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“Virtue-signaling” is the idea that people say they believe something but don’t really believe it. They’re saying it to seem impressive to people they desire to impress. Everyone does this to some degree, and everyone deserves some degree of takedown. But if anyone has a corner on the market of “virtue-signaling,” it’s the Republicans.
Behind religion, the most common theme of “virtue-signaling” is masculinity. This can be expressed in humiliating ways—as when candidate Donald Trump called Heidi Cruz ugly only to see her husband, Ted Cruz, lick his shoes for a single term. This can be expressed in more oblique ways, too—as when David Perdue mocked his Senate challenger Jon Ossoff for enjoying a vegan burger. Meat is macho. Plants are not.
The goal should be familiar. It’s one-upping the other guy, making him seem less than he is. The problem, of course, is this can be done all day, every day. There’s no end to it, no bottom, no boundaries, no limits. For this reason, liberals, feminists and the otherwise woke tend to think reacting to the politics of masculinity is a time-suck. Pick it apart as just another articulation of the prevailing patriarchy or don’t bother.
The problem is it doesn’t work. Where you see a sober assessment and deconstruction of social phenomena that are millennia old, the machos see weakness. It’s not weakness, but that’s what they see, and on seeing it, they just can’t help themselves. They are aroused like wolves are aroused by the sight of weakness in the caribou herd. (I believe in the power of persuasion, but I also concede there are limits to its power.) In reality, you’re offering an opinion. In fantasy, you are asking them to pounce. It should be clear the point isn’t manliness. It’s politics. It’s dominance. We should talk about it.
We should talk about the difference between manliness and political dominance, just as we should talk about the difference between religion and political power. They can be the same thing for Republicans and their ilk. They almost always are. But they don’t have to be. Recognizing that manliness and dominance don’t have to be the same makes room for ways of beating them with something other than the appearance of anti-manliness. Feminism isn’t going anywhere. But let’s explore a complement: the utility of creating, or reviving, a good kind of manliness to compete with the bad kind.
What would good manliness look like? First, a caveat. I’m just a normal person, same as you. It seems to me smart, though, to start with the word. “Manliness” finds its root in Latin. “Vir” meant “man.” From “vir” comes the permutations of “virtue.” Among patricians of ancient Rome, “virtue” connoted generosity, fidelity, duty and, especially willingness to subordinate one’s self-interest to the interest of the Republic. They did not believe in equality any more than the American founders did. But republican virtue, and the politics arising from that age-old moral principle, greatly influenced both.
Few in ancient Rome had the means of seriously questioning patrician dominance. Perhaps that’s why their idea of manliness had nothing to do with it. We don’t have to accept that, though. Indeed, Joe Biden didn’t. The President-Elect, in a speech last summer, defined the presidency so that republican virtue was at the heart of it. It’s “a duty of care,” he said, “all of us, not just our voters, not just our donors, but all of us.”
Then he placed this old-fashioned republican manliness in a religious and patriotic context: “The President held up a Bible at St. John’s Church yesterday. If he opened it instead of brandishing it, he could have learned something: That we are all called to love one another as we love ourselves. That’s hard work. But it’s the work of America.” Biden never got credit for being manly, because manliness is always defined by the right flank of US politics. But manliness is exactly what he was talking about. The difference is he wasn’t “virtue-signaling.” He was, instead, putting virtue into practice.
To be sure, I’m opening the door to paternalism. I haven’t addressed the harmful tendency of some men to infantilize women, like they can’t take care of themselves. But I don’t see old-fashioned republican manliness being necessarily at odds with gender equity. They can be complementary—if men remember humility. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean just giving care. It means receiving it, too. Lots of men are just terrible at that, because lots of us think we’re too strong to need it. We do. We do.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people, where this article was originally published. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University.