The American would-be politician JD Vance is no stranger to hostile media attention. In fact, to go by some of his recent controversial comments, he seems to gleefully seek it out.
Vance, a father of two and a former US marine turned lawyer, author and venture capitalist, is running for the Ohio Senate as a Republican. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a once flourishing manufacturing town that is now beset by economic stagnation and addiction. Vance offered an insight into the world-view of the white working classes of Appalachia in his bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, published in 2016, which launched his career as a conservative commentator.
Vance was critical of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, particularly of his policies on immigration. More recently, however, Vance has back-pedalled on these comments, telling Fox News that he thought Trump was a “good president”. It is clear that Vance is trying hard to appeal to Trump’s base: working-class people who feel that they have been left behind by globalisation. And he occasionally reveals a dash of the Trumpian provocateur in his political persona.
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When speaking to a conservative think tank last month, Vance caused uproar when he suggested that the “childless left” lacks a “physical commitment to the future of [the US]”. He later doubled down on these comments, naming several prominent Democrats, both male and female, who do not have children. Vance added: “We’re effectively run in this country, via the Democrats and via our corporate oligarchs, by a bunch of childless cat ladies… Maybe if we want a healthy ruling class in this country, we should invest more, we should vote more, we should support more people who actually have kids.”
Prodding this particular hornet’s nest is a risky strategy on Vance’s part. The Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom learned this the hard way during the Tory leadership race in 2016. In an interview, Leadsom suggested that, as a mother, she had “a very real stake” in the UK’s future – the implication being that her opponent, Theresa May, was less suited to leadership because she did not have children. These comments were criticised by many Tory MPs, not least because May has spoken publicly about her struggle to have children. Thus, Leadsom ended up sounding cruel rather than competent.
I suspect, however, that Vance’s decision to focus on the fertility factor may prove canny, since this issue is likely to become more important in the future. The US’s birth rate has fallen to its lowest level in history at 1.71 children per woman, and birth rates in England and Wales dropped in 2020 to 1.6 babies, with this figure predicted to fall to 1.45 by 2023. As Sophie McBain wrote in July in this magazine, although birth rates are falling most precipitously in wealthier countries, the trend is evident worldwide, so much so that the global population is expected to start to decline from 2064 onwards.
For some environmentalists this is good news, since a reduced human population may also lessen our destructive impact on the planet. But the social and economic costs of a shrinking population are not trivial; it is dangerous to combine an ageing society with an expensive welfare state and a diminishing number of working-age adults.
We will, eventually, have a large elderly population, many of whom will be childless, who are dependent on the state. The high levels of taxation needed to fund their care risk producing a negative feedback loop, with younger adults made poorer and more reluctant to have children themselves. One short-term option is to open up opportunities for young people from other countries to move to the UK to fill the economic gap, but some research suggests that the impact of immigration on population ageing is small, and even that high levels of immigration can contribute to political instability.
A friend who works for the government says that the falling birth rate is a political problem that keeps him awake at night. It’s a hard one to solve because the causes are both diverse and intractable. High housing and childcare costs, combined with the demise of the family wage, are all contributing factors, but there is also ideology at play, and here is where partisanship becomes evident.
Vance is tapping into a real issue when he talks about the “childless left” because, for the first time in US history, childbearing is partially determined by political affiliation. From around 1995 onwards, conservative women began to have 0.25 more children on average than their liberal peers – a significant gap, and one that seems to be growing.
Just as important, in political terms, is the minority of liberals who have become vocally anti-natalist. When the Atlantic’s Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a beautiful essay on the experience – which is sometimes challenging, but often joyful – of having children in her twenties, the reaction among her liberal readers was astonishing. Critics made accusations that Bruenig had a “white extinction anxiety” and that she was “masquerading as progressive”. This was an extreme example of a phenomenon often seen elsewhere in the liberal media, with the same message usually conveyed more or less explicitly: children are burdens, not blessings.
Of course, an outright dislike of children and of childbearing is unusual. Many people, of all political persuasions, want to have children and end up doing so. But Vance is not wrong to identify a political division at work. And he may well be prescient in directing his incendiary attention towards the conflict between pro-natalist conservatives and anti-natalist liberals since, whatever happens in the Ohio Senate elections, this is a political issue that is not going away.