John McCain and Barack Obama: The Future of Masculinity

The differences between John McCain and Barack Obama run much deeper than policy. McCain and Obama represent different types of masculinity in the same way that Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton represent contrasting femininities.

As with John Kennedy, a leader’s energy and spirit can have more impact than policies. McCain and Obama’s divergent masculinities will affect not just the way we communicate with enemies, but deal with conflict at school, work and home. They will affect the spirit of our sons; and our daughters’ choices of boys to be the next generation of dads: the warrior-protector or the communicator-protector.

McCain’s masculinity derives from the belief that the attitude that makes this nation great is “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Since he feels the nation is already great, his focus is on stability. Obama’s masculinity emanates from a belief, not unlike Iron Man’s, that while strength is what got us to where we are, its potential is in using it to achieve “a more perfect union.” Thus his focus on change.

Ironically, Obama’s masculinity is not viable without McCain’s; yet McCain’s without Obama’s will leave men in 2010 where women were in 1950. Why? Let’s start with McCain.
Virtually every society that survived war was strong enough to fend off the Hitlers of its time. This required socializing boys to define masculinity as a willingness to die so others may live. At home, surviving poverty meant defining manhood as earning money someone else could spend while they died sooner. (Men constitute 93% of workplace deaths.)
Whether to kill in war–or “make a killing” on Wall Street–boys were socialized to kill and be killed via incentives such as “power” and “glory.” And by women’s love: Women fell in love with the officer and the gentleman, not the private and the pacifist.

To be willing to forfeit his young life, it helped if a boy felt his country’s cause was larger than life. This feeling is jeopardized if he questions its cause. Such is McCain’s heritage. And his gift. To a point…

Traditional masculinity’s strength neglects other strengths—such as trusting outsiders and questioning policymakers. Boot camp teaches neither.

Trusting outsiders—such as Native Americans trusting European explorers–is dangerous if one is not strong enough to repel an outsider who proves untrustworthy. But once a county is strong, perpetual suspicion is self-defeating. As in Iraq, minimally-questioned suspicions of hidden weapons lead to “pre-emptive” strikes, to becoming the aggressor and creating the war the suspicion was designed to prevent. And in Iran, suspicion leads to requiring pre-conditions to talks, which leads to less likelihood of talking.

Once strong, a country also needs Obamas who can ask if portions of the Patriot Act are seducing us into becoming more like our enemy; who sense that righteousness is less about being right than about listening to many truths; that self-righteousness inspires Al Qaedas, Chavezes and Castros; and conversely, that respecting an enemy’s values undermines the enemy’s ability to inspire recruits.

This new masculinity also applies to our lives in the workplace and at home. It will explore how to be successful at work without failing at home. For example, does the lawyer who succeeds by finding fault in court create failure when he finds fault at home? Similarly, the qualities it takes to succeed in war often create failure in love: It’s hard to cuddle with suspicion. The killer-protector is rarely at ease as a communicator-protector. And vice-versa.

The new masculinity works best when it does not replace the old, but builds on it. In school, debating would not be replaced by training to listen, but supplemented by it. Otherwise, training to debate is training for divorce.

In school sports, winning would not cease to be important, but would be less important than the lessons that can be derived from each game for a better life. That’s what makes sports belong in school.

The new masculinity, then, will be a failure if it replaces “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” with “When the going gets tough, the tough see a therapist.” The new man needs to be tough—and tough enough to see a therapist.

It is the 2008 election’s irony that the success of McCain’s masculinity has made the country safe for Obama’s new masculinity: one of trusting others, questioning authority, following professions that are passions, shared parenting, and choosing soul mates over role mates. Safe, that is, as long as the country doesn’t forget that while the president will be only one man, the country needs both masculinities.