for, | November 12, 2021

Josh Hawley Gets One Thing Right About the Plight of Men

But railing against porn and video games will do nothing to help them.

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During his recent keynote address to the National Conservatism Conference, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri brought attention to the crisis of a marginalized and long-forgotten group: men. “Over the last 30 years and more, government policy has helped destroy the kind of economy that gave meaning to generations of men,” he said, describing low wages and corporate consolidation brought on by globalization. The result, he said, is “more and more men are withdrawing into the enclaves of idleness, and pornography, and video games.”

Hawley’s remarks were immediately met with derision, criticism, and exasperation: Here was another conservative—a presidential hopeful no less—hand-wringing over pornography, another traditionalist subscribing to outdated gender norms by saying “a man is a father, a man is a husband, a man is someone who takes responsibility,” and another male politician cautioning that a supposed liberal attack on manhood was at the root of this rot.

Here’s the issue: Hawley is partially right. Even before the pandemic, labor economists had long observed that nearly 1 in 6 prime-aged men had dropped out of the workforce. This number was higher for white men without a college degree, many of whom struggled to find work due to globalization, automation, and overseas competition and at the same time lack the supportive factors that women and minorities have developed over time to deal with adverse working conditions. As median wages stagnated, many of these men moved back home with their parents; many struggled to find purpose without a job and achieve traditional milestones of adulthood like marriage and homeownership. Many voted for Trump. Many struggled with substance use and mental illness. And many died.

But Hawley misses the mark in critical ways. First, let’s acknowledge that nobody, least of all conservatives, was talking about globalization and the labor market in the ’90s when we saw similar dynamics in the Black community during the crack epidemic. Instead, we locked up a generation. Given Hawley’s expressed disdain for any discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, his concern is not for all men, just for those who are most likely to vote for him.

And Hawley’s belief that men are idle because traditional masculinity is under attack ignores the simple fact that the economic forces of globalization, automation, and outsourcing—and the subsequent rise of suicide, overdoses, and alcohol poisonings—predate our current reckoning with gender norms and roles by decades. Many of these men were suffering long before the #MeToo movement.

Maybe Hawley scapegoats the cultural wars to distract from the fact that his party opposes many of the policies that would significantly address this topic. Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton—who originally noticed the skyrocketing mortality rate among white prime-aged men—subsequently concluded that employers struggling to pay for their workers’ rising health care costs have turned to automation and outsourcing to protect their margins, and our public safety nets are not strong enough to catch the workforces these companies shed. Rising health care costs have also made much-needed services like mental health and substance addiction support unreachable for many. Case and Deaton did not prescribe a solution, but did say the U.S. government needed to stop forcing employers to shoulder the burden of rising health care costs.

Yet Hawley deemed the Affordable Care Act—which has helped provide these populations with much-needed health care services (and if expanded could do more)—unconstitutional, and made repealing Obamacare a cornerstone of his campaigns for Missouri attorney general and U.S. senator. This reflected the general consensus in the Republican Party, which has come out against workers’ protections, wrongly blamed immigrants for depressing domestic wages, cut taxes for corporations, and shot down necessary safeguards like parental leave.

That being said, Hawley has demonstrated that there is (some) space for the concerns of the American worker under the umbrella of his brand of right-wing populism. In February, he introduced legislation to eliminate corporate tax loopholes for offshore production, and in October, he introduced his “Make in America to Sell in America Act to revitalize manufacturing. Hawley is not in perfect lockstep with his fellow Republicans: In 2012, he penned a nuanced piece that criticized the right for valuing the concepts of freedom and independence over all else. In other words, he allows that there might be a role for government in matters affecting workers, although the fruits of that view have been mixed. Earlier this year, he introduced (puzzling) legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for only the most profitable companies; he also teamed up with Sen. Bernie Sanders to send millions of Americans with stimulus checks last winter as Congress weighed one of its relief bills.

So Hawley is correct in bringing attention to the problems facing under- and unemployed men. But instead of espousing incorrect theories, blaming pornography, and supporting an insurrection, he should use his national platform to promote policies that we know will actually make a difference, such as affordable and universal health care, decent safety nets, transitional policies for those whose jobs are displaced, and a focus on our society’s well-being, including mental health. (He’ll have a willing partner in all of this if he wants to work with Sanders again.) Any solution that fails to acknowledge the structural factors at play is just empty rhetoric.