American men today earn about 20% more than their female counterparts and hold 96% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. They constitute more than 80% of the House and the Senate, and have an unrivaled 44-0 streak in winning the presidency. But in 2016 American men are also increasingly likely to say that they’re the ones facing Discrimination.
In the 2012 American National Election Study, 9% of Republican men said that men faced “a great deal” or “a lot” of discrimination in America. In 2016 that figure is 18%. Perceptions of gender discrimination against men also rose slightly among independent men, but fell among Democratic men. If we add in those men who say that men face “a moderate amount” of discrimination, 41% of Republican men now say that men are being discriminated against. Overall, about one-third of men now say that they’re facing substantial gender discrimination, and two-thirds say that they’re facing at least a little discrimination.
Why would men believe that they are facing gender discrimination in society when there is no real evidence of it? Part of it may be differences in the meaning of discrimination. When men cite examples of discrimination, they note that men are more likely to get speeding tickets and are expected to pay on dates. Women, on the other hand, tend to cite things like the gender pay gap and fear of sexual assault. Perhaps more important, though, researchers have found that men are prone to seeing discrimination as a zero-sum game. That is, they believe that discrimination against one group necessarily benefits another group and vice versa, so any policy that benefits African-Americans, for instance, harms whites, and any policy that benefits women amounts to discrimination against men. Fifteen years ago, younger men — and women of all ages — overwhelmingly rejected this view, but recent data shows that younger white men are now about as likely as older men to see discrimination as zero-sum.
With race-based policies, it’s possible that some might amount to aiding a minority at the expense of the majority — affirmative action policies for college admissions, for instance. But it’s often less clear how policies that help women might hurt men. In the ANES data, men who perceive discrimination against men are more likely to oppose mandatory employer coverage of contraception and parental leave laws, for instance. Even if there’s no evidence that such policies would hurt men (heterosexual men clearly also benefit from contraception), the logic of the zero-sum approach is unforgiving: Anything that helps women must also be hurting men.
The belief that you’re facing systemic discrimination has real psychological consequences for people. So long as they don’t see the discrimination as part of a broader pattern in which society as a whole is biased against them, they’re generally able to cope well. For example, in a 2003 study researchers showed that women displayed lower self-esteem after an instance of sexist discrimination — but only when they were made to believe that sexism was widespread.
What’s important to recognize, though, is that the perception of being rejected by the mainstream is just that: a perception. Even if men are actually privileged in society, the belief that they aren’t is enough to push them to respond to perceived discrimination in the same way that actually disadvantaged members of society do. They increase their gender group identification, experience lower self-esteem, get angry, and even lash out at the group they see as doing the oppressing.
If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because these patterns are being replicated on a large scale in the 2016 presidential election. One of the strongest correlates of belief that men are being discriminated against is support for Donald Trump. Controlling for other factors, the more that independent and Republican men support Trump, the more likely they are to say that men are being discriminated against. The presence of a woman at the top of a major party ticket for the first time is also likely raising hackles among men concerned that women are taking over society. Controlling for other factors, the more discrimination men perceive against their gender, the lower they rate Hillary Clinton on a feeling thermometer scale (a measure used in political polls to measure positive or negative feelings toward an individual or group, running from 0–100, with higher scores representing positive feelings).
Put together, this indicates that while the election this year may be making these sorts of views more visible, and may even have activated them in some men, the underlying causes of perceived discrimination go much deeper. The culprit isn’t the actions of candidates or government policies, but rather the zero-sum view of discrimination held by many, and actively promulgated by groups in what we now refer to as the “alt-right.” Until that view has been confronted, and roundly rejected, we can expect white men to increasingly see themselves as victims as other groups start to catch up.