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Rand Paul’s Got Women In Far Too Few Area Codes


I took my kids to a toy store on Sunday and stopped at the playground on the way back. Twitter was erupting with the drama surrounding the Senate’s debate on government surveillance of Americans. A bunch of journalists I follow were insistent that a speech Sen. Rand Paul was giving was worth seeing. I called out to the children that we had to hurry home. We ran and got inside … just as the speech ended.

So I did what any normal mother would do. I pulled C-SPAN up on the internet and made them watch with me. Then I kept watching C-SPAN as the debate unfolded throughout the night. I even made them watch Sen. Ron Wyden instead of DVR’d Jeopardy episodes, as is our usual routine.

OK, granted, that’s not normal for many parents. But it’s certainly not normal for women. While many people were following the debate over government surveillance of Americans, not a lot of the people who seemed really engaged by that debate were women. As I saw the social media pictures flowing through of people who were following the debate (#StandWithRand!), many were of dudes. I wasn’t entirely surprised, then, that a CNN poll earlier this week showed that Rand Paul has far more male supporters in the GOP than female. Check this out:

For the bulk of the GOP field, however, the race for the Republican nomination remains an effort to distinguish themselves from the pack and no one has yet succeeded at that.

Though there has been some shuffling at the top of the GOP order since the last CNN/ORC poll in April, no individual candidate’s movement lies outside of the margin of sampling error.

Rubio tops the field with 14%, with Bush near even at 13%. Huckabee and Walker follow at 10% each, with Cruz (8%), Paul (8%) and Carson (7%) all within striking distance of double-digit support.

Paul prompts the largest gender gap on the GOP side, drawing 13% and tying for first among men while garnering just 2% support among women.

Now, most people vocally opposed to Paul range from John McCain/Lindsay Graham to more reasonable hawks. But that does nothing to explain the sex gap here. And yes, I’m saying sex and not gender because I can’t help but hear the words of my old Latin teacher ringing in my ears: People have sex, words have gender. And Caitlyn Jenner’s unstated attitude toward Paul aside, this is a sex gap.

What’s going on? I’m just going to assume it’s related to Rand Paul’s libertarianism. He may not be libertarian enough for the purists, but the guy’s easily the most libertarian senator we’ve seen in a while. He seems to enjoy speaking about a restrained federal government and he’s taken up some pretty high-profile positions skeptical of some foreign entanglements and unconstitutional government surveillance.

So let’s start by looking at the broader libertarian movement, which might put this gap in context. Back in 2010, a group of academics published “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology,” which gives us some understanding of the extent of the problem. Authors Ravi Iyer, Sena Koleva, Jesse Graham, Peter H. Ditto, and Jonathan Haidt explored the topic of libertarian psychology:

We found that, compared to liberals and conservatives, libertarians show 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle and correspondingly weaker endorsement of other moral principles, 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional intellectual style, and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness. Our findings add to a growing recognition of the role of psychological predispositions in the organization of political attitudes.

They came up with some interesting data on the sexes:

The full libertarian sample was mostly white (82.1% of those who answered our ethnicity question), male (79.9%), well educated (81.2% were in college or had earned a college degree), and diverse on age (mean age = 35, SD = 13.3). Libertarians were comparable to other participants in terms of education, ethnicity, and age, but were much more likely to be male (79.9%) compared to both liberals (51.7% male) and conservatives (65.3% male).

In the context of the broader libertarian movement, then, Paul’s showing isn’t that surprising. The topic of why more women aren’t drawn to libertarianism is an old one, and you can read various perspectives from libertarians and non-libertarians (here, here, here, here).

A libertarian friend brought the above study to my attention when I noted how many libertarians I’d encountered seemed almost autistic. The study found that:

…relatively high systemizing and low empathizing scores are characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism. We might say that liberals have the most “feminine” cognitive style, and libertarians have the most “masculine.”

I’m not going to pretend this isn’t a problem for many women. Libertarian discourse and events are occasions to encounter “high systemizing and low empathizing” in one sense. I’m a woman who is quite comfortable in such environments — in fact, I’m far more comfortable in those environments than touchy-feely environments where people spend a great deal of time couching everything they say. I was at a libertarian event recently where a grown man got emotional on a topic we were debating and it was so atypical that I was uncomfortable for days. I’m far more used to libertarians having lengthy and even quite vigorous debates on some seriously outlandish ideas without anyone reacting emotionally.

But there’s a way of interpreting this data to suggest that libertarian ideas themselves aren’t supportive of emotional engagement and community involvement. And, unfortunately, most media presentation of libertarian ideas falls into that trap. That’s because media tend to be biased in favor of government action. A casual reading of any newspaper reveals a frequent assumption that government should be “doing more” in response to some problem. That assumption is presented as the compassionate choice, no matter how many decades of failed government programs we can point to. It’s just kind of an easy journalistic trope.

I spoke to some female friends of the libertarian persuasion and one thing that struck me from our conversations was that we were drawn to support for limited government for precisely the reason we’re told we shouldn’t — we feel for people who are hurt by government overreach.

Lucy Steigerwald said something that perfectly encapsulated how I feel on the topic:

People like Bryan Caplan have opined that it’s because women are full of feelings, and libertarianism is this cold, econ[omics]-heavy thing. But to me that’s partly a matter of branding. ‘It’s mean to not force people to take care of other people’ is one angle — the liberal one. But libertarianism could be based on outrage over the state’s many crimes, no analytical brain needed. Mine tends to lean that way. If you are full of feelings, you can still act based on ‘that regulation sounds like caring so it must be swell’ and more on ‘gee, that zoning law means that pastor is being threatened with closure of his homeless shelter in the middle of winter.’

In short, the dominance of the liberal notion of what helping and caring is ain’t helping. And they do think they have the monopoly on caring. But sometimes non-liberals sort of let them have that…

Liberals and lazy media have decide what empathy means. And it means more government most of the time.

I couldn’t agree more and this is, in fact, one of the things that frustrates me the most about media coverage of discussions of liberty. But if it’s a problem with certain media presentations, it’s undoubtedly true that libertarians themselves — perhaps due to reasons mentioned in the research discussed above — present issues of concern a bit too analytically at the expense of emotional engagement and a hearty focus on community and other institutions. A bit more focus on how the message is conveyed could help Paul improve with GOP women to match gains he’s made with GOP men.