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Explaining the gender gap in politics

Why men and women have been marching in different ideological directions

“A new global gender divide is emerging!”, proclaimed the Financial Times last week, as explosive new polling highlighted a growing political gulf between men and women under 30. From London to Seoul, “an ideological gap has opened up”, with the boys allegedly tacking hard to the right, and the girls shifting left, propelled into progressivism by feminist causes like #MeToo.

In an age of performative social media activism, it is now culturally “safe” to identify with parties of the left

Naturally, professional pontificators seized upon these explosive findings. Some seemed to believe that young men had all fallen prey to the seductive tendrils of incel ideology, while others lamented the disappearance of right-wing women. Some even began to speculate about an inevitable, explosive increase in lesbianism. Can left-wing women really be expected to put up with those yucky chauvinist men? For their part, conservative feminists used the study as yet more proof of the fact that dating has become impossible for young people in the modern world.

For all the bluster, the real source of the “global gender gap” is not especially interesting — in general, women just prefer conformist politics. 

The female preference for safe politics is well attested to, and this is particularly true in the British context. In turn, this is probably rooted in a preference for conformity, conflict-avoidance, and people-pleasing; instincts displayed disproportionately — though far from exclusively — by women. 

In an age of performative social media activism, it is now culturally “safe” to identify with parties of the left — a fervour for protest is now regarded as a virtue, and social justice is profoundly fashionable. In the present cultural milieu, a conformist will find themselves drawn to revolutionary, socially liberal causes, which have become the norm in many of the arenas frequented by young adults.

Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. When culture has leaned conservative, so have female voters. Between 1945 and 1974, women were considerably more likely to vote Conservative than their husbands, a phenomenon which reached its zenith when the party was headed by safe, centrist figures like Eden and Macmillan. In the close election of 1951, the gap between male and female support for the Tories was a staggering 17 per cent, at a time when the Conservative Party embodied consensus, compromise, and stability.

As Conservative politics became more radical during the free-spirited Thatcher years, the gender gap shrunk. When the Party has re-embraced boring, sensible centrism — such as under the leadership of John Major or David Cameron — women have once again moved back into the Tory column. At the 2015 general election, men were more likely to back Farage’s insurgent UKIP, while women were marginally more likely to support Cameron’s incumbent Conservatives.

At the 2016 EU Referendum, women — particularly young women — broke for Remain, backing a campaign that promised safety, security, and the status quo, and which was supported by the vast majority of the mainstream media. A similar trend reared its head during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence; Scottish women tended to be more unionist (read: more likely to support the status quo) than Scottish men. 

Time and time again, we see the same trend — where the cultural and political winds blow, so do women. The left-wing instincts of young women today are largely rooted in the same conformist tendency that birthed the suburban conservatism of their grandmothers. The fact that women now conform towards the left rather than towards the right is largely just a sign of the times. 

Of course, we should be careful not to oversimplify things. Even if we accept that a leftward lurch amongst young women is the result of a conformist instinct, we should ask why the gap between men and women under-30 is wider than in previous generations. We should also bear in mind the recent and remarkable success of dissident women, particularly in the gender-critical movement. The existence of a majority position by no means precludes the existence of a dissident minority. Political-demographic trends are complex and multi-faceted. 

The internet has exposed a generation of young women to the uncensored thoughts and opinions of their male peers, and vice versa. One can only imagine the number of women negatively polarised to the left by ranting incels, and the number of men negatively polarised in the opposite direction by hectoring feminists.

Yet, if there is one reason to be hopeful, it’s this: in politics, nothing is forever

At the same time, the ubiquity of internet access in developed and middle-income countries exposes young people across the world to American political fads and trends. TikTok and Twitter have allowed discourse about Roe v Wade, #MeToo, and the patriarchy to go global, giving a generation of women from Torquay to Tehran an opportunity to signal virtue and seek the approval of their online peers. In non-Western societies with conservative approaches to gender, is it any wonder that a sudden injection of occidental feminism has turned young women against their fathers?

One narrative that we can reject outright is the notion that this gap is the result of dangerous, radical young men. Take a look at the data, and you’ll see that it’s the women who have moved further from the centre — while young American men have shifted about 15 per cent to the right since 1985, young American women have moved a staggering 30 per cent to the left. A similar trend holds true in Germany and the UK. 

Regardless of the cause, the effect is easier to predict: fewer successful long-term couples, a mutually reinforcing growth in resentment between the sexes, and a more intense conflict over the role of empathy and compassion in politics. Scary stuff. 

Yet, if there is one reason to be hopeful, it’s this: in politics, nothing is forever. When push comes to shove, when the going gets tough, things have a remarkable tendency to work themselves out. Perhaps, like so many warring couples, these young radicals will one day learn to kiss and make up.

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