I’ve been getting a barrage of feedback on the big bind we have facing us — which is when, and how, we should go back to normal life and work amid the continuing threat of the coronavirus.
Most of the hundreds of emailers or callers commented pro or con, which is great. There’s a subset, though, that takes the debate to a more primal level.
“Maybe you want to sit inside and cower behind your keyboard, not me,” wrote one reader. “Must be terrible to be so afraid of life and death.”
“If you are so fearful, Danny, then don’t go out, stay home and read your books,” counseled another.
“I call (Gov.) Inslee’s plan the ‘Panic in Place Order,’ ” said another. “Everyone’s following along like a flock of scared sheep.”
These writers — surprise — happened to all be men. And it turns out the testosterone approach to fighting the virus is not just a quirk of my email inbox. Two months in, one of the fascinating developments of the pandemic is that it seems to come with a pronounced, and widening, gender gap.
That’s when men and women react differently to an issue or political candidate. It’s not new. In every presidential election since 1980, more male voters have backed the Republican, while women have broken for the Democrat.
But the gap now in some polls is among the widest ever recorded. A national Suffolk poll this past week found Donald Trump is favored among men by 8 points (49% to 41%). But with women, it’s a wipeout the other way — Democrat Joe Biden leads by an unheard of 28 percentage points (60% to 32%).
In recent weeks the pandemic itself has started to polarize the electorate along gender lines.
Is it a good or bad idea, without extensive new testing, to go back to work right now? The Marist polling firm asked this question this past week. Stories about the poll noted that two-thirds of Americans thought it was a bad idea.
But that obscured a sizable gender split. Women overwhelmingly said going back now was a bad idea, by 48 percentage points (72% to 24%). Men said it was a bad idea by only 18 points (58% to 40%). That’s a wider gender disagreement than there was on Trump vs. Clinton in 2016 (when the gender gap was about 11 points).
Locally, Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, in a survey for Crosscut, found a 9-point gap, with women more likely than men to favor Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home plan.
What’s going on? Mary-Kate Lizotte, a political science professor at Augusta University in Georgia and author of the new book “Gender Differences in Public Opinion,” says the coronavirus may be sifting us along gender lines because it’s in a sense a more “feminine” crisis.
“Traditionally the biggest gender gap in politics is about military conflict,” she said.
Though President Trump has declared that we’re at “war with an invisible enemy,” the battle plan against the virus doesn’t call for rallying or fighting so much as patience and staying at home.
Lizotte said whittling down into some polls shows the biggest split of opinion on how to respond is between Republican women and the men in their own party.
“Women voters are far more likely, year after year, to support a social safety net,” she said. “Now we have this huge external shock to the system, where you have this crazy thing going on that’s not being handled well, and it’s vividly demonstrating the need for a safety net.”
It appears to go beyond politics. In preparing for a pandemic like this one, a team of researchers at Los Alamos found that women across the board are just better than men at everything we’re being asked to do right now — from staying inside to washing hands to wearing masks. A lot better: “Women in the general population are about 50% more likely than men to practice non-pharmaceutical health and protective behaviors in the context of epidemics/pandemics,” the study found.
Back to politics, Lizotte said there’s been an academic theory for some time that the parties are separating into “masculine Republicans and feminine Democrats” — in their symbols, language and issue focus. The coronavirus, at its core not a war but a health care crisis, may be accelerating that. Polls in the spring often give way by the fall, but some of the polls “are kind of shocking,” she said.
Example: The Marist poll asked voters whether they approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Men said they do, by five points (52% to 47%). But with women, it’s as if he asked them to inject bleach or something. They gave him a rating of negative 27 points (36% to 63%).
We’ve been mulling for weeks in this space whether the coronavirus might fundamentally shift anything in society, break up some of the old stale divisions or debates. It’s starting to look like women might be coming up with their own answer to that.