Liberal democracy is in trouble, but Peter Beinart of The Atlantic knows how to save it: Man the vacuums! Truly. His solution is for men to do more housework. He concludes his essay with this charge: “Foster women’s equality in the home, and you may save democracy itself.” This uninspired peroration is so readily mocked (“Once more unto the bleach, dear friends, once more”) that it is almost unsporting.
However, there is a logical sequence of ideas leading to it. Beinart realizes that the American left’s usual explanations for right-wing populism (or “authoritarian nationalism,” as he calls it) “don’t travel well.” Economic anxiety and racial or cultural resentment from white Christians do not explain what is happening in the Philippines.
Thus, a unified theory of right-wing populism needs a different fundamental constant, and Beinart thinks he has identified it. He declares that besides antipathy toward liberal democracy, “The right-wing autocrats taking power across the world share one big thing … They all want to subordinate women.”
Beinart borrows his theory from political scientist Valerie Hudson of Texas A&M University, who argues that throughout history, “Men agreed to be ruled by other men in return for all men ruling over women.” Political legitimacy is perceived to be rooted in the seemingly natural male rule over the household, whereas female political authority seems unnatural.
Consequently, Beinart asserts that populist autocrats “use gender” to undermine their liberal democratic opponents by tying “illegitimacy to women’s power.” This may energize women voters and activists, but unless the culture has changed to accept the legitimacy of female political power, feminist passion may produce a backlash that the populist autocrats can further exploit. And changing the culture to accept female power begins at home — specifically with men doing more housework.
To save democracy, men, get thee to the laundry.
Finding evidence of chauvinist piggery among the populists he abhors was easy for Beinart, and he presents some grotesque, even alarming, examples. He meanders from country to country, lumping together misogynistic statements, policies he disagrees with, and right-wing populism.
He treats the first of these as the key to understanding the latter, but seems to hope that his readers will not notice that the most misogynistic comments come from those politicians whose appeal seems to have little to do with a scheme to “subordinate women.” Sometimes a sexist pig who promises to get tough on crime is elected to get tough on crime, not as part of a global patriarchal backlash.
He fails to establish his theory of misogyny as the definitive attribute of an authoritarian front from Manila to Milan, partly because many of his examples are dishonest or obtuse. For instance, Beinart claims that “Republicans raged against Judiciary Committee Democrats for supposedly degrading the Senate by orchestrating a public hearing for Christine Blasey Ford.” I was among the many conservatives who were outraged by Democrats’ behavior during that sordid episode, but Blasey Ford getting a hearing was not the problem. The problems were the leaks, lies, delays, and smears that Democrats and their media allies deployed.
Elsewhere Beinart omits necessary context, such as the low birthrates that induced the Polish and Hungarian governments to encourage women to have more children. Ultimately, the reason he offers for the failure of other liberal theories of populism applies to his own thesis: it doesn’t travel well.
Strained relations between the sexes are part of the global populist backlash against liberal democracy, but not in the way he imagines. The problem runs much deeper than ordinary misogyny, and was present from the beginnings of liberal political theory.
Beinart is correct that the image of a ruler as the father of his people is ancient and resonant, and has often been deployed to shore up political legitimacy. An extreme example may be found in Robert Filmer’s “Patriarcha,” a defense of absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings that would have faded into deserved obscurity had John Locke not selected it as the foil for his “First Treatise on Government.”
Locke’s choice of the obscure and extreme Filmer as the target of his “First Discourse” masked the radicalism of his own discussion of the family in the “Second Discourse” (which I noted in this review). In this founding text of modern liberalism, the family becomes a contractual arrangement that is subordinate to the sovereign individual, who is constrained only by obligations to children.
As theorists like Locke meant it to be, this made liberalism a solvent to families and communities. Locke primarily defined human persons not by relationships, but by work. His labor theory of value (later adopted by Marx) is the key to his anthropology. Above all else, mankind is productive. If untempered, this outlook devalues activity and labor, such as the bearing and raising of children, that is not economically productive.
These influences help explain why, instead of making the economic sphere more compatible with female lives and fertility, Western feminists have often modeled female careers after those of men — specifically, after those of man understood in liberal terms of economic production and careerism.
But work remains work. There is no shame in honest labor (indeed, there is dignity), but it is usually done for a paycheck, not for pleasure. Treating education and career as dominant aspects of identity is an exercise in privilege by those whose work is either particularly prestigious or enjoyable (for them, at least). The law firm partner may identify with her career, but the maid she hires likely does not.
The transformation of the home from a center of economic production (the literal source of “economics”) into a center of consumption has further exacerbated tensions between career and family. The image of the home as a “haven in a heartless world” struggled to maintain its dignity against the identification of economic productivity as the definitive human attribute.
Feminism therefore not only fought for opportunities for female education and employment that had been unjustly denied, but tended to join in the liberal denigration of that which could not be measured in the new liberal economy. Instead of integration and balance, family life was set against one’s defining attributes in the liberal order (economic productivity and personal autonomy). Relations between the sexes became increasingly adversarial, rather than complementary, as care for the family and home was seen as a sacrifice of the most important and authentic self.
Consequently, liberalism has become anti-women in many ways. Early liberalism’s denigration of women as learners and workers has been replaced by late liberalism’s denigration of them as mothers. The female gift of childbearing has been diminished to the point where the leaders of liberal opinion muse on whether it would be best for humans to go extinct. Doctrines of individual autonomy and self-creation have led to men being celebrated as the best women.
Careerist productivity and subsequent consumption are seen not as false ideals for anyone, but held up as the best life for both men and women. Feminists exchanged the perverse exclusion of women from education and careers for a perverse identification with education and career.
An ideology that disdains care for the family and home inexorably creates conflict, rather than cooperation, between men and women. It will also foster contempt for the sort of supportive husband that a career woman might most benefit from. The real liberal feminist ideal is not men and women sharing equally in housework and child care, but making enough money to be able to hire professionals to do most of the work.
The populist movements Beinart deplores lack a unified response to this, or even a shared diagnosis. And as he documents, some of them harbor misogynist figures and impulses. But they are also sometimes animated by justified, even if inchoate, unease with liberalism’s view of the family, and dismay at its results.
Liberal democracy (especially the technocratic neoliberal variety Beinart and The Atlantic are associated with) is threatened by its own failures and obtuseness. Its denigration of familial relationships in favor of careerist snobbery hurts both men and women, even if it boosts the GDP. If productivity is the highest human value, then the unproductive (in economic terms) are bereft of dignity, even if they labor to ensure the continuation of the species.
Thankfully, this is only one strand of liberalism, albeit an important one. There is still much in liberal democracy worth preserving, but it will not be saved by self-congratulatory dismissal of criticism. Unless, that is, Beinart is right. While writing this article, I also did some laundry and housecleaning. Liberal democracy is saved!