Starve the state; support traditional families (only)

by Linda Beale

The right-wing’s “breadwinner conservatism”–starve the state; support traditional families (only)

Many of us who think about tax and economic policy have been confounded by the tendency of lower-middle-class families to vote Republican, which means they are ultimately voting against their own economic interests for a party that wants all the benefits of the federal government to accrue to the already wealthy, and sets policies to ensure that is true, from tax cuts to capital gains, estate taxes and progressive rates (all favoring the wealthy) to the kinds of subsidies represented by the “active business exception” that allows tax free reorganizations to move business assets and jobs out of the country without any tax “toll” on the departure.

Michelle Goldberg , a Newsweek and Daily Beast writer, provides some answers to this mystery in her review of Robert Self, “All in the family: The realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s” Hill & Wang (2012) in The Nation (Oct. 22, 2012), at 32.  While she finds the Self book lacking in the in-depth analysis that would make it not only a great read but also a revealing informational source on the changes in the American polity, she does note  the  label he attaches to the right-wing resurgence (“breadwinner conservatism”) as an apt descriptor of the way social traditionalism–opposition to gay rights; eagerness to encourage governmental support of fundamentalist Christian dogmas and impose them on others; belief that the only kind of family that should receive government subsidies and support are those with a mother (ideally non-working), breadwinner father and children–intersects with radical market fundamentalism and its “starve the beast” approach to government.  Instead of the paradox that liberals sense between”values” voting and market fundamentalist economic theory that supports an oligarchy at odds with most of the “values” voters’ economic self-interest, Self describes the way “social and economic conservatism buttress each other”.  Id.

“[T]he defense of the autonomous, idealized nuclear family ‘was intimately linked to the way [conservative activists] also sought to limit government interference in the private market,” Self writes. Id. at 33.
Thus, when two women with children are paid about the same at their job in a daycare center but one is firmly in the middle class because she is married with a husband in a good job and the other is struggling on food stamps because she is not married, the attitudes of progressives and conservatives differ starkly on the remedies.  Progressives see this is a failure of the system to support all kinds of families and consider the right’s denigration of the hardworking single mother as hypocrisy. 

The right, however, believes that “encouraging traditional faimilies is of paramount social importance” so it is okay with a system that makes the lives of single mothers more difficult while rewarding more traditional mothers.  Because the right also dislikes any form of government intervention in the markets or government intervention that might upset the applecart regarding the dominance of traditional families (and traditional religious institutions), it wants to keep government small and ineffective, assuring that it does not provide public support such as “food stamps, subsidized daycare, and after-school programs” that would make life easier for single mothers.  As Paul ryan made clear in his “path to prosperity” budget plan, the right-wing prefers to undermine government because it wants nongovernmental institutions to determine who gets aid, and how.  When fundamentalist churches are the arbiters of aid, single women experience the shame and public ignominy that the right believes they deserve.

Goldberg adds substance beyond what she finds in Self.  She notes that ‘[a]s long as big-government liberalism worked to uphold the nuclear family, it was supported by a fairly broad social consensus.”  When traditional ideas about gender and about the innate heroism of the military started to fray in the 1960s and 1970s with feminism, gay rights, and sexual liberation, and calls for the end of patriarchy,  the right responded.  Radical anti-feminists like Phyllis Schlafly, notes Goldberg, saw feminists as “radicals who are waging a total assault on the family, on marriage, and on children.”  George Gilder, radical anti-feminist and hardcore supply-sider who wrote many speeches for Reagan, “was upfront about opposing reproductive rights because he believed they undermined male power and about how his economic theories depended on women’s submission. Goldberg quotes the following passage from Gilder:

When the women demanded’ control over our own bodies,’ they believed they were couching the issue in the least objectionable way. … But as Norman Mailer pointed out at the time, they were in fact invoking one of the most extreme claims of the movement and striking at one of the most profound male vulnerabilities.  For, in fact, few males have come to psychological terms with the existing birth-control technology; few recognize the extent to which it shifts the balance of sexual power in favor of women.  A man quite simply cannot now father a baby unless his wife is fully and deliberately agreeable. … Male procreativity is now dependent, to a degree unprecedented in history, on the active pleasure of women.”  Id. at 34 (quoting Reagan speechwriter George Gilder).

Goldberg concludes that “[t]he contemporary conservative movement has succeeded in part by painting the government as the ultimate cause of emasculation.”  Id. at 34.  She suggests that Ryan’s speech at the convention personified this view, arguing essentially that men who want more authority and control of their families and their destinies should battle the “suffocating power of the state” and beware of the problems when “government accords [privileges] to women or minorities or the poor”.  Id. at 34.