Men Need a New Narrative. The Future of U.S. Democracy Depends on It

To counter harmful right-wing ideas of masculinity, the left must provide men with less cartoonish and more expansive models of strength and moral selfhood. Here’s where to start.

A pro-abortion rights rally in Dayon, Ohio, on May 14, 2022, roughly two weeks after a leaked Supreme Court decision that would eventually overturn Roe v. Wade. (Whitney Saleski / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Washington Post published a long essay by Christine Emba last year about the masculinity crisis, one that created a sensation among the chattering classes and on social media. It garnered more than 10,000 responses in the comments section alone.

In the piece, titled “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness,” Emba took readers on a guided tour of the many challenges facing contemporary American men, from well-documented labor market problems linked to deindustrialization and automation, to the feminization of higher education, to a general mental health crisis that included the revealing statistic that men account for three out of four “deaths of despair” (suicide, alcohol abuse, overdose). She also offered some insight into the rise of the anti-feminist public intellectual Jordan Peterson and other “right-aligned” masculinity gurus, from the mainstream to the fringe, and the ways in which they have simultaneously empathized with men’s loneliness and pain while capitalizing on their uncertainty and confusion in an era of feminism and LGBTQ+ progress, gaining “fame, notoriety and millions of book sales in the process,” Emba wrote.

For those of us who work in the pro-feminist “engaging men” space, little of this was new or surprising—although it was encouraging to see it featured in a prominent media outlet. The only minor quibble I have is that Emba neglected to mention the fact that a small but determined progressive movement dedicated to confronting many of the issues she raised—the pro-feminist men’s movement—has been around for nearly a half-century. And that since the 1990s, there has been an explosion of academic and journalistic research and writing about multicultural masculinities that provides a wealth of insight into the resoundingly positive transformations in men’s personal and professional lives catalyzed by feminism and other historic movements for social justice.

We can hold two thoughts in our head at the same time. We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.

Richard Reeves

One of the more recent contributions was the publication in 2022 of the book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It, by Brookings Institution scholar Richard Reeves. In this bestselling book, Reeves took pains to argue that focusing in an intersectional way on the struggles of boys and men in a patriarchal society does not entail neglecting the travails of girls and women. Perhaps anticipating the criticism that feminist-conscious men often face when they focus on the plight of men—especially white men—he wrote, “We can hold two thoughts in our head at the same time. We can be passionate about women’s rights and compassionate toward vulnerable boys and men.”

What Emba did exceptionally well in her wildly popular Post article was to situate contemporary debates about manhood within a broader discussion of the culture wars in American politics.

  • On one side is the right, which has weaponized men’s anxieties by manufacturing a cast of villains, especially feminists and “elites,” and blaming them for emasculating men in a way that can only lead to civilizational ruin.
  • On the other side are progressives and liberals, who, according to Emba, are hesitant to say much of anything about men, especially white men, much less speak empathetically about their struggles.

Why the reluctance? “The mid-2010s were the high-water mark of anti-male sentiment in progressive spaces,” Emba wrote. “As the #MeToo movement rose, with its tales of horrendous male behavior and ensuing corporate coverups, ‘ban men’ became a rallying cry. The word mas-culinity seemed to rarely appear without the descriptor toxic accompanying it, blamed for everything from rape culture to climate change. Even today, some progressives react touchily to any efforts to help men as a group.”

If trying to smash the patriarchy has left a vacuum in our ideal of masculinity, it also gives us a chance at a fresh start, an opportunity to take what is useful from models of the past and repurpose it for boys and men today.

Christine Emba

In the political sphere, this reluctance has contributed to a troubling state in which millions of men, especially high school-educated white men, have felt unseen by or unwelcome in the Democratic Party. Emba quoted one Democratic strategist who said that his party was almost allergic to admitting that “some men might, in fact, be struggling in a unique way and could benefit from their own tailored attention and aid.”

The problem is that the Trumpified Republican Party, along with its champions and enablers on conservative talk radio and Fox News, takes the opposite tack. Their side has no qualms about celebrating men, especially white men, as the builders—and perhaps one day, the saviors—of Western civilization. The right has done next-to-nothing policy-wise to improve the material conditions of men’s lives, particularly working- and middle-class men. But dating back to the presidency of Richard Nixon, Republican politicians and their mouthpieces in conservative media have given those men cultural recognition and rhetorical respect as the “forgotten man” who is part of the “silent majority” that, they contend, made this country great.

They have done this, in part, by aggressively positioning themselves as the righteous defenders of embattled manhood. It’s a popular position on the right. In a 2023 national survey by the public opinion research group PerryUndem, 72 percent of Republican men agreed with the statement, “White men are the most attacked group in the country right now.”

In a widely covered speech in 2021, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri wrapped his defense of men in a cloak of patriotic fervor. “The attack on men,” he declared, “has been the tip of the spear of the left’s broader attack on America.”

The speech resonated so well with many on the right—especially the Christian right—that in 2023 Hawley went on to publish a widely publicized book, deeply inflected with the language and sensibility of conservative Christianity, titled Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs.

In addition to the conservative politics and infotainment complex, expansion of the online misogynous “manosphere” has given anti-feminist men not only a voice but also an entire alternative universe of discourse. Jordan Peterson’s podcast has many millions of listeners, but it is only one of an interlocking and mutually reinforcing media ecosphere of podcasts, YouTube channels and TikTok videos that provide young men with a steady diet of anti-feminist cultural and political analysis. According to numerous published reports, the unabashedly misogynous former kickboxer Andrew Tate’s content has been viewed—mostly by boys and young men—close to 12 billion times.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Winter issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

What is deeply worrying about all of this is not simply that young white men, or men in general, are unmoored and adrift in a time of rapid transformations in the gender and sexual order, and are thus vulnerable to the reactionary appeal of anti-feminist “manfluencers.” What might be worse is that when they vote, they are more likely than any other group to vote for far-right candidates at all levels of the political system, including president of the United States. In the 2020 presidential election, white men without a college degree voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by a staggering 70 to 28 percent, according to CNN exit polls, with similar numbers favoring Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms. (CNN also reported that Trump beat Biden only 51 to 48 percent among college-educated white men.)

For a variety of reasons, white women without a college degree have also played a role, but the GOP’s move to the extreme right has been led by white men. Simply stated, in a time of growing right-wing populist authoritarianism in the U.S. and elsewhere, the “masculinity crisis” has become a threat to democracy.

Trump supporters outside the Republican National Committee headquarters on Nov. 5, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Al Drago / Getty Images)

Christine Emba concluded her “Men are lost” essay with a plea for a “new model” of masculinity that has popular appeal. “If trying to smash the patriarchy has left a vacuum in our ideal of masculinity,” she wrote, “it also gives us a chance at a fresh start, an opportunity to take what is useful from models of the past and repurpose it for boys and men today.”

The urgency of this project was driven home by the findings of “State of American Men,” a fascinating 2023 report by the pro-equality organization Equimundo. One of the survey’s most startling conclusions was the “inconvenient truth” that in recent years a growing number of young men have been drawn to a restrictive, dominance-driven view of manhood precisely because it gives them a sense of meaning and purpose in a rapidly changing social landscape. This worldview, the report’s authors write, is “often more palatable than the confusion, constant self-reflection and necessary accountability that come with holding more equitable, connected, empathetic views about manhood.”

Over the past decade, a badly needed and wholly welcome surge in women’s political activity has produced a dramatic increase in the number of women from every ethnic and racial background being elected to office since 2017. At the same time, the impetus for the attacks on democracy has come from men, including men in right-wing media who use the predictable tactic of presenting themselves as “manly” and “strong” and their opponents as “soft” and “weak.”

In the face of this sort of politicized bullying, it seems necessary to provide a voice for men with less cartoonish and more expansive views about strength and moral selfhood.

In that spirit, I want to outline some of the ways in which men whose politics are to the left of center can do their part to counteract the right’s success in playing identity politics with white male voters. The idea is to mobilize these men as men in the service of progressive, liberal and feminist ideals of fairness, equity and justice—and thus to articulate an alternative conception of men’s strength that does not rely on the regressive and tired trope that equates being a “real man” with being a social and political conservative.

Resisting Authoritarianism

Democracy is under threat in the U.S. and Europe from extremist right-wing populist movements that have sought to roll back democratic progress with ethnonationalist and racist appeals. But right-wing populism also attracts support from men, especially white men, who feel disrespected and left behind by the advancement of women and societal progress on LGBTQ+ rights and inclusivity.

The alarming slide in this country toward autocracy and/or some form of democratic erosion has been facilitated by the sometimes overwhelming majorities of (mostly white) male voters who vote for authoritarian right-wing candidates and back efforts to suppress voting rights for historically marginalized groups. Regressive ideas about manhood underlie this anti-democracy movement.

Especially in light of 20th-century history, it is apparent that many right-wing voters, the majority of whom are white men, find comfort in regressive “strongman” politics and the very conservative gender norms that underlie them. But authoritarian governance is not a reasonable—or rational—solution to the problems of complex societies with great racial, sexual and gender diversity.

Men who embrace democracy, in all its messiness and with all of its challenges, have an important role to play in the struggle against authoritarianism. We need more of their voices in public discourse, especially because extremist right-wing movements have successfully convinced millions of working- and lower-middle-class white men to support plutocratic rule by appealing to their sense of aggrieved entitlement.

As income inequality grows, these men have been told repeatedly in right-wing media echo chambers that feminists, advocates of multiculturalism and other “woke” social justice warriors are the source of their problems, rather than concentrated corporate power and other conservative macroeconomic forces. We need more men who can function as trusted messengers and are willing to chal-lenge this crude scapegoating and put the focus where it belongs: on plutocracy and its faithful servants on the right in politics and the judiciary.

The Fight For Reproductive Justice

Abortion rights and reproductive justice are issues of basic human rights and bodily autonomy for women and others with the capacity to become pregnant. The movement for reproductive justice has long been led by a multiracial, multiethnic collective of women. The vast majority of passionate activists are women. But men and nonbinary people have a vital role to play as well.

For the past half-century, millions of men have supported women’s right to abortion, both in their private lives and at the ballot box. Some have donated money. Some have participated in public demonstrations, including the historic Women’s Marches in 2017. Many men have provided personal assistance and care for women close to them who have experienced unintended pregnancies and needed access to a comprehensive range of medical care and services. But nowhere near enough of them have made this issue a priority.

Since an activist right-wing U.S. Supreme Court dominated by justices with deeply conservative beliefs about sex and gender overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, the women-led reproductive justice movement has gathered significant momentum. One of its main goals is to mobilize abortion-rights supporters, including young people, to use their power at the bal-lot box. Most political discourse about the latent political power of the pro-abortion majority focuses on women, especially Gen Z women, who are anticipated to vote in greater numbers than usual in the 2024 presidential election because of the galvanizing force of the abortion-rights issue.

But men are involved before, during and after conception. In a hopeful sign, the Equimundo survey found that nearly two-thirds of men ages 18 to 45 believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Now they just need to make reproductive justice a central factor in their choice of whether and how to get involved politically, and which candidates/parties to support.

Countering Political Violence

Violence and overt displays of misogyny in American political rhetoric and practice have increased markedly in recent years. Even before the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, it had become more common for far-right militias and other men in military-style gear to appear at protests related to COVID-19 restrictions and Black Lives Matter protests outside statehouses across the country, armed with semiautomatic firearms. But although men commit the overwhelming majority of political violence, very little mainstream commentary about the rise of political violence in the U.S. explores the gendered dimensions of this violence—and how cultural beliefs about manhood factor in.

Whether they act as individuals or as part of right-wing militias, men on the right who use violence are often motivated by the belief that “real men” are authorized to use violence when necessary to protect their families and their country. The American political debate badly needs a much louder voice for men who do not accept these sorts of self-serving rationalizations, and who reject the use of violence in politics not only as counterproductive but as threats to democracy itself.

There has also been a notable uptick in openly misogynous and violent rhetoric directed toward women politicians. It should go without saying that the use of violent intimidation is antithetical to democratic norms and is incompatible with a functioning democracy. But (men’s) violence against women in politics, according to political scientist Mona Lena Krook, is something more. It is “an attempt to exclude women as women from participating in political life,” she contends. All the more reason that men as men who believe in democratic principles need to denounce it.

Mobilizing men in the ways outlined above will not be easy. Many men are uncertain how to exercise strong, self-assured and proactive leadership on potentially complex and sensitive social and political issues, especially those that include matters related to gender or sexual rights. For whatever reason, many of them have felt uncomfortable with or alienated from either mainstream politics or progressive social movements. Organizations that are engaged in advocacy work or electoral politics can contribute materially to the protection of American democracy and the advancement of progressive goals by involving these men.

This isn’t a call for special treatment for a group—specifically white men—who already command a disproportionate share of attention in politics and media. It’s a call to do what’s necessary for the continued health and vitality of our troubled and teetering democracy.

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is internationally renowned for his pioneering scholarship and activism on issues of gender, race and violence. He is the creator and co-producer of the documentary The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump, which is streaming free through the end of December 2022. Katz has long been a major figure and thought leader in the growing global movement of men working to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence. He is co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the longest-running and most widely influential gender violence prevention programs in North America and beyond. He is the author of two acclaimed books and creator of the award-winning Tough Guise educational documentary series. His TEDx talk, "Violence Against Women Is a Men's Issue," has over 5 million total views.