it up and throw it in a trash can, saying they were trying to keep the neighborhood clean. The first man refused to pick it up, became angry and pulled out a gun. The second man dared the first man to shoot him. He did.

“So you had two people, two, the victim and the villain both, exercising masculinity,” Cleaver said.

Still, Hawley believes that there are certain traits intrinsic to men and that we should be propping up a specific industry — manufacturing — to highlight those strengths. He dismisses ideas that men should attempt to find work in professions that are growing — like health care and education — saying it would require “propagandizing” men to be interested in a new field.

“Most men just statistically say that they’re less interested in those fields, they don’t necessarily have A, have the educational background to do that or, B, are interested in pursuing the educational background to do that. So you’re trying to insert sense fit a square peg into a round hole,” Hawley said.

The manufacturing industry in Missouri has declined by 29% between 1990 and 2019, the year Hawley took office.

Hawley blames China’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001. If the U.S. hadn’t opened friendly relations with China, then the manufacturing industry wouldn’t have moved overseas. If the manufacturing industry hadn’t moved overseas, men would still be able to find good paying jobs in factories and would be able to support their families. Those rural towns that lost factory jobs wouldn’t be struggling.

“Manufacturing pays pretty darn well, it pays better than your average administrative job,” Hawley said. “It pays better than your average retail job.”

Those towns were a key factor in turning Missouri from a swing state into a conservative stronghold. Following former President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, white, non-college educated men started gravitating toward the Republican Party, with some of them abandoning their formerly union-based Democratic loyalty. In 2020, Republicans had a 42% advantage among non-college educated white men, according to exit polling from the election.

And this type of Republican — a fan of former President Donald Trump, looking to break up the status quo in Washington, D.C. — has come to become dominant in the political conversations surrounding the Republican Party, there has been an attempt to re-tool a traditional Republican message toward this base.

“Ever since 2016, there’s been this dialogue on the right, the so the so-called realignment, which has been ‘how do we reorient our messaging towards a multiracial working class electorate that wants to vote for us,’” said Jon Schweppe, the policy director at the American Principles Project, a think tank that focuses on socially conservative policies “And, you know, I think Republicans have been struggling on how to do that.”

Political manliness

Hawley has attempted to stay in front of the changing Republican Party, grappling with the message his party’s voters sent when they elected Trump in 2016.

With masculinity, Hawley is able to marry the traditional conservative values of the Republican Party, prioritizing the ideal of the nuclear family with a focus on personal responsibility, with where he thinks the party may be headed: toward the non-college educated working class men who used to reliably vote for Democrats.

“Hawley and others have sort of seen this is an effective political message because it kind of resonates out,” said Daniel Cox, at the American Enterprise Institute. “Like it touches culture, it touches economics, this feeling of disillusionment and distrust that a lot of working class folks are feeling, especially working class men.”

But Cleaver, the Kansas City Democrat, said focusing on the issue through such a partisan lens has the potential to just further divide the country.

“Masculinity would not be my top 50 issues that we need to address in the United States,” Cleaver said. “Now, in the academic world, particularly the theological academic world, the discussion probably should take place. But my fear is that we are gradually creating, even though I don’t think people really want to do it, but they are gradually creating more and more divisions and enemies.”

Cox said that Republican men are more likely than Democratic men to say that they feel masculine and value being seen as masculine. It has become common for Republican politicians to present themselves as “real men,” particularly when it comes to issues like gun rights.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned after a series of scandals and failed to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2022, leaned heavily on male bravado. Sen. Eric Schmitt, who defeated Greitens, presents a type of grill dad masculinity.

Hawley’s professed “real man” model seems to be based less on whether he can win a fight (like Greitens), quiz you about the infield fly rule (like Schmitt) or wrangle cattle (like Teddy Roosevelt). It appears to be one focused more on personal responsibility.

“I feel like part of my role in the family, my role in the household, is to help the boys see that, listen, we use our strength to serve other people,” Hawley said on his podcast. “We use our sense of adventure to try and bring breakthrough for others. If you want to go out and blaze a trail that’s fantastic, go do that and then think about how that can help other people.”

But in speaking to his largely white base — and rejecting what he calls identity politics — Hawley can sometimes miss the people most affected by the issue he’s speaking about.

“The problem is, what he’s really missing here is that this is first off, an issue that is very much about class,” Cassino said. “So when we analyze the data on boys falling behind is almost entirely boys falling behind their sisters in poor families and not in wealthy families. The crisis of man is not a crisis for all men. It’s not a crisis of middle class white men. It is primarily a crisis among poor men, and especially men of color.”

Kunce has deliberately tried to present himself in opposition to this model of masculinity. When he talks about masculinity, he portrays it as members of the community helping each other out, telling a story about how his neighbor helped his family get their first dishwasher and his experience talking to Vietnam War veterans at the American Legion.

He sees the issue largely in terms of economic class — and he’s quick to point out that Hawley was the son of a banker and attended Rockhurst High School, a prepatory school in Kansas City, before going to Stanford and Yale. Kunce also attended Yale on a need-based scholarship.

“He’ll never understand,” Kunce said. “And I’m not against rich people in politics but you’ve got to have the courage to learn about everyone else and what we go through, and he doesn’t have that.”

There have been several moments in American history when there have been large cultural conversations about the feminization of men.

In the 19th Century, as the economy began to transition from rural labor to urban labor, people began to worry that boys were becoming weak because women were playing a larger role in their upbringing. So they attempted to find ways to encourage young men and boys to engage in physical activity, creating things like body building and later the YMCA and Boy Scouts.

Similar efforts have popped up nearly every decade.

“What Hawley is tapping into is this periodic notion that culturally men need some support need to be need to re-anchor themselves in family life,” Kimmel, the sociologist who studies masculinity, said.

But Kimmel worries that speeches telling people to just “man up,” may be sending the wrong message. He said one of the biggest reasons men are struggling is because they buy into a definition of masculinity that can hold them back. He said almost every man will have a moment in their lives where they will betray their ideals of what it means to be a good man in order to “prove” that you are a real men to the others around you.

He said one of the best way to support men is to emphasize the need for one good male friend who can offer support and validation.

“So the last thing we need is Josh Hawley saying buck up, stand up straight or stop whining,” Kimmel said. “Exactly what we need is to say, I’m hurting and I need support.”

Source: The politics of ‘Manhood’: How Josh Hawley is capitalizing on a crisis among American men (msn.com)

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