How Culture Warriors Seized the Right (with Julie Kohler)
April 27, 2023
Click to read the full transcript
Julie Kohler [clip]: This group of social conservatives is much more interested in maneuvering the levers of power in order to enact their social idea, to codify it into law and maintain power through any means necessary.
Felicia Wong: And that terrifying quote is from Julie Kohler. Julie’s our guest today and she’s going to help us think through some pretty big questions, like what ideas are actually driving conservative ideology right now?
Michael Tomasky: How is it different from the conservative movement of 30 or 40 or even 60 years ago?
Felicia: What kind of world does this right wing really want?
Michael: And I think the big question: Are they still committed to democracy, to democratic values and processes?
Felicia: Welcome to How To Save a Country, a podcast about the people and the ideas behind a progressive vision for America.
Michael: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.
Felicia: And I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.
Michael: We’ve been talking a lot about voters so far this season: who they are, how we persuade them, what motivates a person to go to the ballot box, particularly when it comes to people who are voting right, which is to say wrong, but right. If you know what I mean.
Felicia: Yes, I do. But in this episode, we’re going to zoom out a little bit and talk about the thought leaders of that conservative movement: the intellectuals, the people at the top. That brings us to Julie Kohler, who’s really been studying this part of the movement.
Michael: She’s one of those people who make the progressive movement go. She spent many years helping to run the Democracy Alliance. That’s a prominent donor collaborative that raises funds for organizations that are pushing the kinds of ideas that we push here on How to Save a Country. Recently, Julie has written a lot about gender and family under neoliberal.
Felicia: Yeah. You published Julie recently, right Michael?
Michael: I did, yes. In addition to The New Republic, I edit a quarterly journal, Democracy, a Journal of Ideas. It’s one of those really serious publications that publishes several-thousand-word articles with no pictures.
Felicia: Wait, wait, wait. That’s my favorite kind of magazine, Michael.
Michael: I know. That’s why we love you. Anyway, this piece is called “The New New Social Conservatives.”
Julie Kohler [clip]: The overriding question that I was grappling with and was really the motivating force for writing that piece was this question of why at this moment when progressives are winning so much—we are winning such incredible victories on economic policies, transforming everyday Americans’ understanding of what a good economy looks like and government’s role in helping create that—are we also losing? Not just losing around the edges, but we are losing at this moment in some pretty fundamental ways in which our fundamental rights and freedoms are being eroded. And we really, I think, have to question whether our democracy is going to endure.
Michael: The conservative movement, Julie argues, has always been a marriage of these two factions: On the one hand, you have the intellectuals called the neo-conservatives, whose vision for the United States was mostly economic.
Felicia: Small government, minimizing government regulation, or freeing up markets, that was their version of freedom.
Michael: Yeah, all that stuff that we convey against on this show all the time. And they were pretty successful and influential. We’re only just now knocking down their successes. The other faction was the religious conservatives, the social conservatives, folks who are more interested in cultural issues, things like preserving the nuclear family. They fought school integration and sex ed in the schools among other things.
Felicia: Now our question is whether this fusion, this marriage between these two factions, has stood the test of time.
Michael: Well, it still exists, but the power dynamic has flipped and that’s what Julie asserts in her piece, and that’s what I found so interesting about it. In the past it was the economic conservatives who were driving the bus and the social conservatives were the ground troops, the people who voted in big numbers. Today, the economic conservatives have less influence and this new breed of social conservatives are really the driving intellectual force behind a lot of right-wing thought and activism today. Here’s how Julie put it.
Julie Kohler [clip]: I think we, on the left, are somewhat fighting, at least with our ideas, a right of 20 years ago instead of the right of today. We are facing political opponents whose animating ideas are now less about market fundamentalism than they were 20, 30 years ago. I would say that the economic conservatives are receding, and the social conservatives have become ascendant.
Michael: Let me just lay out the history here for people so everybody’s on the same page. When the new right first came into being in the 1980s and then into the ’90s, there were two broad strands. There were the neoliberal intellectuals like Irving Kristol and people like that, centered around their journals and their ideas that were to some extent cultural, but were chiefly economic. Then there was also the religious right. It was the conventional wisdom for a long time that the neoliberals, the intellectuals, were driving the bus, and the social conservatives, the religious people, were just riding, providing the shock troops and providing the votes. The brawns to the brains as it were. You say that’s changed. What is the reality now?
Julie Kohler: Well, I think the reality is that there’s been a weakening of this sort of privatization, low tax, market fundamentalism, orthodoxy, even within the Republican Party, and we are seeing instead an invigorated form of social conservatism that has some similarities between the social conservatism of the ’70s and ’80s, but also looks pretty different in some very important ways.
Michael: Go into that a bit.
Julie: What we saw in the ’70s was the uniting of this economic libertarian ideology with a rise of white evangelical Christianity. And so it was most represented by Jerry Falwell and the rise of Moral Majority, but then politicized by Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition so that that group of social conservatives really became the most reliable voting block for Republican politicians. They were certainly responsible for putting abortion in the center of our political discourse. It was not an animating issue before the right politicized it in the ’70s. But it also was really more about the preservation of this nuclear family ideal, which they viewed as being under threat by a number of cultural forces, most notably, the rise of second-wave feminism, and the changes to women’s roles in the family, and an LGBT movement that they also felt was a threat to the “traditional nuclear family.” So what we’re seeing now is in some ways an almost parallel resurgence of that, right? The resurgence of an anti-LGBT movement more focused on anti-trans rights than anti-gay lesbian rights than in the 1970s, but very similar language, very similar types of policy goals. And again, a rise of explicitly anti-feminist in policy goals in the rollback of abortion rights across the country. What I think is really interesting about what’s different in this new iteration of social conservatism is that it is less explicitly religious than its ’70s and ’80s forebears, and what we’re seeing is more of a identity-focused social conservatism that’s secular, that’s animated around white grievance and the protection of racial and gender hierarchies, and around inciting these moral panics. But all about kind of trying to instill this idea, that goes back to the ’70s and 80s, that this traditional nuclear family is under threat. So whether it is by, you know, “groomers” or “indoctrinators” of critical race theory, what they claim is critical race theory or the really disturbing language that they use in terms of saying that teachers are grooming children in public schools. These are the culture wars that they are now inciting to try to unlock a new majority and to rise to political power.
Felicia: You’ve said so much, I want to try to unpack it a little bit. I’m going to quote you back from that piece that you wrote. For Democracy Journal, you said, “Today’s culture warriors are no longer the mere foot soldiers of the conservative movement. They have become the driving force behind it.” Can you unpack that quote?
Julie: We’re seeing two things simultaneously. One is that that free market ideology is no longer as dominant, even within the Republican Party. And so—
Felicia: And why do you think that is?
Julie: For one, it hasn’t produced good results, and you and your colleagues at the Roosevelt Institute, Felicia, have been some of the prime people documenting this: that even on its own terms, neoliberalism has produced lower rates of growth than in the 30 to 40 years that preceded it.
Felicia: And a lot of economic inequality too.
Julie: And rising inequality and so people are not faring as well. On one level, it’s that. We have to grapple with the fact that it has not been successful even on its own terms. We are in a moment that is somewhat akin to the ’70s where there’s widespread instability and rapid change. Widespread economic precarity, widespread economic inequality, climate change is an existential threat. Threats to democracy, widespread gun violence—
Felicia: All this kind of chaos and uncertainty.
Julie: —all this chaos and uncertainty that surrounds us on a daily basis. People are looking for a way of understanding what would provide greater social stability. What is becoming ascendant again within this conservative coalition is a theory that if we could just go back in time, if we could just recreate this world order of the idealized ’50s, which is explicitly evoked by Donald Trump and his Make America great rhetoric, right? But if we could just—
Felicia: Great Again. ‘Make America Great Again’.
Julie: Again. Exactly. The key to nostalgia. Sorry, I forgot the second ‘A’ there. If we could just recreate that and part of that is reestablishing a family form that is somewhat of a cultural artifact that rose to this prominence in the mid-twentieth century.
Felicia: Wait, what do you mean by a family form? That’s a cultural artifact. Do you mean like the nuclear family?
Julie: The “traditional nuclear family,” which is really not that traditional.
Felicia: It isn’t?
Julie: It is not the most dominant family or common family form throughout history, but…
Felicia: You mean like one man, one woman, 2.5 children.
Julie: And a white picket fence and a stay-at-home mother who was predominantly responsible for childbearing and a father who was predominantly responsible for breadwinning. That was a cultural artifact of a very particular time in history. What we’re seeing now is this desire that if we could recapture that, if we could go back to that, we could provide some of that social stability that could see us through this chaos and uncertainty of this political moment. I think what they are offering is a way of understanding this world and a path forward that we are just simply, on the left, really not talking about.
Felicia: One of your observations is that social conservatism was actually a big part of why neoliberalism came to power from the early ’70s, ultimately culminating with Ronald Reagan’s election. But even before that, there was a big social movement, suburban housewives who were Goldwater supporters, that kind of thing. You think that has a lot to do with social chaos and a worry about the traditional nuclear family as well. Can you walk us through what happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s?
Julie: Sure. We can in some ways go back even further. What I have been so struck by is how little of the rhetoric that we’re seeing today is new. Even this notion of parental rights and attacks on public schools as centers of indoctrination of children—
Felicia: The kinds of things we’re seeing now out of Florida and other places?
Julie: Exactly. Those are eerily reminiscent in tone to the suburban white women’s activism that we saw beginning, even in the post-war years, but really taking off in the ’50s as the supposed communist threat grew. Many women, especially white, were stay-at-home suburban mothers who were brought into the conservative movement under the guise of protecting their children against these threatening ideological forces. It was a fear of communism. A fear of communist infiltration of public schools. Now you see that being recycled in the rhetoric that Ron DeSantis and groups like Moms for Liberty are exploiting, in that they’re trying to, again, evoke a sort of fear around particular ideologies, in this case exposure to historically accurate content around America’s racial past and racial history, and any kind of content around LGBTQ rights, etc. But it’s been similarly threatening and threatening to that notion of a privatized nuclear family where parents have absolute control.
Felicia: Why was it communism and an economic threat then and a more racial and gender threat now? Are those related?
Julie: Well, I think actually the notion was that it was communist. What was talked about is communist influence was really so-called progressive education. What it really meant in many cases was fears around integration. It is not uncommon that racial fears, racial integration are used to incite this threat to family stability, family wellbeing, children’s wellbeing, and to then prompt this false moral panic, which then gets used.
Felicia: Got it. So that’s the connection between communism then and critical race theory now. You see them as very similar. Okay.
Felicia: OK, Michael. A lot of what Julie has been saying is that this right wing rhetoric, stuff we’re hearing now, can actually be traced back decades. So our wonderful producer, Alli, has invented a game for us to compare what people are saying then and now.
Michael: Well, I like games and I, too, can be traced back decades, so I’ll give it a whack.
Felicia: Okay, let’s go for it. I’m going to read some quotes to you, Michael, and I want you to guess whether these quotes are from the conservatives of the way back or these new conservatives that we’ve been talking about and that Julie’s been writing about.
Michael: Let’s give it a shot.
Felicia: Okay, here’s the first quote, “I believe that Americans want to see this country come back to basics, back to values, back to biblical morality, back to sensibility, and back to patriotism.”
Michael: OK. I am going to say that’s an old quote.
Felicia: Let’s see if you’re right, Michael. That’s pretty good! That was from 1980. Some of our listeners may remember this person. That was from Jerry Falwell in 1980. OK, the next one. “Our schools must deliver a good education, not political indoctrination.”
Michael: Well that could have been any number of people in the ’50s, but I’m going to say it was Ron DeSantis just recently.
Felicia: That also sounds pretty contemporary to me. So, yeah, I agree with you, Michael. Now let’s see the answer. Again, Michael, you are right. That was from Ron DeSantis in his 2023 State of the State address.
Michael: And we’re not cheating by the way, we should tell our listeners that we’re looking at a screen where the answer is not revealed.
Felicia: Until right at the very moment.
Michael: No finger on the scale here.
Felicia: Here’s the third one. “It’s fashionable in some circles to believe that no one in government should order or encourage others to read the Bible.… Well, it might interest those critics to know that none other than the Father of our Country, George Washington, kissed the Bible at his inauguration.”
Michael: OK. That has a kind of a Reaganesque tenor to me. So that’s my guess there.
Felicia: Michael. Three for three. Michael. Michael. Michael. Michael. That was in fact Ronald Reagan in 1983.
Michael: See, I told you I can be traced back decades. I will rest on this perfect record that I have established and challenge you. Let’s see how you do now. OK, ready? “A natural part of being a woman is becoming a mother, treating that as out of the ordinary, a burden, something that is chosen as opposed to something that women are built for, makes motherhood feel like a deviation rather than a feature of womanhood.”
Felicia: Oh my God. First of all, I just have to absorb that for just a second. OK, that sounds pretty retro. I’m going to guess that it was from multiple decades ago. That’s what I’m going to guess.
Michael: Okay, well this is actually a new quote, Felicia. This is from Abby Shapiro on Twitter. That’s Ben Shapiro’s sister. But channeling Phyllis Schlafly, so, you know, we’ll give you a third of a point for that. Here’s one more, “A man may search 30 to 40 years for accomplishment in his profession. A woman can enjoy real achievement when she is young—by having a baby.”
Felicia: That was a lot like the last one. Very, very hard to know, but I’m going to guess maybe that one was from the ’60s or something like that.
Michael: Yes. Well, it is Phyllis Schlafly this time.
Felicia: Phyllis Schlafly. You know, when I was in grade school, I actually wrote this essay about how Phyllis Schlafly was a feminist because she was doing all these civic engagement things out in the world.
Michael: Is that on file somewhere? I’d like to take a poke around in that.
Felicia: No, I don’t think so.
Michael: Well, that was good fun.
Felicia: Kind of fun. Kind of scary.
Michael: Well, no, when you get three for three, it’s good fun, trust me. Let’s get back to the interview.
Michael: You have emphasized so far that a lot of the things these people say today have very clear echoes in what was being said in previous iterations of the movement. Now let’s talk about what these people are saying today that’s new and that’s different. So talk about that.
Julie: Yeah, it’s actually what is so scary about this moment. On the economic front, how do today’s social conservatives differ from the social conservatives of the ’70s? In a really important way, Jerry Falwell et al. preached the prosperity gospel essentially, right? Unfettered markets were God’s way. And who succeeded and who prospered in a cutthroat capitalist economy was divine intervention, right? It was the way that it was supposed to be. But today social conservatives are actually very critical of the way that unabashed capitalism has hurt many American families. They are very critical of corporate power. They’re anti–free trade and pro-union. What they perceive as the threat is that this notion of individual choice of liberalism, small ‘l’ liberalism has therefore really decimated many of the traditions and institutions that foster what they claim is moral good, and chief among them are the family and the churches. They view the state’s role as strengthening those institutions that can promote a moral good. What is the state’s obligation in strengthening those institutions so that families can prosper? They are much more concerned about an elite influence, an elite force that is both harming families’ culturally, but also economically. In this way, they have peeled off enough of the post neoliberal rhetoric, enough of the left’s traditional economic critique that I think could make them a pretty serious threat, in that they can provide a bit of a wedge and then redirect our enemy in a fundamentally different way.
Michael: What is it they say about democracy that they don’t have much use for?
Julie: Yeah. This is, I think, what’s ultimately the most concerning. And I don’t want to falsely portray this new crop of social conservatives as a monolithic force. There are a lot of really important distinctions among folks that have views that range on a spectrum, but I’ll talk about the most extreme. At the most extreme, if you really endorse this notion that the state should be playing a role in establishing moral culture, what you can end up with is a real comfort with, if not open embrace of, illiberal authoritarianism.
Felicia: So sorry, Julie, you’re using this word “illiberal,” which is hard to hear. Illiberal. I just wanna make sure that folks understand that by that you mean nondemocratic or anti-democratic. Is that right?
Julie: Yes. And at the extreme, who best embodies this, but Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who has doubled down on a broad illiberal agenda: a rollback of rights, of freedom of the press, universities have been banished from the country, topics like gender studies have been banned from being taught, all in the protection of the supposed promotion of the Christian nuclear family. He has justified this roll back of democratic rights, this erosion of democratic rights, by saying that the traditional Hungarian family is under threat. By creating these false enemies, we therefore need to justify this rollback of rights in order to allow this family form that he views as under threat to prosper. Many of those new social conservatives have openly embraced Orbán’s agenda. They would say because of his “family policies,” the fact that he’s providing tax credits to women who marry before the age of 40, the fact that he’s providing tax credits for families that have more than four children to buy a larger vehicle.
Julie: Exactly. There’s a minivan tax credit in Hungary to try to encourage, especially white Christian Hungarians, to have more children and to encourage women in particular to have more babies. Many of the social conservative in the U.S. have become, frankly, Orbán fanboys, right? They’re making pilgrimages to Hungary to say, why can’t we have some more of this? Why can’t we have the policies that strengthen families, that support greater childbearing? But what they are tacitly endorsing is the illiberal techniques and strategies that he’s deploying in order to provide those to support a very particular view of family life.
Michael: Tell us who the four or five biggest names in this crowd are.
Julie: So many of the post-liberal are kind of this emerging field of mostly Catholic intellectuals. They include Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule. They have been together writing about and trying to reimagine what a new right could look like. And it is their combination of both reprioritizing the traditional social conservative views of the ’70s, but packaging it with the economic threats that they feel families are under, that families are experiencing, in today’s economy that makes them unique and distinct from their evangelical Christian right forebearers.
Michael: Right. And by the way, Rod Dreher has actually taken up and moved to Budapest, so we can’t say he didn’t put his money where his mouth is at least. Who gives you the biggest heebie-jeebies of the bunch?
Julie: I don’t know that it’s about which one of them gives me the biggest heebie-jeebies. What I would say is what’s frightening about their agenda is that some of it can sound pretty rational. A lot of the way they talk is tapping into some pretty broadly shared concerns. They talk a lot about the deaths of despair that we are experiencing right now.
Felicia: And what are those, Julie? What are the deaths of despair?
Julie: Well, the increase in in suicide, increase in drug overdoses. The ways that people are really hurting right now, both economically and socially, and the ways that our society has legitimately broken some common bonds in the cultural infrastructure that is really beneficial, that, I think none of us would argue with, makes our lives rich and worth living. They tap into some of these very universally felt values—and that’s what makes it so disturbing to me—and then there is this pivot to, “So what do we need to?” Their solutions are then very retro, right? We support the state’s interest in supporting these moral institutions, which they define as the traditional family. And churches can lead then to policies that we need to reprioritize marriage, that we maybe by default need to make divorce a little less widely accessible to people. They overlook a whole host of evidence that “Who is it that disproportionately seeks divorces in this country?” Women. Who is it that this very particular family form works less well for? Women. What has enabled this family form to take hold? The underpaid and unpaid labor of women. So they evoke these values and then pivot to some very dangerous policy solutions that could take us back to an era when a lot of people were suffering.
Felicia: Right, It reminds me of something that Maurice Mitchell, who was our first guest on this season of How to Save a Country, said, that the right often appeals really effectively to people’s emotions, and that’s one of their organizing or persuasion secrets, and that progressives talk about tax rates, not so much about the emotions underneath that. So what you are getting at is the psychological effectiveness of these new new conservatives. For people who are, you know, living through a lot of chaos—pandemic, low wage jobs—It’s not great out there. So what’s not to love about the traditional nuclear family?
Julie: That’s part of what I’m saying. And then, Michael, going back to your question on “who scares you the most,” who really scares me the most is a whole nother breed of these new new social conservatives and that’s groups like The Claremont Institute who are very explicitly anti-democratic. So it’s a right wing think tank. There’s a fabulous New York Times article that ran last year on the Claremont Institute and its deep relationship with the Trump campaign and the members of the Trump administration. Most notably, John Eastman, who penned the bogus theory of the 2020 election being stolen, was one of their top legal fellows. And so that’s their claim to fame. They are increasingly becoming a think tank that’s behind an open embrace of illiberalism.And what I think is important to note about this relationship between the social ideology, and the rise of the illiberalism is that I don’t believe that illiberalism is the goal in and of itself, but I would say that it is the means that this group of social conservatives is increasingly willing to embrace in order to restore their vision of a well-ordered society into law. And so where is the moral majority of the ’70s? At least espoused that they thought that they were an actual majority or that they had the potential to grow to become one. This group of social conservatives is much more interested in maneuvering the levers of power in order to enact their social idea, in order to codify it into law and maintain power through any means necessary. So I think it is distinct and much more frightening in some respects than the rise of the social conservatives, of the white, conservative evangelical Christianity of the ’70s and ’80s.
Felicia: Hmm. I don’t know. I think both of them—
Julie: —are scary in their own ways. Yes.
Felicia: Exactly. We should talk in a second, Julie, about whether progressives have a view of family that is as compelling as the conservative view. So we’ll get there in just a second. But first I do want to ask you about your own podcast on this entire set of topics. You host a podcast, it’s called White Picket Fence, and you say it’s about the fractured politics of white women and their role in social conservatism today. You talk about the role of moms as a political force. So where are white women here as a social force?
Julie: Well, that’s a complicated question, so let’s break this down. So first of all, white women are our largest voting block in the U.S.. They are also our most divided. It is very hard to make blanket statements about white women politically because they are highly divided on a number of dimensions. Certainly, religion is predominant with white evangelical Christian white women voting Republican at much higher rates than nonevangelical white women; also based on age, college education, and marital status—with married white women being more conservative than unmarried white women. So, OK, they are not a monolith. That said, a small degree of movement in the way that white women vote can be determinative of election outcomes and it’s why for the last several decades we have seen repeatedly that there’s these appeals to predominantly white suburban women voters, whether we call them soccer moms or security moms, or whatever kind of mom is in Vogue in whatever election. So there’s constantly competing for this terrain because small movements in how white women vote and how specific segments of white women vote can be determinative of election outcomes. Right now, it is no coincidence that we are seeing the resurrection of a particular type of white woman being centered in our political discourse. And this is represented by the Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization that really rose to prominence in the last three years, mostly in the wake of the pandemic and many school closures across the country started agitating in school board meetings around a whole host of policies that, on the surface, seemed a little hard to reconcile into a coherent agenda. First, they were angry about mask mandates and vaccine requirements, and that morphed to concerns around LGBTQ guidelines in public schools, which led to concerns about books and what books were available to children, either in public school curricula or in school library, and then it was critical race theory. So it seemed like this amalgamated thing, but what kind of got attention? What were the tactics? The fact that school board meetings for a while were descending into chaos with all of these angry parents screaming about the fact that supposedly teachers and public school administrators and school boards were usurping their parental rights and interfering in decisions that they should be making on behalf of their children. And then that was quickly transformed into a policy agenda that has been most successful in Florida. So I think it is no surprise that the face of this movement is these white suburban moms. Ron DeSantis’s embrace of them as the foot soldiers of his political campaign is also no coincidence. He won his first run for governor in 2018 by 30,000 votes. That’s less than 1 percent in Florida. We have to remember that that was a very, very close election; and who was his weakest base? His weakest base of support was young women. And so it is no surprise that in the wake of that, as he needed to shore up greater support, he found this appealing image that taps into these more universal values around families and care of children that laid the groundwork for his reelection campaign. So even though Moms for Liberty, by no means represents the majority of white women voters, this is an extreme agenda. This is an extreme group. But they are very effectively tapping into idealized notions of motherhood that they are trying to politicize toward extremist ends.
Michael: So let’s begin to talk about what our side needs to do to counter all this and the best moves that we could make. But let me introduce that side of the topic this way. I worry about these people. I lose sleep over this stuff, but I’m losing a little less sleep since the Dobbs decision and since the Republican party has gone way, way off the deep end on the abortion issue. I think they’re shredding votes from white women who would otherwise be with them. Vermeule and all these people obviously are vehemently anti-choice. This whole movement is vehemently anti-choice, perhaps more so than the Falwell iteration of it was. So haven’t they dug themselves a huge hole?
Julie: My fear, Michael, is that if they dismantle democracy, it might not matter. And so yes, I think that they are so out of step that they are going to lose popular support and that we will see incredible majorities as we did in this last election, continue to stand up for abortion rights, and I think the Democratic Party will put that front and center. I am also very concerned because in the meantime, the amount of harm that is going to be inflicted on women, on people of color, on LGBTQ Americans is really deeply, deeply, deeply troubling. We have to look at this politically and yes, recognize that they are extreme, that they are a minority perspective, but, in assessing the harm, we need to look not only at what this will mobilize, hopefully in a majoritarian movement, but the real harm that they will inflict on so many Americans.
Felicia: Progressives and many people who might not even identify as progressives have certainly found reproductive rights as a very powerful political force. But do you think that’s enough for progressives or for the center-left to go on? Do we also need an additional, more affirmative view of family, of care, of a safety or security or resilience that is actually progressive and is counter to the Patrick Deneens of the world?
Julie: Absolutely. Right now we don’t have the equivalent to what neoliberalism offered in the 1970s on offer, we don’t have what we would call a totalizing paradigm. We don’t have this encompassing moral framework, and so increasingly what I think people are being asked to choose between is an economic vision that rebalances public and private power, that supports workers, that fosters racial and gender inclusion, and a social conservative vision that promises to restore stability by moving us back into another era. For a long time we have hoped, on the left, that they are so crazy and extreme that they will defeat themselves. That is a risky way of doing business. What we really need to be offering is the equivalent of this totalizing paradigm that we have to be able to articulate how our vision not merely strengthens economic stability and prosperity, but a vision that we can own, that we can champion, that advances families and freedom.
Michael: Amen. I second everything you say. It’s not about this or that particular economic policy. It’s about redefining and offering people a better definition of freedom.
Felicia: Yeah, maybe it’s about wrapping all of the economic policies and ideas that we have fought so hard for and care so much about, into a more comprehensive view of freedom and the values that we actually are trying to put into the world and, and embrace. So Julie, we have one last question here on our podcast. Julie, how would you save our country?
Julie: One of the things that inspires me right now is the emergence of what I would call the politics of care. The centering of many of the care economy policies that I’m sure that you’ve been talking about on this podcast and elsewhere—
Felicia: Now we need to talk about it more, but yes.
Julie: — in the political discourse. Yes, exactly. And that frankly got left out of the incredibly landmark economic legislation that the Biden administration and congressional Democrats have been able to move these past two years. But it is a really winning path forward for us. The idea that we can be pro-family, pro freedom by centering care in our economy and in who we want to be as a country, what our ideals are, that we are a country that is connected by the care that we give and receive to one another. So therefore, we need policies like paid leave, like childcare, like an expanded child tax credit, like all of these things that enable us to be good family members in whatever way or shape that takes, whether it’s as parents, whether it’s as adult children caring for elderly family members, whether it’s a whole range of ways that we provide and receive care. I think we need to be talking about that and centering that in our economic agenda, in our political agenda. And it’s one of the things that makes me hopeful for the future.
Felicia: So what you’re saying is that we need to show that progressives also believe that it is the interest of our government to support families and to support our ability to love one another.
Julie: Exactly, and I think love is something that’s more universal. Let Viktor Orbán have his minivans. If we run on a policy of how we can really enable people to be our best, caring, loving selves for our families and loved ones and community members, I think that that is a winning agenda and one that everyone can relate to.
Michael: Contrast pretty well to Donald Trump too.
Felicia: Julie, that’s a great place to end this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us on How to Save a Country. Always a pleasure.
Julie: Thanks so much for having me.
Felicia: So, Michael, you already brought this up in the interview, but I think it’s really worth reflecting on or repeating here at the end of this conversation. We on the left need to get better at speaking to people’s emotions and to people’s psychological needs.
Michael: Yeah, we do. That’s one thing that the right does better than we do, frankly. They look at people, they look at problems from a psychological point of view, an emotional point of view, and, of course, a spiritual point of view. The answers that they offer people are in those areas, whereas the answers that we offer people are largely basically just economic. Economics doesn’t stir people’s souls
Felicia: Well, speak for yourself, Michael. Economics stirs my soul.
Michael: Well, of course, mine too.
Felicia: Yeah. I totally get what you mean. You are right. Conservatives really do speak to people’s emotions well, very skillfully actually. One of the ways they do that is by referring to families and motherhood. And when they put it that way, it sounds almost benign. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t love motherhood? Who wouldn’t love family? But then you remember what the ’50s and ’60s actually looked like for so many Americans. It’s actually really exclusionary. That social conservative vision that sounds so warm and so lovely came at the expense of so many people, came at the expense of queer people, came at the expense of trans people, came at the expense of a whole lot of women, came at the expense of Black and brown and indigenous people, many immigrants, from Europe and from the global south. I think, Michael, that that whole ‘Make America Great Again’ vision actually came at the expense of accurately remembering what American history really is.
Michael: It’s the exact opposite of what we are trying to do. You and me and everybody we know and liberals and the broad left. We are trying to build a multiracial democracy and have America, you know, live up to its stated ideals, the ideals that are stated in our founding documents, and that the founding documents didn’t always live up to themselves either. But these are two very conflicting versions, visions of America, and, and they’re on a collision path. And that’s where we’ve been locked for all these.
Felicia: Yeah. I really hope these two visions aren’t on a collision path forever. I fear you’re right about them being on a collision path right now. But I’d also say what we really need is a multiracial feminist democracy. I think we really have to get used to putting it in exactly those terms.
Felicia: To make this vision more real, we got to look to President Biden’s recent actions. He just signed an executive order the other day that asked every federal agency to do whatever it could to expand access to care that people could afford, care that was high quality because a lot of federal agencies actually provide money that would support those kinds of services. For agencies like the Defense Department or Veterans Affairs that provide care directly, he said make sure that care is affordable, make sure that people are paid well. That is some good news, certainly in my book. And it’s not the only good news, Michael, because now it’s time for our good news segment: “It’s not all bad.”
Michael: Oh, I’d love to hear good news.
Felicia: This time it is about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs, and it’s about manufacturing. The current administration has been putting a lot of effort and emphasis on bringing jobs and especially manufacturing jobs back to this country. Well, there’s a new financial time support out this week that has some pretty good statistics. First of all, companies have committed more than 200 billion to U.S. manufacturing products over the last year. The sum total since the Biden administration started has been over 400 billion; that’s a pretty big number. The commitments this year in semiconductor and cleantech are almost double the commitments made in the same sectors all of last year and get this number: that’s almost 20 times the amount of investment in 2019.
Michael: Wow, that is great. That really truly is great. 20 times the amount and that was 2019. That was pre-pandemic, when Donald Trump was telling us it was the greatest economy in the history of civilization. So something good’s happening.
Felicia: This is obvious, but it’s worth repeating on this show. Good economic policy actually makes a difference to people’s lives in the real world. That’s why it’s important. That’s why I’m a fan.
Michael: Well, I’m with you. Felicia, tell us who’s on the show next week.
Felicia: So next week we’re talking to Gary Gerstle, who’s a historian, about his book, The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order. We wanted to talk to Gary because our theme this season is ideas meet reality. We asked Gary about what history teaches us. How hard is it actually for ideas to be dislodged, even when those ideas really aren’t working anymore? How hard is it to actually get rid of them?
Gary Gerstle [clip]: The question is: Can we imagine a progressive political order of that sort triumphing sometime in the near future?
Felicia: Until then, if you like our show, you should give us a rating or review or wherever you get your podcast. Go say something nice about our efforts to save a country.
Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.
Michael: Our script editor is Christina Stella. Our producer is Marcelo Jauregui-Volpe. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzales, and our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.
Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound with other music provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at omidyar.com.
Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at hewlett.org.
Once the foot soldiers of the right-wing movement, social conservatives are increasingly setting the agenda, arguing for a state that takes an active role in shaping and preserving traditional institutions like the nuclear family. However, this vision of family offered by social conservatives is inextricably linked with a disturbingly retrograde view of gender, sexuality, reproductive rights, and American history.
This week, Michael and Felicia talk to Julie Kohler—writer and host of the podcast White Picket Fence, which is about the fractured politics of white women. Julie’s writing on politics, feminism, and gender and family under neoliberalism has appeared in outlets like CNN, the Washington Post, Fortune, the Daily Beast, and Democracy, A Journal of Ideas.
Julie, Michael, and Felicia discuss the role social conservatives played in American politics in the past, and the increasing power this coalition wields in politics today.
“If you really endorse this notion that the state should be playing a role in establishing moral culture, what you can end up with is a comfort with, if not open embrace of, illiberal authoritarianism,” Julie says.
Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders
For more from Julie, you can read her Democracy Journal article, “The New New Social Conservatives,” which we mentioned in this episode, or listen to her podcast, White Picket Fence. You can also check out more of her writing on gender, politics, and family on her website, including pieces like:
- “It’s Time for Progressive White Women to Do More for Racial Equality,” in Fortune
- “When It Comes to Family Policies, the Public Doesn’t Want to Pick and Choose,” in Ms. Magazine
- “The End of Family Values,” in Boston Review
At the end of this episode, Julie, Michael, and Felicia discussed the importance of economic policies that center care. You can read more about the benefits of these policies in recent Roosevelt analysis by Janelle Jones and Mike Konczal.