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Opinion Where are Hawley’s real ideas for fixing American manhood?

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is shown in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Feb. 22. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post/POOL)
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Sen. Josh Hawley is a champion of masculine virtue in a culture that wants to destroy it!

Or at least that’s what he wants you to think.

In a keynote address at the recent National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, the Missouri Republican decried the left’s “attack” on American men.

“Can we be surprised,” he said, “that after years of being told … that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography and video games?” He declared that the country needs a “revival of strong and healthy manhood,” and more men who will marry, father children and “shoulder responsibility.”

Hawley then doubled down in an interview with Axios, blaming supposedly leftist policies of deindustrialization and fatherlessness for the decline of American males and the surge in their bad habits. He clearly plans to make masculinity one of his signature issues.

And it might work. Because the senator is tapping into something real.

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Increasing numbers of men are disconnected from their work, families and children, and suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues. Men’s labor force participation has fallen from 80 percent in 1970 to 68 percent in 2021. And that working-class men especially are struggling to deal with fast-paced economic and cultural changes is a real phenomenon.

More men are deciding to opt out of higher education. A recent Wall Street Journal article, cited by Hawley in his speech, went viral, and not just among conservatives. “A generation of American men give up on college: ‘I just feel lost,’” its headline read. Among its statistics: Compared with five years ago, American colleges and universities saw a drop in enrollment of 1.5 million, and men accounted for 71 percent of the decline.

And the surfeit of pornography is a problem. In interviews for my forthcoming book, “Rethinking Sex,” I heard both women and men complain about the prevalence of pornography in men’s lives — as a distraction from reality, and as a presence that can suck the energy out of existing relationships.

Like any good demagogue, Hawley is taking legitimate issues — the struggles a certain set of men face — wrapping them in overheated rhetoric and firing them at his enemies.

But liberals will need a better response than laughter.

Historically, having millions of disaffected young men about tends to be a recipe for disaster. And Democrats who cheered Joe Biden’s gains among male voters in 2020 would be foolish to think they can cling to those numbers while ignoring men’s concerns. It would be a mistake for those on the left to ignore the discontent seeping into the broader culture.

That said, when Hawley makes vague appeals to “responsibility,” wrings his hands over porn and blames “the left,” he shouldn’t be let off the hook. If he actually cares about the crisis he is deploying as cannon fodder, he should be pressed to offer solutions — to engage more deeply on the level of policy and ideas.

Who, after all, is really against “taking responsibility”? And wouldn’t learning the history of one’s nation, making amends and creating just structures for future generations be a perfect example of doing so? I would be interested to hear how Hawley’s attacks on the boogeyman of critical race theory — or his refusal to acknowledge how warped understandings of manhood have led to injustice — fit in with his pursuit of that masculine virtue.

A real man is a husband and father, Hawley says, and the United States needs men who will “raise up sons and daughters after them.” Okay. If you’re interested, senator, there’s a fight for paid parental leave — for mothers and fathers — going on in Congress right now. Paid leave seems like an obvious policy choice to help American men become more present to their families. Oddly, it seems to be garnering support only from the very liberals you inveigh against. If conservatives care about the family, maybe they should try supporting it.

Hawley also says the country needs men who can “share in self-government,” the kind “who make republics possible.” So how does his party’s idolatry of Donald Trump, its unwillingness to acknowledge a democratically elected president or its refusal to address the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol (including Hawley’s own, very visible, role) line up with that goal?

In Cardinal John Henry Newman’s “The Definition of a Gentleman” — a text with which the Catholic-educated, proudly Christian Hawley should be familiar — the famed theologian stated that the best kind of man “is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.”

“Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, indulgence,” Newman wrote. The gentleman “throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes.”

Hawley might take note: A man of virtue ought to solve problems — not simply use them to attack the other side.