Nothing Beautiful Survives the Culture War

Parenthood itself seems poised to become a victim of America’s toxic politics.

A mother holding her child looks out a window that has holes in it
Jacques Pavlovsky / Getty; The Atlantic

Updated at 12:06 p.m. ET on May 9, 2022.

America is a much harder place to be a child than it has any excuse to be, and a much harder place to have and raise a child than it has any possible reason to be: It’s hard to find a politician who’ll disagree with either proposition, and harder yet to find one with any intention of doing anything about it. When it comes to the crucial business of caring for children and families, our country is an international embarrassment.

American children suffer in ways children living in countries of comparable wealth and development do not: More kids live in relative poverty; more babies die; more grade schoolers routinely miss meals. And American parents—particularly American mothers—suffer too, in ways our international counterparts do not: Our maternal mortality rates are much higher; our options for taking leave to give birth and recover from it are far more limited; our resources for support are radically circumscribed. Our birth rate is as low as it’s ever been, and a rising share of childless young adults in the United States now report that they do not ever plan to have children.

This is devastation; this is loss. This is what it looks like to be a halfway failed state. It also happens to be the social and political context into which the draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health leaked on Monday night, and it was the first thing that occurred to me when I saw the news.

No, I wasn’t thrilled that the draft decision would overturn Roe v. Wade, though, because I’ve confessed to my own moral reservations about abortion over the years, many on both the right and the left seemed to expect me to be. I am, among my lefty and liberal friends, perhaps the rightest kind of wrong person, or so I like to console myself; I am, in other words, one of those old-fashioned, unreconstructed Catholic Worker types, a pro-life person who is also—in fact, mainly—concerned with capital punishment, war, and promoting Nordically generous welfare programs.

What I mean to say is that in my mind, everything I believe in braids together in a vision of the world suffused with superabundant creativity, celebration, and life, and I suspect that we can inch closer to that place through a politics of equality, justice, and love. And so I take no pleasure in anyone’s misery, and I don’t sneer—God, if anyone has no place, it’s me—and I won’t endorse any politics other than a program of radical relief for American children.

But where is the lobby for children, and who stands to benefit by making a fuss about the fact that they’re granted few rights in our society? Kids don’t vote or donate to campaigns, and concerned parents tend to be worried about their own children, not the interests of children as a disenfranchised and mostly helpless group of people. There really is no political force for them, though almost every party claims to champion their interests at one time or another.

But consider how remarkably indifferent politicians actually are to this seemingly low-hanging fruit: Recently, Congress had the opportunity to make permanent the expanded child tax credit that the Biden administration instituted during the pandemic, but chose not to. The campaign against it was led by Republicans, including Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Mike Lee, and the policy analyst Oren Cass—family-values men, all. Each argued, in essence, that making sure poor parents are working hard is more important than making sure poor children are wearing shoes. Democrats, meanwhile, remained hamstrung as ever by their own right flank and, despite having narrow majorities in both houses of Congress and a sitting president, were unable to save the child tax credit, landing millions of American kids back in poverty. Politicians, whatever they say about their values and their beliefs, care mainly about power and money; believe it until you see them do or say something that could really cost them. (Can you read, Joe Manchin?) You’ll be waiting a long time.

Much of the meaningless hardship inflicted on American children, in particular, seems to pass by without notice. Even the government agencies designated to protect the rights of this most vulnerable group sometimes fail to do so at all.

To wit: Last Monday evening, I caught up with a friend of mine who works in a Connecticut-based juvenile court-diversion program. Work had been relentless for her as of late thanks to the chaos wrought by the sudden rollback of COVID-19-era support measures and allowances. But one particular child’s situation haunted her: A teenage girl had just been subjected to a vicious stream of threats, locked out of the house by her father, and forced to sleep outdoors. Now she was living couch to couch and struggling to keep up at school. When my friend had called to report the matter to the Department of Children and Family, she told me, the agency declined to take the case, reasoning that because the teenager had temporarily found friends to stay with, she was, for the moment, safe. DCF was overwhelmed and understaffed before the pandemic; it’s hard to imagine that conditions have improved since.

The girl was on my mind as I watched temporarily disenfranchised Republicans celebrate a victory not quite consummated, while Democrats in possession of a unified federal government brooded gloomily over their regular bench of defectors and knew there was nothing they could do. On social media, people were livid, outraged, distraught; this seemed to apply across the board, even for those who had good reason to view themselves as victors. After all, this is the culture war: Each victory is just the opening volley in some grander, crueler theater. Somehow in the great right-led campaign to establish what the Catholic Church has for some time called “a culture of life” in this country, the United States has become A Canticle for Leibowitz–esque study in fundamental things coming undone.

Politics is downstream of culture, and this is perhaps the greatest defeat of all: Having and raising children itself now seems poised to become a culture-war issue, daily losing its discursive resemblance to an ordinary life event and gaining all the markers of a personal consumption choice that makes a statement about who you are and which side you’re on. The GOP seems all too happy to nudge the process along with caricatures of childless libs and the specter of armies of “groomers,” broadly labeling scores of left-wing educators, activists, and parents as pedophiles. The fact that Republicans are up two-to-one versus Democrats among households with kids in Marist’s latest pre-midterm survey suggests that they’re enjoying some success in this push to become the Party of Parents, and on it goes.

What a terrible thing to witness, and how distant from anything like a victory. Nothing beautiful survives the culture war. Maybe parenthood, too—this one thing, this burdensome happiness, this mundane ecstasy—will soon be another concept so thoroughly stretched and contorted by the requirements of America’s longest war that people who could have found satisfaction in it will hesitate to, and people who might have sought it out will decline to. Maybe a swing set peeking over the backyard fence will become as sure a sign of a household’s partisan allegiance as a blue lives matter flag or one of those lawn signs that begins In this house, we believe … And maybe children themselves will become so secondary to the matter of what their existence says about the adults who bear them that legislating even for their basic welfare will become impossible. Maybe they already have.

This article previously misattributed the child-tax-credit expansion to the Trump administration.