The present is female. And the future will be as well. This past week, as hands were wrung over whether a female president is possible, we learned that there are now slightly more women in the workplace than men. It happened before briefly in 2009, when the Great Recession destroyed industries where men were disproportionately represented. But the new stats, in a period of low unemployment, represent something like the new normal. Other recent stats have found ever-more female triumph: As of 2017, there were 2.2 million more women than men in college, and the Department of Education predicts that by 2026, women will make up 57 percent of college students, leaving men far behind.
Women now dominate the service sector, especially in health and education, where most new jobs will be found. In December 2019, a full 95 percent of net jobs added went to women — a stunning statistic. To give some perspective on this, in 1970, almost 30 million women accounted for 29 percent of the workforce; nearly 50 years later, in 2019, 74.6 million women accounted for 50.3 percent of the non-farm labor force. If that isn’t a massive victory for feminism, what would be?
Yes, the gender pay gap persists — but in attenuated form. The number most commonly cited — 81 cents to the dollar — is just the raw annual total of all male annual wages compared with all female wages. It doesn’t tell us if women are paid less than men in the same job; it doesn’t account for choice of profession, or working hours, or use of parental leave. When you adjust for all that, women now earn 93 to 95 percent of male hourly earnings: not good enough, but still at record highs. In the past decade, parental leave has expanded, as has working from home, both hugely beneficial to tens of millions of working women. And as the economy shifts toward the sectors where women dominate, and as women get more education than men, this trend looks highly likely to continue and even intensify. NPR notes: “Women hold 77 percent of the jobs in health care and education — fast-growing fields that eclipse the entire goods-producing sector of the economy.”
Yes, there are still notable exceptions at the very top: Most C-suite executives (four out of five) are male, even though women’s presence there has grown 25 percent in the past five years. First-level managerial positions are still disproportionately held by men, which affects the rest of the pipeline. But all the stats point upward, and, for much of corporate America, a more diverse workforce is increasingly valued. In 1970, there were no women in the Senate; now there are 26 — more than half the entire number of female senators in U.S. history. In the House, as recently as 1980, women accounted for only 3.2 percent of the members; now it’s 23.7 percent, and the Speaker is a woman. There’s work to be done. But this rise in women’s earnings and power seems real and inexorable.
I’m not dismissing the resilience of sexual harassment, although great journalism and the Me Too movement have undoubtedly helped raise the costs for abusive men. Nor am I dismissing all the myriad ways women meet obstacles where men don’t. I see a lot more now than I used to, and I’m grateful for having my blind spots pointed out. I’m just noting that comparing the condition of women today with women in an era that, say, denied them suffrage, education, careers outside the home, or treated them as properties of their husbands, it’s a whole universe of advance.
And yet feminist rhetoric has intensified as all this remarkable progress has been made. A raft of recent books have been full of the need for renewed rage against the oppression of women. The demonization of “white men” has intensified just as many working-class white men face a bleak economic future and as men are disappearing from the workforce. It is as if the less gender discrimination there is, the angrier you should become.
This is not just in feminism. You see it in the gay-rights movement too. I get fundraising emails all the time reminding me how we live in a uniquely perilous moment for LGBTQ Americans and that this era, in the words of Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Charlotte Clymer, is one “that has seen unprecedented attacks on LGBTQ people.” Unprecedented? Might I suggest some actual precedents: when all gay sex was criminal, when many were left by their government to die of AIDS, when no gay relationships were recognized in the law, when gay service members were hounded out of their mission, when the federal government pursued a purge of anyone suspected of being gay. All but the last one occurred in my adult lifetime. But today we’re under “unprecedented” assault?
The right is not immune to the same syndrome. Donald Trump talks about crime as if we are still living in the 1980s. Here’s a great tweet from the acting DHS secretary, Chad Wolf, this week: “There has been a complete breakdown of law and order in NYC.” Really? Last year, there were 295 murders in New York City; as recently as 1990, there were 2,295. Trump himself speaks of a surge in illegal immigration overwhelming the country. And it’s true that we are close to a record percentage of foreign-born Americans, and that last year there was a surge of asylum seekers from Guatemala (many fraudulent). But in 2018, to provide some perspective, there were 400,000 people caught trying to enter the U.S. illegally on the southwestern border; under Reagan and George W. Bush, those numbers peaked at over 1.6 million. It was only when such apprehensions were back down at levels not seen since the early 1970s that an insurgent anti-immigration candidate won the presidency. Go figure.
Why this sudden ratcheting up of rhetoric? On the right, it’s fueled by the kind of absurd hyperbole that Trump uses all the time. On the left, it’s Trump himself. His extremism, misogyny, transphobia, and racism have all provoked a sharp turn to the left among Democrats. But, as you can see from the workforce numbers for women, there’s little he can actually do to prevent the future from being female. He could tip the Court, which could, in turn, repeal Roe, but that would be a highly unpopular ruling and likely provoke a backlash that could lead to more moderate federal legislation in its place. Marriage equality is settled law, according to the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Gay visibility is ubiquitous. Black unemployment is at record lows; black women are seeing real improvement in their careers and earnings; crime in urban neighborhoods is a fraction of what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Yes, we have a bigot in the Oval Office — but his ability to influence these broader cultural tides is quite limited.
Some of the rhetorical excess is also about money. Interest groups for various subpopulations have a financial interest in emphasizing oppression in order to keep donations flowing.
But a recent psychological study suggests a simpler explanation. Its core idea is what you might call “oppression creep” or, more neutrally, “prevalence-induced concept change.” The more progress we observe, the greater the remaining injustices appear. We seem incapable of keeping a concept stable over time when the prevalence of that concept declines. In a fascinating experiment, participants were provided with a chart containing a thousand dots that ranged along a spectrum from very blue to very purple and were asked to go through and identify all the blue dots. The study group was then broken in two. One subgroup was shown a new chart with the same balance of purple and blue dots as the first one and asked to repeat the task. Not surprisingly, they generally found the same number of blue dots as they did on the first chart. A second subgroup was shown a new chart with fewer blue dots and more purple dots. In this group, participants started marking dots as blue that they would have marked as purple on the first chart. “In other words, when the prevalence of blue dots decreased, participants’ concept of blue expanded to include dots that it had previously excluded.”
We see relatively, not absolutely. We change our standards all the time, depending on context. As part of the study, the psychologists ran another experiment showing participants a range of threatening and nonthreatening faces and asking them to identify which was which. Next, participants were split into two groups and asked to repeat the exercise. The first subgroup was shown the same ratio of threatening and nonthreatening faces as in the initial round; subgroup two was shown many fewer threatening faces. Sure enough, the second group adjusted by seeing faces they once thought of as nonthreatening as threatening. The conclusion:
When blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening … This happened even when the change in the prevalence of instances was abrupt, even when participants were explicitly told that the prevalence of instances would change, and even when participants were instructed and paid to ignore these changes.
We seem to be wired to assume a given threat remains just as menacing even when its actual prevalence has declined:
Our studies suggest that even well-meaning agents may sometimes fail to recognize the success of their own efforts, simply because they view each new instance in the decreasingly problematic context that they themselves have brought about. Although modern societies have made extraordinary progress in solving a wide range of social problems, from poverty and illiteracy to violence and infant mortality, the majority of people believe that the world is getting worse. The fact that concepts grow larger when their instances grow smaller may be one source of that pessimism.
This study may help explain why, in the midst of tremendous gains for gays, women, and racial minorities, we still insist more than ever that we live in a patriarchal, misogynist, white supremacist, homophobic era. We constantly adjust our view of our fast-changing world to ensure we don’t believe it has changed at all! Maybe this is simply another way of describing each generation’s shifting of the goalposts. Or maybe it’s because we’ve made so much progress that the injustice that remains appears more intolerable, rather than less. Or maybe, as these psychologists suggest, “holding concepts constant may be an evolutionarily recent requirement that the brain’s standard computational mechanisms are ill equipped to meet.”
But whatever the cause, the result is that we steadfastly refuse to accept the fact of progress, in a cycle of eternal frustration at what injustices will always remain. We never seem to be able to say: “Okay, we’re done now, we’ve got this, politics has done all it reasonably could, now let’s move on with our lives.” We can only ever say: “It’s worse than ever!” And feel it in our bones.
I watched the Democratic debate in Iowa with only one objective: to figure out who could best beat Trump. At this point, I don’t care about their policies, although I’m sympathetic to many and hostile to a few. All I care about is their capacity to end this emergency in liberal democracy. And, even with that prism firmly set, it wasn’t that easy.
The Democrat I think is most likely to lose to Trump is Elizabeth Warren. I admire her ambition and grit and aggression, but nominating a woke, preachy Harvard professor plays directly into Trump’s hands. And picking someone who has bent the truth so often about so many things — her ancestry, her commitment to serving a full term as senator, the schools her kids went to, the job her father had (according to her brother), or the time she was “fired” for being pregnant — is an unnecessary burden. The video she produced insisting that she was partly Native American, using genetic markers, should have been a disqualifier by itself. The lack of judgment was staggering.
And, to be honest, Pete Buttigieg’s appeal has waned for me. Yes, technically, he’s still the best debater of the bunch. And I don’t take anything back that I wrote here. But, over time, the combination of his perfect résumé, his actorly ability to change register as he unpacks a sentence, and his smoothness and self-love have begun to worry me. My fear is that his appeal will fade. Klobuchar, to my mind, is the better midwestern option. She is an engaging and successful politician. But there’s a reason she seemingly can’t get more traction. She just doesn’t command a room, let alone a stage. Setting aside everything else, Warren is presidential in a way that Klobuchar is not.
And I so want Biden to be ten years younger. I can’t help but be very fond of the man, and he does have a mix of qualities that appeal to both African-Americans and white working-class midwesterners. What I worry about is his constant stumbling in his speech, his muddling of words, those many moments when his eyes close, and his face twitches, as he tries to finish a sentence. Perhaps these are ways to cope with a stutter, as John Hendrickson posits — but they definitely seem more pronounced than I remember. He looks like a man past his prime. I worry whether Biden could stand up to Trump’s psychotic energy and lies.
Which leaves us with Bernie. I have to say he’s grown on me as a potential Trump-beater. He seems more in command of facts than Biden, more commanding in general than Buttigieg or Klobuchar, and far warmer than Elizabeth Warren. He’s a broken clock, but the message he has already stuck with for decades might be finding its moment. There’s something clarifying about having someone with a consistent perspective on inequality take on a president who has only exacerbated it. He could expose, in a gruff Brooklyn accent, the phony populism, and naked elitism of Trump. He could appeal to the working-class voters the Democrats have lost. He could sincerely point out how Trump has given massive sums of public money to the banks, leaving crumbs for the middle class. And people might believe him.
Is he an American Corbyn? I worry about that a lot. Sanders has been on the far left all his life, and the oppo research the GOP throws at him could be brutal. He’s a man, after all, who sided with a Marxist-Leninist party that supported Ayatollah Khomeini during the hostage crisis in 1979. He loved the monstrous dictator Fidel Castro and took his 1988 honeymoon in the Soviet Union, no less, where he openly and publicly criticized his own country and praised many aspects of the Soviet system. He saw the USSR and the USA this way: “Let’s take the strengths of both systems. Let’s learn from each other.” As he was saying this, the Soviet Union was already collapsing. And he paid no visits to dissidents. I think it’s fair to say that he has never met a leftist dictator he hasn’t admired.
But Corbyn? The British Labour leader had a net favorability rating as low as negative 40. Bernie, with huge name recognition, is only at negative 6. After the GOP has nailed him as an ayatollah-supporting commie who’s going to take your health insurance away and crash the economy, his negatives will rise. But it’s worth noting that Trump’s favorable rating is negative 10. It was striking to me, too, that some leading conservatives rallied to Bernie in his spat with Warren this week. Some are actually quite fond of the old coot.
On two key issues, immigration and identity politics, Bernie has sensibilities and instincts that could neutralize these two strong points for Trump. Sanders has always loathed the idea of open borders and the effect they have on domestic wages, and he doesn’t fit well with the entire woke industry. He still believes in class struggle, not the culture war. But he doesn’t seem to be trying to capitalize on any of that. Take a look at his immigration proposals. They are the most radical I’ve seen: essentially an end to any control of illegal immigration, with enforcement of the law at the border solely for human traffickers and gun smugglers; a moratorium on all deportations; an end to any detention of illegal immigrants; an open-ended amnesty for basically anyone who has gotten here. How you distinguish these policies from the “open borders” Sanders used to oppose is beyond my understanding. I believe that immigration control will matter in this election. The Democrats don’t. That’s their gamble, and Sanders is doubling down on it.
So where am I? Not thrilled, I have to say. Bernie has the edge on energy and populism, but he’s so far to the left the Democrats could end up where the British Labour Party just found itself: gutted. Biden has an advantage because of Obama, his appeal to the midwestern voters (if he wins back Pennsylvania, that would work wonders), and his rapport with African-Americans. But he also seems pretty out of it. The others are longer shots. Bloomberg? The ads are good, but a billionaire who helicopters into a race late isn’t the right messenger in these times.
I should point out that I’ll vote for whichever of these candidates wins the nomination. I regard a criminal, corrupt, impeached, delusional, and clinically sociopathic president as by far the greater threat to liberal democracy, or what remains of it, than any potential Democrat in the office. But between the front-runners, Biden and Bernie? Bernie, maybe, but by a smidgen.
I wonder if Meghan Markle has ever carefully watched an episode of The Crown. The entire story of the British monarchy for the past half-century has been the extreme difficulty for the queen or any member of her family to be a fully realized human being in public and private. And that’s why the series has only magnified respect for Elizabeth II. Her resilience in performing public duties without ever revealing any political or cultural views is pretty remarkable. She showed grace even when her family was coming apart — when her sister, Margaret, acted out in public, her daughter-in-law Diana tried to escape the inhuman scrutiny of royalty, or when her favorite son, Andrew, was credibly accused of raping children. She has had amazing staying power in her measured restraint and commitment to duty.
You can feel a great deal of sympathy for those human beings consigned by genes to this constricted if luxurious life. Harry had no choice to be prince or not — and a spare heir as well. But for those who willingly join this family, and become a princess or prince through marriage? I’m less forgiving. The fantasy of being a princess depends on it’s being rare. For a young American woman to become an official princess — to have a wedding with a carriage, global adoration, and national applause — must have seemed like a fantasy. And, of course, it was. The bargain the modern monarchy has made with the British people is that, in return for the glamour, the royals have to do some kind of public service, stay uncontroversial, and not rock the boat. Harry paid his dues: a ten-year stint in the armed forces, including fighting in Afghanistan, and the usual patronage of various charities. He was a bit of a rogue at times, but that was fine. We liked that.
But Meghan? She has been in the royal family for less than two years and now wants out. Her husband, who has hinted before at his discomfort with his princely duties, will leave with her. She has had all the perks of a princess but didn’t want to be treated by the press the way it usually treats royals: with aggressive tabloid coverage of various levels of truth. There have been spells when the tabloid press adored her and others when it seemed to hound her. Last fall, Harry wrote a letter describing the toll this takes: “My wife has become one of the latest victims of a British tabloid press that wages campaigns against individuals with no thought to the consequences — a ruthless campaign that has escalated over the past year, throughout her pregnancy and while raising our newborn son. There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly false and malicious, and though we have continued to put on a brave face — as so many of you can relate to — I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been.”
Some are claiming that Markle is being treated differently because of her mixed ancestry. But she is certainly not being treated any worse than Diana, that whitest of princesses, whom the press effectively murdered. Or Margaret, who was always in the tabloids, to everyone’s great embarrassment. There are definitely some unfair tropes aired in the shifting contrasts between Kate Middleton and Meghan, but it’s hard to disentangle this from everything else princes and princesses are subjected to.
It’s also very understandable, given what happened to his mother, that Harry would be intensely aware of the damage the press can do. But deciding to quit the royal family, move to Canada part time (if they’ll have him), and make money through the celebrity industry is quite a leap from royal duty and stiff upper lips. The Sussexes already had their new house, Frogmore Cottage, renovated at a cost to taxpayers of $3 million, after finding Kensington Palace unsuitable to their needs. They fly free and have all their security provided by public funds. But all of this was too much for Meghan, who described royal life as “toxic”: “She felt she had to escape because living within the royal confines was soul-crushing,” a friend told theDaily Mail. “She told her inner circle of friends that her soul was being crushed and that the decision to leave was a matter of life or death — meaning the death of her spirit.”
Sorry, but if you choose to marry into royalty, you have to take the rough with the smooth: The fame and luxury of being a princess comes packaged with bad press, intrusive photographers, and constant public duty. If Meghan didn’t expect this, it’s hard to understand how not. The press coverage she will now get will be even worse: According to one poll, 72 percent of the Brits want them gone, 71 percent think posting the news on Instagram before telling the queen was shoddy, 60 percent want them out of their renovated cottage and forced to pay back the renovation, and 76 percent want them stripped of their royal security. In the same poll, the public supports their decision to adopt a new role and to pursue their own happiness — but outside any connection to the royal family.
It’s quite simple: You can’t eat your royal cake and have it too. And Meghan and Harry now have no cake at all.