Invasion of the Baby-Haters

Conservatives like J. D. Vance have invented a bogeyman of childlessness, and are using actual kids as political pawns.

A checkerboard made up of repeating portraits of Mary and Jesus, and broken up by a red-tinged photograph of J. D. Vance
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

About the author: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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.

Vance’s proposal was a hit on Fox and Friends, and The Federalist’s publisher, Ben Domenech, picked up the line of thinking in another segment that aired on the network earlier this week, arguing, inter alia, that “woke, socialist progressives” hate babies “more than anything else,” and that the left detests the fact that there are children, period. All the usual suspects—radical environmentalists agitating for depopulation, career-oriented girl bosses, critical race theorists—made their usual appearances, each offered as evidence of a leftward political bent that’s thoroughly anti-child.

Is it so? Seldom has it been harder to say what huge political coalitions like “the left” and “the right”—which, in the United States, are primarily characterized at the moment by infighting and high-stakes factionalism—think as corporate entities. Nor is it easy to make a statement about politics or culture that will actually be received with any kind of sincerity. The culture wars have ground on so fiercely and for so long that the very infrastructure of public debate has become one of its chief casualties; even if it were still possible to know with certainty what “the left” thinks of babies, it wouldn’t be worthwhile to say. Nobody would believe it, anyway.

And so whether you believe it is ultimately a matter of what kinds of media you like to consume. Our radically polarized discourse rewards the most outrageous expressions of either side’s respective ideas, which makes locating totally obnoxious political positions not just effortless but nearly unavoidable. If you want to find a self-identified progressive chastising breeders for saturating the planet with carbon-emitting, snot-slinging vectors of pollution and disease, some social-media site’s genius algorithm will serve such a person up to you without delay. Now that political victories are scored in liberal tears or conservative outrage, the incentives to pursue anything else are fairly minimal.

With all that being said, allow me to violate my own common sense and say what I believe to be true: If socialist progressives are inveterate childless baby-haters, this is news to me, my husband, and the two children I birthed before age 30. We’re fairly fond of the critters around here, and a substantial chunk of our politics is premised on the idea that children are precious and deserve the very best we have to offer as a society, regardless of whether their parents are rich or poor. But whatever one’s beliefs about which policies most benefit children—universal health care; paid parental leave; free child care, pre-K, and school lunches, in my opinion—a political conversation that favors kids has to take children as its subject. This current discourse does not.

Instead, it’s concerned with adults, and the decisions, personal or political, that cause them to opt into or out of parenthood. This much is especially clear in Vance’s rhetoric, which identifies the “childless left” as the source of America’s woes, and suggests meting out more votes to parents to right those putative wrongs. In Domenech’s view, too, the trouble isn’t so much that the left has lined up policies that demonstrably harm children, but that the adults of the left seem attitudinally opposed to fertility and parenthood. These people, one infers—single, Millennial dog mommies living in urban apartments and stumping for liberal causes—are the problem, and the solution is to disempower them in one way or another. That goal is primary; the kids and their needs are way downstream of the problematic adults and their proposed successors.

Not that this reduces the potency of the attack on the alleged baby-haters on the left. Children are excellent; they’re wonderful. Having them, loving them, raising them is everything it’s cracked up to be and more; you could install an ecstasy pump in your brain stem and never feel half the euphoria that rushes up from within when your child runs to you, beaming, to bask in your love. These feelings are ancient and deep, and it is no surprise that they can be easily plumbed for political torque. They have been before, many times, not always with benign consequences.

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.

In a more functional democracy, the fortunes of children ought to be the kind of thing that brings diverse constituencies together. We all stand to gain if our children prosper, after all, not merely in political terms but in a higher, more cosmic sense.

Alas, that is not our approach, and our children are worse off for it. Subjects relinquished to the culture wars never retain their own essence for long; instead, they become symbols of other things—means to ends instead of ends in themselves. It’s hard to justify such a punishment for America’s children—being coded as accessories to the right or antagonists to the left, considering that they themselves are helpless in all our works. And yet here we are: another day, another low.