Writing for The Atlantic recently, staff writer Elizabeth Bruenig decried the manner that Republican U.S. Senate candidate J. D. Vance has engaged in politicizing children and the debate over falling fertility rates in this country. She wrote:
Desperate times demand that America’s babies and children stand up and man the ramparts of the culture wars. The latest recruitment effort began with a declaration by the Ohio senate candidate J. D. Vance, who held that the “childless left,” exemplified, in his view, by politicians like Pete Buttigieg, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, is turning the country into a rump state of imperious cat ladies. “Let’s give votes to all children in this country,” Vance argued, by way of remedy, “but let’s give control over those votes to the parents of the children … We should worry that in America, family formation, our birth rates, a ton of indicators of family health have collapsed.” It’s no armed insurrection, but it’s still a sorry fate for a generation of children who, by no fault of their own, are being transformed into a political talisman for the right. And for no reason: Most people, regardless of politics or identity, end up having kids at some point.
There is no greater insult in politics than being accused of “playing politics” or politicizing an issue. Is Vance doing so? Absolutely; he’s doing what any smart political candidate does and feeding some red meat to his base.
In her article, Bruenig goes on to express her policy prescriptions for increasing the birth rate. In other words, she’s also playing politics with children. Her suggestions?
And yet, there is a kind of pro-child politics that is focused on children themselves, as opposed to the adults who do or do not have them and the virtues those grown-ups do or do not possess. It’s unglamorous and of little discursive interest precisely because it isn’t obviously useful in stoking liberal or conservative anger; it doesn’t trigger anyone enough, in other words, to stake a significant claim on the national consciousness. It involves careful tinkering with programs, such as the child tax credit, that relieve childhood poverty if administered correctly (ideally, as it turns out, not by the IRS) and designed well (without prejudice against the poorest families). It’s stolidly focused on children and the things they need: peace, good health, food, shelter, education and development, love, care, space and time to learn and grow.
The funny thing is, I don’t even disagree with Bruenig’s argument in favor of the expansion of the child tax credit; I wrote about it here for the Institute of Family Studies. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney has argued for his own plan to tweak the program in order to promote and support American families. Sens. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have proposed other versions. I also agree with Bruenig about Vance’s tactics — he is engaging in hyperbole in order to rally support among working class Ohio voters.
But it’s important to understand that we’re getting a window into what Vance (correctly) views as the primary animating issue for his desired constituents: family. That base is hungry for it because they don’t view children as political pawns but as the central object of their care and concern. Unlike Democrats, and contrary to Bruenig’s assertion, religious and political conservatives are actually having children. Liberals by and large are not, a fact that’s illustrated statistically.
Writing for the Institute for Family Studies last year on the “conservative fertility advantage” Lyman Stone writes,
Data about fertility rates is only available for around 600 of the largest counties, thus many small, rural counties are excluded. But the relationship shown here is clear: President Trump did better in counties with higher birth rates, and the difference is fairly large, with the most pro-Biden counties having total fertility rates almost 25% lower than the most pro-Trump counties. If anything, this effect is understated, since the most pro-Trump counties were small, rural counties that usually have even higher birth rates and are excluded from this analysis. Indeed, Yi Fuxian at the University of Wisconsin showed that the relationship between voting and fertility is even more pronounced when we look at fertility rates and state voting trends.
In her defense of liberal affections for kids, Bruenig cited her and her husband’s two children, both born before her 30th birthday. That’s notable, of course, because Bruenig is the exception, not the rule. It makes her interesting and unique among her liberal friends, a fact she mentioned in her infamous Mother’s Day column for The New York Times about embracing “young” motherhood at 25. The response to her piece from her political companions on the left was instructive: unbridled fury. I wrote about the firestorm Bruenig found herself in for merely stating she enthusiastically and unapologetically felt satisfaction and contentment in her role as a mother. It is perhaps due to that firestorm in May that Bruenig aimed her ire in her most recent column entirely at “the other side” instead of reflecting upon the issues on her own.
In response to critiques of her column on Twitter, Bruenig quipped, “The reason I don’t care whether people on Twitter think I’m a tradcath fashmommy is because it doesn’t matter. Crying about it doesn’t help children. Making the expanded CTC with zero phase-in permanent and fixing the distribution problems helps children. Eye on the ball!”
On the Republican side there is a lack of policy imagination for something like supporting growing and struggling families. But on the part of the left there is a lack of affection, bordering on downright hostility, for children and families. Any conversation about rock bottom fertility rates without a conversation about how the establishment left, in solid control of all mechanisms of culture in our country, regards and treats children is incomplete. No manner or sort of child tax credits or government policies can convince people who have been sold propaganda about the undesirable nature of children to take the parenthood plunge.
In all of our conversations about politicians and their messaging, we ignore a simple fact: They go to wells because they continue to find water within them. It’s the case with Donald Trump and his crusade against the media, and it’s true of Vance’s crusade for families against a child-hating progressive left. To conservatives it’s not a ploy, nor is it a culture war bomb; it’s a passion for fighting for our kids. We believe children are our most important natural resource and the top issue we care about. The political left is viewed as a threat to kids and our way of life. Much more so for conservatives than liberals, children aren’t an idea, they’re a reality in our homes every moment of the day. Vance’s decision to “play politics” with American kids signals his (and Republicans’) commitment to advocating for them, and by extension, for the future of the country that they represent.
Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News, editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.