"Man up, Harry Reid," Republican senatorial candidate and tea party darling Sharron Angle recently said in one of the more sexually telling comments about the current state of American politics.
Ever since the gender gap was discovered by pollsters in the 1980s, it has been accepted wisdom that a majority of American men support Republicans, while a preponderance of women back Democrats. Republicans have been called the "daddy" party, supporting a strong defense, and Democrats have been deemed the "mommy" party, supporting social welfare priorities. At the same time, John Wayne-style masculine self-reliance has often been conflated with Republican support for radically limited government.
But if one caricatures masculinity and femininity, never before has the Republican base been so hyper-masculine, and never has the rest of the party been so brow-beaten into playing the role of wimps, the sideline boys who cheer on the 280-pound, take-no-prisoners linebacker. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is seen as comprising "merely" women or, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said of his political opponents, the "girly men." If masculinity is about aggressively taking a firm stance — obliterating rather than compromising with opponents — and fighting with blind fury, then the tea party Republicans and their Johnny-come-lately acolytes in Congress take the star roles in the 2010 remake of "True Grit." Ironically, many of the most "masculine" of these new Republicans are women: Michele Bachmann, Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell and, of course, Sarah Palin.
I bemoan the transformation of the Republican Party into a snarling, testosterone-driven hunting pack and chorus of Beta-dog followers. I have certainly admired some Republicans. If I had been alive at the appropriate times, I would have been a fan of Eisenhower, Willkie and LaGuardia. More recently, fair-minded Republicans like Howard Baker and Lincoln Chafee have shown themselves to be true advocates for a better America, dealing even-handedly with Democrats. And figures such as Colin Powell (and, yes, despite the "girly man" comment, Arnold himself) are Republicans with not only principles but pragmatism. Unlike No-surrender Newt, even the manly, ultraconservative Ronald Reagan worked with Democrats on many issues.
Of course, many Democratic leaders are confrontational and just as interested in cheap, nasty shots as their Republican counterparts. Nonetheless, President Barack Obama, despite the flaws in his administration, sincerely sought bipartisanship in 2008 and in the days and months after his inauguration, but was mostly stymied by the Republican alliance of the loudmouths and their silent accomplices. Who can forget the countless compromises proffered by Democrats and rejected by Republicans just before the hair-breadth passage of the Patient Protection and Affordability Act?
Since money is power — a calling card of masculinity — these GOP ubermenschen want individuals, not the state, to control more of national output. While they take predictably exaggerated male stands on guns and gays and deride what the British used to call the "nanny state" (and who thinks of a male nanny?), in all this posturing, the rise of the macho women Republicans is nothing less than astounding. It's quite a feat, but in the new politics of extremism and intolerance, these women are pros at out-"man"-ing the now-silenced moderate Republicans who used to speak up from time to time.
Male politicos, keenly conscious of their target demographic, cast these "machas" as sexy (albeit scrappy) vixens. I remember driving through the Virginia Tidewater toward the end of the 2008 campaign and seeing the fields dotted with McCain signs reading "Cool President, Hot VP." Sarah Palin's "mama grizzly" imagery is a PR agent's dream — the sweet-spot combination of femaleness and aggression.
There's a definite swagger and a somewhat misogynist cast to Republican bulldozers who refuse to seek common ground with Democrats to solve some of America's many problems. It seems easier, and undoubtedly more appealing to the modern sensibility of boorish-chic, to give the finger to and beat up your opponents than to actually work in good faith to make this nation better for men and women alike. However, just as on the playground, the loudmouthed bullies who often get their way are outnumbered — among the broader population of Republicans — by the more thoughtful, hoping-to-get-things-done players.
This sexualization of politics is not a good thing: It caricatures the sexes and legitimizes turning real or imagined gender differences into a battle between them. That aside, the masculine thunder may actually work in an election year when the economy's rotten, America is seen as weak and overshadowed by truly tough guys like China, and Americans are mad as hell with government and almost everything else.
But in the long run, the growling and refusal to reach compromise for the good of the United States will hurt not only the country but also the Republican Party.
Andrew L. Yarrow, a public-policy professional, historian and journalist, is the author of "Measuring America: How Economic Growth Came to Define American Greatness in the Late 20th Century," due out in November. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.