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May 06, 2006

Caitlin Flanagan and the housewife vote

Famous writer Caitlin Flanagan laments that there's no room for her in the Democratic party, even though she's pro-choice, pro-union, anti-war, and anti-poverty:

But despite all that, there is apparently no room for me in the Democratic Party. In fact, I have spent much of the past week on a forced march to the G.O.P. And the bayonet at my back isn't in the hands of the Republicans; the Democrats are the bullyboys. Such lions of the left as Barbara Ehrenreich, the writers at Salon and much of the Upper West Side of Manhattan have made it abundantly clear to me that I ought to start packing my bags. I'm not leaving, but sometimes I wonder: When did I sign up to be the beaten wife of the Democratic Party?

Here's why they're after me: I have made a lifestyle choice that they can't stand, and I'm not cowering in the closet because of it. I'm out, and I'm proud. I am a happy member of an exceedingly "traditional" family. I'm in charge of the house and the kids, my husband is in charge of the finances and the car maintenance, and we all go to church every Sunday. [Time Magazine]

Allow me to suggests an alternate hypothesis: Flanagan doesn't command respect because she's a lightweight and a hypocrite.

Flanagan is so self-centered that she mistakes personal insecurity for consensual reality. Since when has the Democratic Party rejected the traditional family? All politicians heap praise on home, hearth, and parenthood. Marriage is practically mandatory for anyone seeking higher office. For example, it's widely acknowledged that Russ Feingold had better have a wife if he wants to be a contender for the Democratic nomination.

Flanagan dimly glimpses a demographic fact through the haze of self-absorption. Married women with children have been drifting away from the Democratic party for years. Anna Greenberg offers an excellent description of the the shrinking gender gap in Democratic voting in Chapter 3 of Get This Party Started (Matthew Kerbel, ed). For example, John Kerry lost Flanagan's demographic, white married women with children, by 31 points. According to Greenberg, married women with children are voting Republican because they are socially conservative. She maintains that it's simply "unrealistic believe that Democrats can make major gains with [married mothers]" in the near future.

What Flanagan doesn't grasp is that women with children actually tend to disagree with the Democrats on social issues. Unlike her, they aren't leaning Republican because they're social progressives who feel slighted at cocktail parties.

In the lexicon of Frank Luntz, "loving the traditional family" means hating the gays, the abortionists, and the ACLU because they are "assaulting the family." Flanagan seems to have absorbed this perverse reasoning--that the traditional family is under attack whenever anyone allows (even tacitly) that there are legitimate competing options. Flanagan concludes that the Democratic Party must be hostile to housewives, not because they fail to exalt the family at every turn, but because they don't single out housewiffery as the sole apogee of feminine existence.

On to the hypocrisy. It's not hypocritical for Flanagan to have servants, as some have claimed. She's just obtuse about how her privilege shapes her experience. I'm sure it's lovely to stay at home and arrange flowers in between manicures--and perfectly traditional, too. I just don't see how Flanagan's rarified existence is relevant to any larger social issues, except perhaps as an implied argument for a more progressive tax structure.

The thing is, Caitlin Flanagan is a phony. She doesn't have an exceedingly traditional lifestyle. She doesn't even fit the event planner/fucktoy model of housewiffery that she exalts. Yet she lectures other women about how they ought to aspire to this fantasy life, setting herself up as living proof of concept.

Flanagan isn't any kind of housewife. Like most parents, she's working and raising a family. Flanagan happens to be a staff writer at the New Yorker with a regular column at the Atlantic Monthly, a recent op/ed in Time Magazine, and a big new book. She even flew out from California to promote her book on the Colbert Report. (Interestingly, Mrs. Traditional writes under "Flanagan" and not "Hudnut", her husband's name.)

She sounds like the woman who has it all. How does she get it? By telling other women that they can't possibly have it all. Hypocrite.

If people on the cocktail party circuit don't respect Caitlin Flanagan, it's because neither her ideas nor her demeanor command respect. If her appearance on the Colbert Report is any indication, Flanagan comes across as giggly, obsequious, and totally unserious. She compounds her image problem among snobby smart people by writing elegantly-styled fluff. Home and family are serious subjects, but Flanagan approaches them without intellectual rigor, data, imagination, or empathy. As far as she's concerned, it's all about her. No wonder she blames the Democrats for not giving a damn.

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Comments

I've been wanting to blog something about this, but finals are kicking my ass right now.

I've seen a lot of people responding to this by saying that progressives haven't scorned people in "traditional" families the way Flanagan claims. There's a lot of truth to that, but progressives aren't a monolithic group. I've said for a long time that it really is empirically true that some political progressives do harbor a rather nasty streak of contempt for people in more supposedly traditional marriages, or religious people, or people from the south or midwest, or rural people, or whatever category of jus'-regular-folks you want to choose. I certainly experienced this when I went to undergrad at a very liberal northeastern school. I spent my first year just cataloging the insulting, demeaning, and condescending things people said about me, my accent, my upbringing, or my community. Stereotypical left-wing contempt isn't just a fairy tale.

But the most important point is this: so fucking what? Flanagan says she's against the war in Iraq. So it seems like the question is, how many thousands of people have to die before it becomes more important than Flanagan feeling personally slighted? Iraq was a huge personal turning point for me in that regard. It had certainly been tempting to just say "fuck it" to the side of the spectrum that seemed to consist largely of rich city kids who pathologically dismissed me as some silly redneck, and gravitate toward the party whose media strategy consisted largely of fetishizing and valorizing people from communities like mine, who spoke like me, and who had lives I could relate to. But the possibility of unprovoked invasion of other nations put an end to that way of thinking, because it reminded me of what should be obvious: that how the United States wields its state power is overwhelmingly more important than if I feel insulted.

Yeah, Eli's got it right. No group is monolithic, and there is a lot of nastiness directed towards people who live in "flyover country", people who don't obsess about style and fashion, etc., by liberals.

But really, short of DNC royalty, does any liberal feel like she "fits" in the Democratic party?

I nominate this post as the best opinion I've read all week. Not just from your blog, but from all blogs and other various media sources. I especially love how you eloquently sandwiched the term "fucktoy" into your diatribe; it really helped to sell your sense of disgust and contempt for this woman. It's so palpable that it virtually jumps from the screen and slaps you across the face. Thank Cthulhu I'm 2000 miles away from you, or that might have actually happened. If Ms. Flanagan reads this post she'll have nightmares for weeks, but that's okay because that hypocritical non-fucktoy deserves it.

Quick question--what percentage of liberals do you think scorn traditional families openly and what percentage of conservatives do you think heap scorn on a regular basis on anyone not like themselves? Considering that most liberals strain themselves to be open and nonjudgemental, having a small fraction of trangressors is hardly a high crime. Whereas being a judgemental prick is SOP for conservatives.

I'm sure that Flanagan is not the object of contempt in her social circle because she has kids and works from home.

She's part of the much-pilloried liberal cultural elite on the East Coast, and the liberal Hollywood elite on the West Coast. Her husband is a Matel executive and the executive producer of the Barbie version of the Nutcracker.

I'm like a hyena skirting the edges of the liberal cultural elite. Even from my low position on the food chain, I can be virtually certain that Flanagan isn't getting dissed for being a highly accomplished working mom. That's what she really is. More to the point, it's what all the literati know her to be. A New Yorker staff writer with a regular gig at the Atlantic, a lucrative book deal, and a "think" piece in Time Magazine is HOT SHIT in this town. A party where Flanagan's CV didn't command respect would be a very exclusive gathering indeed.

If people don't respect her, it's because they think she's a phony and a lightweight.

Eli, I sort of agree with you. I know that there's a lot of contempt for the sillier and more intrusive aspects of religion amongst the liberal cultural elite. (Hell, I contribute gleefully to the burgeoning cottage industry.) No question, unreconstructed fundamentalism gets spontaneously and scathingly mocked. Other kinds of spirituality, not so much. I've yet to hear anyone say anything bad about Unitarian Universalism, Liberation Theology, or Reform Judaism, for example. Islamists and Christianists do get ridiculed on a regular basis--but not Moslems or Christians, per se.

There's also a lot of stereotyping in the abstract. People will sometimes say offensive things in jest to the effect that all (white) Southerners are redneck fundamentalist assholes and we should just them off and blah, blah, blah. Frankly, these kinds of slights don't come up very often in casual conversation, but that attitude is latent in some people. In practice, even this kind of prejudice doesn't extend to individual Southerners--if only because almost everyone in New York is recently from somewhere--often from small towns in the South and so-called "fly over country." The best analogy I can think of is Europeans who vehemently oppose the American government. When I went to Amsterdam, I got grilled a little bit just for being an American, but people didn't hold it against me personally. Once I made it clear that I didn't hold the specific values (or support the specific policies) that my interlocutors found objectionable, there was no further beef.

Stereotyping is always unfair, and it's jarring when you encounter it. However, there's a critical difference between mindless bigotry and lazy overgeneralization. I think the liberal cultural elites who say mean, stupid things about the South are engaging in the later--they don't really believe that everyone in the South inferior just by virtue of being from that region, they fuzzily (and reprehensibly) assume that a certain genuinely reprehensible set of values that is commonly associated with a group is universal.

However, I just don't understand where anyone gets off thinking the Democrats have contempt for housewives or married people, though. These are the dominant ways of life within the liberal cultural elite, not to mention the Democratic party. If Flanagan is getting static, is absolutely not because she's married and has kids.

Thanks, John!

Strictly speaking, being a lifelong housewife isn't the dominant way of life amongst the literati. The expectation is that people often take a couple years off to care for their kids (men and women, although more often women in practice).

That said, as Amanda pointed out, a large percentage of these people come from traditional homes. They may reject the housewife role for themselves and their nuclear families, but they are hardly dripping with contempt for the choices their own moms and dads made.

How I loathe that woman! Lindsay, this was the best Caitlin Flanagan smackdown yet -- and there have been some great ones lately on Pandagon, Echidne, Lawyers Guns & Money, etc.

Now that I'm here let me take the opportunity to say what I've been meaning to say for a long time: your blog rocks! You're a wonderful writer -- one of the best on the internets. On your worst day, you're worth a million Caitlin Flanagans on her best day!

Vulture, I'm blushing. Thank you very much.

However, there's a critical difference between mindless bigotry and lazy overgeneralization. I think the liberal cultural elites who say mean, stupid things about the South are engaging in the later--they don't really believe that everyone in the South inferior just by virtue of being from that region, they fuzzily (and reprehensibly) assume that a certain genuinely reprehensible set of values that is commonly associated with a group is universal.

I don't see the critical difference at all, assuming that the lazy overgeneralization is about a negative characteristic. I've known some real unreconstructed old-fashioned racists in my time, and every single one had a "one of the good ones" escape clause. Mindless bigotry is capable of tolerating exceptions, so why should the people I encountered get credit for eventually deciding that I was one of the good ones?

Here's an example: My first week of college I had a classmate from New York (shocker!) say, completely unironically, about my home state, "Yeah, aren't girls really easy down there?" The counselor-type sophomore in my dorm made fun of my accent, made fun of the fact that I drove a pickup truck, and made fun of the fact that I mentioned that my family owned guns - and this is someone who was getting paid by the school to supposedly help me (and others) transition into college life.

That's not haphazard overgeneralization. That's the behavior of people raised from birth to think they were superior to me and everyone I knew because of where we were from. I don't think that kind of bigotry is the guiding force of the Democratic Party. But pretending that it doesn't exist among significant portions of our base is as ludicrous as saying racism doesn't exist among significant portions of the Republican base.

Have you read much of Flanagan's work? She frequently starts off her pensees riffing on some dreadful thing she's heard one of the other rich SAHMs say at some do she was attending. People may be rude to her at cocktail parties. I don't know. I do know that when she doesn't approve of the people she meets at parties she pillories them in major publications.

Also, Eli, as a liberal New Yorker I'm a bit taken aback by how you describe my life and thoughts.


That sucks, Eli. I'm sorry and embarrassed to hear that people have been treating anyone that way, much less a fellow progressive whom I like and respect.

The treatment you describe is unacceptable and clearly bigoted. I'm not saying there's no such thing as regional bigotry in the North. I'm just saying that the liberal cultural elite is generally pretty open-minded, especially when you call their bullshit about these sorts of comments. Normally Northern cultural elites, like Southern cultural elites, are hyper-polite to people's faces.

Also, I have to add that Julia is a major role model for me in terms of NewYork-liberal-parent-seamlessgaremtfriendly-bloggerhood. :)

julia: Everything of Flanagan's that I've read, I've disliked. Her schtick strikes me as manufactured and opportunistic, and she often says things that seem just flat-out wrong. I'm no Flanagan apologist; I just think that the contempt problem is a real one. And I'm not sure when exactly I said anything about your "life and thoughts" as a liberal New Yorker, especially since I am a liberal who now lives a Metro North ride away from you in Connecticut. I've known some liberal New Yorkers who treated me with absolute contempt, and some who didn't. It's a big city with lots of different attitudes in it.

Lindsay: Thanks for the supportive reaction. Obviously, it was very hard for me at the time, and I'm still capable of getting pissed off about it now. I've had the luxury of being able to prove myself to people so they have no choice but to address me on my merits, but at 18 I hadn't yet, and many people never do. For those people, the idea that they're already considered lesser is, I'm convinced, a very powerful force in formation of cultural, and thus civic, identity. And then we lose elections partially because some supposed elites can't resist playing Kick the Hillbilly.

As a New York (previously, a San Francisco) libertarian (I'm not a natural progressive, although I have many sympathies), I have to say that I appreciate this sort of commentary, because the fact of the matter is that I had never heard of this woman. Her putative concerns, from my perspective, are so silly that I'd assume they were parody, if not for where they were voiced. Hail Xenu, what sort of HR departments to media outlets run, anyway?

I live in a non-traditional household (none of your business, but we incorporated instead of getting married, and there are more than two people involved), and could care less how Flanagan or anyone else lives. I prefer to live, than to talk about how other people should live. That she should attempt to advise me, or worse, the Democratic party, is really risable.

I realize there's a wider dimension to this sort of talk. I just find people like Flanagan almost beneath contempt. Which is why I appreciate this sort of commentary - if nothing else, it provides amusement on a Saturday afternoon when I should be working. (And it does provide more.)

Curious.

I agree Flanagan is a lightweight, but I'm rather surprised by all the vitriol. I'm more inclined to believe she's just an honest twit.... rather than the Hellspawn people seem to be writing about here.

I do think this brings up an interesting question though. The Democrats need votes, aren't their any (social) issues that WOULD draw more 'traditional' women to the Dems? What would?

Liberals are always saying things like 'we just need to educate'... whomever. I've always found that rather condescending, I don't doubt many people who disagree with them on this or that issue do as well. Maybe the dems need to find out whats important to these women... issues they might have in common.... instead of just writing them off as Lindsay seems inclined.

It occurs to me that is what Flanagan is trying to encourage... although clearly she's doing a piss poor job.

I'm not an american though, am I completely off base here? If the Dems want to win back votes don't they by necessity need to focus on issues that might win swing voters back?

Joe

I think she is utterly full of shit.

Quick question--what percentage of liberals do you think scorn traditional families openly and what percentage of conservatives do you think heap scorn on a regular basis on anyone not like themselves?

My Connecticut-born-and-raised husband is one of the nicest, kindest, most empathetic human beings I've ever met. He comes from a prototypical liberal New England family, and his uncle is a Democratic state rep.

But even he admitted that when he first met my Ohio-based extended family, he expected them to be not quite as sharp as "people from home".

(Especially hilarious given that my clan is by far the sharper and wittier of the two.)

I've said for years that the Democratic party's biggest problem is a stench of belief that anyone who doesn't live on the coast is just too stupid to know what they're missing.

Karen, I do mean this in the most constructive manner possible: do you realize that you did not answer the question?

Karen, I do mean this in the most constructive manner possible: do you realize that you did not answer the question?

One thing I never liked was when folks from the coast would talk to me like a child.

This post is stupid.

I'm not a regular reader of Caitlin Flanagan, but I do know a considerable number of " housewives " and people from outside New Yawk/Manhattan/Park Slope/Williamsburg as well as people who live in New Yawk/Manhattan/Park Slope/Williamsburg.

And in my opinion,
a) the Democratic Party has rejected the traditional family by its stealth endorsement of the " gay " agenda including " families " with two mothers or two husbands or whatever. There's a difference in how the two parties deal with this. The married women of America are smart enough to detect this difference, and the ramifications of that difference.
b) Women with children put security first, and they do not trust the Democratic Party on issues of national security.
This is an issue vastly larger than the Iraq War or Bush. Clinton, in his own words " loathed " the military. Much of the Democratic Party today, I think, loathe the military and hate a strong defense posture at least as much as Clinton did. I know a number of " Democratic " women in Manhattan and Brooklyn who voted against Gore and Kerry because of the issue of national security. Guess they were duped by that ole Carl Rove. Or maybe they saw things that you did not see then and do not understand now.
c) The moveon.org / crooksandliars element that has taken over the Democratic Party is very substantially anti-Christian, anti-defense, opposed to any control of immigration, and thinks that the world outside of Park Slope and San Francisco is a bunch of redneck hicks from " Deliverance ". They despise middle America in the main.

How do I know? I talk the them, baby, all the time. Its fact.

The Republicans are leaderless and have pissed away 99% of the opportunity, but the Democrats have a vastly greatly leadership crisis.

Middle America is caught between a corrupt and leaderless Republican Party that pretends to like them but which actually does not and a corrupt and leaderless Democratic Party centered in NY/Boston/California that pretends to endorse their values but which actually despises them, their values, their religion, their idea of family and their love of country.

These people are not stupid. Wonder why those " housewives " have voted Republican and will continue to do so?


Eli and Karen both bring up valid points about the cultural elitist persons within the liberal ranks. It is inexcusable, but at least we are willing to address the issue. I think most progressives don't want this ugly aspect of liberalism to exist, whereas only a small portion of the conservative population are willing to address racism and bigotry in their ranks. I'm glad both Karen and Eli bring this issue to the fore; awareness is crucial toward elimination of this bias.

Eli, let me raise a mint julip to your insight. And Karen, the Buckeyes suck :)

The moveon.org / crooksandliars element that has taken over the Democratic Party... Park Slope and San Francisco... pretends to endorse their values but which actually despises them...

Don't you know any other tunes?

==The moveon.org / crooksandliars element that has taken over the Democratic Party... Park Slope and San Francisco... pretends to endorse their values but which actually despises them==

I wish that I did. But until the facts on the ground change, the tune is likely to remain quite similar.

Diddly-dee, my friend.

Phantom

Well, I didn't want to snark on Amanda, but the original question is pretty lopsided:

"Quick question--what percentage of liberals do you think scorn traditional families openly and what percentage of conservatives do you think heap scorn on a regular basis on anyone not like themselves?"

In my field, this is the sort of question we show undergrads in My Discipline 101 and see if they can identify the false symmetry. I assume Amanda knows better, and was just asking rhetorically.

But if you wanna be pedantic, let's go with 14.534% vs. 43.345%.

Cheers, John. There's so much fun stuff about the south that everyone could learn to love, anyway. For example, my first job was on the street where Hank Williams got his last (and fatal) drug prescription. There's a sign!

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