WHITHER AMERICAN NATALISM? (OR "DAVID BROOKS’ WHITE FERTILITY")

Kate Sheppard notes the passage of Russia’s “Day of Conception:”

Today falls exactly nine months before Russia Day, and as one of Putin’s policies to encourage more breeding in his country, he’s offered SUVs, refrigerators, and monetary rewards to anyone who gives birth on June 12. So the mayor of Ulyanovsk, a region in central Russia, has given workers there the afternoon off to make with the baby making. Everyone who gives birth is a winner in the “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia’s Independence Day” contest, but the grand prize winner — judged on qualities like “respectability” and “commendable parenting” — gets to take home a UAZ-Patriot, a Russian-made SUV.

This seems like as good an opportunity as I’m likely to get (at least until June 12, which incidentally is the anniversary of two commendable parents I know) to ask why the kinds of natalist appeals and policy justifications that are so widespread in Europe are all but non-existent in the United States. Sure, American politicians seem to be expected to have gobs of kids to demonstrate their family values. But why is it much more common for politicians in Europe to push policies explicitly designed to make people have more kids?

Discouraging though it may be, I think the best answer is race. Politicians in Sweden or in Russia or in France get further with calls for the nation to have more babies for the sake of national greatness or national survival because that nation and those babies are imagined to look more the same.

Marty Gillens caused a stir with his research suggesting that Americans have negative attitudes towards welfare and its beneficiaries because of their negative views towards the racial groups imagined to benefit (Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, Bruce Sacerdote, Simo Virtanen, and Leonie Huddy further explore this). Americans are less inclined to support government spending on social programs, these scholars argue, because they’re less likely to imagine those programs benefiting people who look like them. Conversely, Swedes are more content with a robust welfare state because their immigration restrictions keep those benefits away from people of other races.

(In 1990, the top country sending immigrants to Sweden was Norway. In 2000, it was Iraq. And the increase in Sweden’s foreign-born populations in the 90’s roughly equaled the increase from the 70’s and 80’s combined. There’s cause for concern that as immigration to Sweden increases, benefits will decrease or access for immigrants will decrease – a process Swedish conservatives already began in the 1990s.)

I don’t think you can really explain the lack of natalist rhetoric in the US without similar logic, and particularly confronting animus towards a group Americans can’t deny welfare benefits simply by cutting off immigrants: African-Americans. What Ange-Marie Hancock calls “the politics of disgust” heaps shame on imagined “welfare queens” for working too little and birthing too much. In the controversy over the ’96 welfare bill, fertility came up plenty, but the imagined problem was too many babies, not too few. Churches and others made what you might consider natalist arguments against the bill, but they didn’t get much traction – unlike the GOP Congressman who held up a “Don’t feed the alligators” sign.

So when David Brooks wrote a paean to natalism in America, he left those hated Black women out. Instead, in a column a month after the ’04 election, he cited Steve Sailer (who even John Podhoretz recognizes as a racist) celebrating that “George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates.” Brooks’ column celebrates these fertile white parents for demonstrating good red-state values:

Very often they have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling…The people who are having big families are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism.

Can you imagine a prominent right-wing pundit or politician saying such things about a low-income Black family that chose to have more kids?

Now some will say that American conservatives are less natalist than their European counterparts because they’re more anti-government. Which is a fair point, but I think it’s difficult to explain the presence of “Christian Democrat” parties in Europe without considering race. Or you could argue that the natalist push in Europe is based in part in fear of immigration. Which circles back on the same argument: racial fears and prejudices map more easily along lines of citizenship in countries that have historically had fewer non-white citizens. Just as the comparative historical ethnic diversity of the United States plays a role in explaining why our political system has held down benefits for everyone rather than only restricting them to citizens (though we’ve done that too), it seems like the strongest explanation for why we don’t hear lots of appeals for America to have more babies.

Is there a better explanation? (This is where those of you who’ve been kvetching about the paucity of posting should leave comments)

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2 thoughts on “WHITHER AMERICAN NATALISM? (OR "DAVID BROOKS’ WHITE FERTILITY")

  1. Your analysis is spot-on. I’d also point out that, contra Brooks, having kids does not in any way constitute a rejection of materialism. For one thing, American culture encourages parents to treat kids as accessory possessions as opposed to new members of our society. For another, it seems reasonable to assume that having kids is likely to increase a family’s consumption on all fronts, included the subset of conspicuous (and materialistic) consumptions.

    Given the degree to which we already over-consume, and the effects our overconsumption of resources, land, etc. already have on our environment and society, I find it hard to judge any kind of natalist encouragements as responsible. Racial considerations aside, telling people not to travel, study, etc so they can concentrate on filling more SUVs and McMansions is not in the best interests of our or any country’s future.

  2. I think you miss a more obvious explanation: America doesn’t have a declining population like other countries with natalist pushes, like Russia, Italy, etc. I think the racial explanation counts for a lot in explaining other things, like support for welfare states, but as the American population continues to grow (albeit at a slower rate), the economic incentives for natalist pushes just don’t exist.

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