Relative to its Democratic counterpart, last week’s Republican National Convention was a political success. Okay, there was the shameless pandering that my friend Pedro Gonzalez live-tweeted, hilariously. Of course, there was the kitsch. Unfortunately, there was the Kushner. And then, there was his wife.
Trump’s favored daughter offered the penultimate speech at the convention this year. As his key (and, it seems, only?) advisor on family policy, Ivanka took the opportunity to highlight some of the administration’s policy “successes” for families and their natural centerpieces: women. At the eleven-minute mark through her speech, she begins:
President Trump is advancing the American values of work and family. Four years ago in Cleveland I said Trump would deliver for working women. Last year, over 70% of all new jobs were secured by women. Four years ago, I said that my father would focus on making childcare affordable and accessible. In President Trump’s first term, we secured the largest ever increase for childcare funding, giving more than 800,000 low-income families great childcare at a cost they can afford.
While it seems the tendency across the political spectrum is to applaud this kind of ostensibly pro-woman rhetoric, Ivanka’s presuppositions here align more with a worldview that is actually quite harmful to the family, women, and nation by extension.
We should begin at the beginning: work and family as “American values.”
Work and family are not “values." They are institutions. The distinction matters. The discursive sleight of hand at play here is best described by Christopher Caldwell in his latest, The Age of Entitlement. He traces it to the Reagan era, and associates the switch in language with the flowery papering over of institutional dissolution that characterized Reagan’s presidency:
Reagan’s stress on “family values” -- a strange term that was being used twice as frequently by the end of his term as it had been at the beginning -- disguised his acquiescence to modern ways. Values were presented as equivalent to institutions, but they were not. A homosexual couple, a single mother, a couple cohabitating outside of marriage might be challenging an important family institution -- but they were no threat to anyone’s values. At a time when new institutions were at odds with old ones, talking of values was a way of pretending that no one had any real grievance of interest worth arguing over.
Where “institution” implies prescriptive order and permanence, “value” is a subjective estimation, an arbitrary ascription of worth. Institutions are solid. Value is fluid; values are fluid.
Understood as equally arbitrary expressions of demand, work and family can thus then be held up against each other for judgement: which is more valuable? A commercial regime, especially a porous, “propositional,” global economic playground like our own, demonstrates that it will always ascribe higher value to whatever generates the most cash right now. Value in America is usually a simple question of monetary production. As a statistical measure of the health of the commercial regime, gross domestic product outweighs total fertility rate.
Foundations cannot be fungible. As soon as we regard the foundational institution of family as such, all of its internal components lose their meaning. The pillars begin to crack. Male and female particularities, their roles and responsibilities toward each other and progeny within the traditional context of family (manifest in biological reality, and reinforced by psychological intuition) are made malleable, replaceable, exchangeable, and outsourceable. All roles now cleave to that which is immediately financially profitable. Women, meet workplace.
No human institution, relying on intimacy among many more intangible, life-affirming virtues, can withstand the brutal economic landscape of all against all. This totalizing orientation toward GDP, the hollowing out of our haven in a heartless world, had made us more rich, maybe, but also more callous, stupid, unstable, and sexually and emotionally incontinent as a people.
The only politically healthy way to regard the institutions of work and family is to see them for what they are and to prioritize accordingly. The family is an indispensable institution designed by a benevolent Creator as the font and wellspring of human life and happiness. Work is something we do, diligently, hopefully, to build the practical supports necessary to sustain family. In the hyperrational, values-based, profit-motivated view of human life, this relationship is inverted. Public and private life, in losing their natural orientation toward one another, now exist in tension.
This leads us to the Ivanka’s second major underlying assumption: Betty Friedan’s assertion, actually, that public labor, aside from being superior in its generation of hard value, is a dignifying, enlightening, personally elevating experience for women specifically, and that women would choose it every time if they only had the choice. Ivanka celebrates that last year, the majority of jobs created in this country were secured by women, and her next point follows as a natural consequence of parentless homes: day care! The audience cheers as she cites that publicly funded childcare has been made available to poor families everywhere, so that mommy has a place to drop those kids off as she works a low wage position, which barely covers the cost of daycare anyway, because…?
Women are more miserable than ever, across classes. We should wonder: does this working class mother, like Ivanka or her professional managerial class strivers, celebrate as she drops her kid off at an “affordable” daycare facility, with an only moderate history of accidents and abuse, before spending the day interacting with mostly unfeeling strangers? Does she celebrate at the end of the month as her family barely breaks even while she barely knows her kids? Might there be higher “values” than the ones you can cash in at the bank? Where is the dignity in this?
To say this is not to romanticize domestic work: there are several reasons that rich-enough, professional managerial class (PMC) women like Ivanka outsource their child rearing responsibilities to private nannies, tutors, and not-so-affordable luxury daycares. First, there is the transvaluation of values that I’ve already mentioned: the cultural elevation of sterile working women over her more fertile counterpart. But more practically speaking, the quiet, vital wisdom that mothers and grandmothers have for generations passed through the feminine familial lines has been lost to the wind. This is the reality of institutional disintegration. Now, whether you’re a white or blue collar woman of childbearing age, chances are, you’ve never seen another woman breastfeed.
As it turns out, American woman’s neglect and outsourcing of domestic work has not, in fact, been conducive to the sort of eudaimonia that Betty Friedan envisioned in The Feminine Mystique. Most women alive today never knew anything different than a world in which they were expected to earn their keep in the precise same way as men. And most women are deeply unhappy. As fertility peaks, modern woman seeks alleviation of the ensuing double-bind by having less children and making more money both because we are bound to the cultural, commercial conception of value and utterly lack the replicable domestic insights once cultivated in multi-generational homes. Outside of select immigrant communities, domestic enclaves of childbearing, child-caring women have lost much of their interconnectedness and vibrancy. Frankly, it takes a manly woman to revolt against the modern world by retreating from the workplace. Because she’d be doing it mostly alone.
So mothers abandon the home, kids flood illness-ridden day care facilities, Republicans clap like seals, and Friedan co-celebrates from beyond the grave. All because women are working at unprecedented rates!
As an aside, the extent to which people regard so-called accomplishments as good not for the accomplishment itself, or for the degree to which the accomplishment serves the greater good, but purely for the narcissist validation of the identity of the accomplisher, is amazing. So much of modern history is composed of lists of minorities and women being the “first” to do what a white guy has already done. Such a patronizing stance! If our worldview is such that Things Women Do are justified purely by the actors’ exercise of agency as a woman, because women’s decisions so long as they are “authentically their own” are per se good, then we are living a crypto-Victorian lie. If we broadly cheer women working as some expression of personal agency or liberation rather than perceived necessity or desperation, we are living a solipsistic, classist fantasy.
Ultimately, this is yet another example of so-called conservatives being five years behind their political adversaries. The same principle is at work here as the one used by the dysgenic cheerleaders of the “WAP” music video: it’s Paglia’s “you-go-girl boosterism,” void of all moral content, statistical analysis, or political insight. No limiting principle, nor any true conception of the common good, exists to be uncovered when it comes to our society’s shared concept of Things Women Do. Her body, her choice. Her choice? Right choice!
The system Ivanka seems to desire isn’t quite free market fundamentalism, because it makes some provisions for childcare, but it reflects the same excessively quantitative, economical, myth-of-choice mindset that our libertarian friends have vomited all over the landscape of politics forever. This is a worldview that only a professional managerial dreamgirl, believing the big, retarded lie that white collar work leads to some sort of girlboss nirvana, and then grafting that illusion over the interests of the working class, could earnestly buy into.
I do not doubt her earnesty. I dismiss her solipsism. As much as she admires and seems to seek to emulate her father, Ivanka is precisely what he is not. Trump takes real blue collar interests and raises them to the level of elite conversation. Ivanka takes elite fantasies and applies them universally.
Taking over the workplace is not a positive development for women practically, spiritually, or interpersonally. Policymaking that operates under Ivanka’s assumptions will always, inevitably, undermine what remains of the institution of family. Women will remain miserable under such a regime. Perhaps in the next four years, our President will consider a family policy advisor who sees the nation’s most important institution not as a practical hindrance to the average woman's True Purpose (her “career”) but, instead, as the vehicle of a higher vocation. Perhaps that person would see childcare not as a nuisance to be passed off to lower and lower-income women, but a difficult, dignifying, exceedingly valuable project for its own sake, and for the sake of the nation’s future beyond the end of the fiscal year.
Specific policy ideas on this topic will be coming up next week. Stay tuned and subscribe for more.