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Beware The New Dog Whistle Of The Birth Rate Drop

Black and white view of a hospital hallway
flickr/marty hadding

The American birth rate is going down, which could mean problems for the economy. But don’t let conservatives blame it on women.

Study after study has shown that when women make more than men, women generally don’t want to marry them. And maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow. More drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.

Tucker Carlson

My first thought when I saw this quote pop up on Twitter was “Tucker Carlson said something shitty, that tracks.” That’s Tucker Carlson’s job; to say nonsense in a way that sounds reasonable. I don’t give Carlson too much thought. He’s a conspiracy grifter who learned how to tie a Windsor knot after losing his job at CNN on account of being intellectually bested by a puppet. But, because he can string sentences together with grammatical (if not factual) clarity, he gets to be on TV and treated as a “serious thinker.” His recent series “War on Men” a vapid monument to meninist insecurity of which he is an architect, has mostly been laughed off, and rightly so. But part of his remarks last week sent a chill down my spine: he tied the rise of women in power to the socioeconomic fear around population drops. And I thought to myself “it’s coming.”

How do you know when a lie is going to get traction? If you told me at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency that three years later there would still be media coverage about whether or not he was born in the United States, I wouldn’t have believed you. Why? Because it was a stupid, racist, theory devoid of fact. I was naive to social pendulum swings that follow a shift in power ownership, and the lies that drive them.

This has been a pretty good year for women, insomuch that life in a hellscape can be good. There are more women in positions of power than ever before. Conversations are happening between women and between men and women, realistic conversations about what a society built on the pillars of patriarchy and white supremacy does to a culture. And while it’s been uplifting and encouraging, I’ve kept my eye out for the pendulum swing, nervous about missing it before it hits me squarely in the jaw.

How do you know when a lie is going to get traction? Click To Tweet

It hasn’t been easy for those looking for a way to push back against women (well at least not as easy as it has traditionally been). Yes, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, but the support for Dr. Blasey Ford and outrage surrounding his confirmation was overwhelming. The amplification of angry voices from women across the country, united in their exasperation with patriarchal dictates, was visceral. Collective anger begets organized and energized movements, and action follows.

Anti-suffrage posters depicting women as monsters and a baby crying with the caption "mummy's a suffragette"
Savage: two anti-suffrage posters Credit: Museum of London

Attempts to pit Rep. “Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me”, Ocasio-Cortez against House Speaker, “Do not characterize the strength I bring to this meeting” Pelosi have largely failed because both women refused to take the bait and instead focused on issues. Calls for civility after the Red Hen incident were met with an annoyed eye roll from anyone seeing children in cages on the nightly news. Even the recent faux pearl-clutching about Rep. Rashida Tlaib use of the word “motherfucker” faced a ton backlash and garnered almost no censuring from Democrats, except Sen. Joe Manchin (also the only Democrat to vote yes for Kavanaugh’s confirmation) and who the fuck cares what he thinks.  

With what seems like a strong female army at the helm of the resistance, and a smart social media presence pushing back against antiquated stereotypes, what is the response going to be? I tried to filter out any nonsense and focus only on things that I believed would have traction. Late in 2017, I filed something away in my brain that sounded so close to the justification for a quick march towards Gilead I was surprised someone said it out loud:

“This is going to be the new economic challenge for America: people. Baby boomers are retiring — I did my part, but we need to have higher birth rates in this country” – Paul Ryan, Former Speaker of the House

That’s right, ladies. The newest economic downfall is going to be all your selfish fault for not reproducing. (Sorry, I meant white ladies — but more on that in a moment). The problem with Ryan’s statement is that it’s not technically incorrect. Birthrates in the United States are the lowest they have been in three decades, according to the latest numbers from the Center for Disease Control. It’s also well below the replacement population rate. With elderly dependents outnumbering people in the workforce, the financial system will take a hit, and the structure of the economy currently has not adapted to social changes in the last several decades.

Also a “serious thinker,” but one with legislative power, Paul Ryan could helped the economy adapt. Instead, Ryan suggested he “did [his] part” because his wife had four children, putting their family above the national average in terms of birthrate. Because Paul Ryan doesn’t want to use the many tools at his disposal to address realities of parenthood and why cost is a preventative factor in having children, he wants to blame people not having babies for a weak economy.

Poster with caption "election day!" as a woman leaves the house with her husband holding crying babies
“Election Day,” by E.W. Gustin, 1909. (Library of Congress)

And that, I believe, is the angle from which the weight of the pendulum will be pushed back. It has everything. It takes a complicated issue and boils the solution down to three words: Have More Babies. It places the blame squarely on a certain type of woman. You know, those ambitious bitches who don’t value family, who insist on having jobs or not getting married or using contraception. Now not being pregnant isn’t just a rejection of the duties of being a woman, it’s a rejection of civic duty. Suddenly, all these women in Congress would be better serving their country if they shut up and got pregnant. It has a nice socio-economic nativist ring to it. Have more babies! For America! Well, not all of you.

It takes a complicated issue and boils the solution down to three words: Have More Babies. Click To Tweet

Make absolutely no mistake, when Paul Ryan, Tucker Carlson, and every other conservative pundit talk about women needing to have more babies they mean white women having white babies. The maternal mortality rate for Black women is over thirty percent higher than it is for white women, and yet there is no War on Pregnant Black Women chyron on any Fox News Broadcast. The birth rate for first-generation Americans is higher than the generations that follow, but the White House insists that the crisis at the border is all of the brown families that want to become citizens.

Let’s take a look at why people may not be having babies. We don’t have policies to that to ease the financial burden of having children, like federal paid maternity leave, or policies that require large corporations to make childcare available to their employees. The cost of decent education is a preventative factor for people looking to expand their families, and people of birthing age are drowning in student debt. And the wage gap means women fear further financial punishment for choosing to have children. There also isn’t a smart pathway to citizenship, considering first-generation Americans are likely to have higher birth rates than second or third. Though we know how these pundits feel about immigrant children.

There’s also the issue of choice. Many people just don’t want kids, whether it’s because of their carbon footprint or their other priorities or just because parenthood has never appealed to them. Access to abortion is precarious, but it exists. Women can use contraception. The social stigmas around being child-free are beginning to be challenged. But instead of devoting resources to the issues facing those who want to have children, or working to create an economy that doesn’t rely on an ever-increasing birth rate, conservatives can conveniently blame it all on women.

Screenshot of a steve king tweet saying "we can't restore our civilization with someone else's children"

Not everyone has the luxury of Rep. Steve King, using the world’s least funhouse mirror to mimic the credo of white nationalist David Lane. Or the overtly racist platform of family separation architect and (alleged) childhood glue eater Stephen Miller. No, some will need to take a more thoughtful approach when pushing back on a progressive movement.

Take a kernel of data, create a crisis around it, and make someone responsible for it. And if you’re smart, lay some groundwork first. Target the person you want to be held responsible and ask if they’re “likable” or “genuine.” Chip away first at their credibility and then at their intentions, while slowly introducing the crisis. Wait for others to start parroting your concerns about your target. And then, at the right moment, release the manufactured hysteria and watch the pendulum swing.