Conservatives, Government, and Families: Why Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann Should Stop Deriding Government Support for Breastfeeding (and Families Generally)

Unless you were spending too much time in the blogosphere in the last few weeks, you might have missed the brouhaha created by conservative favorites’ Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann over Michelle Obama’s remarks about breastfeeding. The First Lady’s comments came as part of her Let’s Move initiative, which seeks to reduce childhood obesity rates. Obama stated, “What we’re learning now is that early intervention is key. Kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.” To increase breastfeeding, she suggested measures that included educating all women about the benefits of early food choices for children, including breast milk.

In response to the First Lady’s remarks, Sarah Palin cracked, “It’s no wonder Michelle Obama is telling everybody you need to breastfeed your babies . . . the price of milk is so high!” This followed comments by Rep. Michele Bachmann that the First Lady’s breast feeding promotion campaign represents a “hard left” position in which “government is the answer to everything.” Bachmann called the breastfeeding campaign “social engineering” and, while she was at it, took a jab at the IRS’s recent decision that breast pumps were tax deductible: “I’ve given birth to five babies and I breastfed every single one,” Bachmann said. “To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump. . . . That’s the new definition of a nanny state.” (The IRS determined that breast pumps were a deductible medical expense because of the health benefits of breastfeeding, a determination that was unrelated to the Let’s Move Initiative.)  Sandy Rios, a Fox News contributor, joined in, criticizing the requirement in the newly-passed health care law that employers must give working mothers (unpaid) time and a place to nurse orpump their breast milk.  (UPDATE:  See the clip of Rios opposing mandates on employers here, particularly at 4 minutes 15 seconds and on.  And see here, at 3:40, for an earlier clip of Palin reacting to the Let’s Move Initiative by saying that it demonstrates “government thinking that they need to take over and make decisions for us.”  And this link, in which Palin, presenting cookies to a Pennsylvania school last month states, “Who should be deciding what I eat?  Should it be government or parents.  It should be parents.”)

It’s easy to dismiss this skirmish as just another kerfuffle blown out of proportion in the echo chambers of Fox News and the blogosphere. But pay attention to what these conservatives’ comments say about the state’s role, and you’ll see there’s an important issue at stake. The view that now dominates the hard right construes government support for families – even when it comes to activities like breastfeeding whose benefits are undisputed – as undermining families’ autonomy. Conservatives takes this view even when government action would actually increase families’ choices: the measure requiring employers to provide breaks for breastfeeding lets employees choose whether to breastfeed or not, without penalty of losing their jobs. And even relatively gentle

measures like education regarding the benefits of exercise, or tax breaks for activities like breastfeeding because of its health benefits, are constructed as interfering with families’ rights. (This is, of course, a far cry from conservatives’ position on whether compulsory education of women who seek abortions about what their fetus looks like is an infringement on their rights, but that’s another story. . . .)

There are a number of other problems with the conservative view, as well. Perhaps the biggest has to do with the way that it constructs the relationship between families, government, and market forces. In these conservatives’ view, government is supposed to stay out of the way when it comes to how market forces affect families – that’s the way things are supposed to work. If a mother can’t afford a breast pump, or her employer won’t let her breastfeed, so be it. If the only information she gets about breastfeeding comes from advertisements selling infant formula or from “welcome parent” bags containing formula sponsored by companies that sell formula, ditto.

During the last several decades, in large part as a result of the neoliberal ideology that underlies this view, U.S. public policy has significantly retreated from buffering the market’s effects on families. Welfare reform was the most obvious example of this retreat, in which subsidies for mothers’ caretaking were removed unless they got paid jobs.

The result is that U.S. families are far more subjected to market forces than they were before, which puts significant stress on families.  To take just one example, as found by Suzanne Bianchi and her colleagues, American parents in dual-earner families work roughly ten hours a day seven days a week when their paid and unpaid work was taken into account. That’s because American parents work significantly longer in paid jobs than parents in any other developed country, in large part because other countries have developed a network of protections for families from the market (paid parental leaves, a reduction in the hours of the standard work week,  paid vacations for all workers) that we haven’t in the United States. Conservatives of yore, who recognized the importance of families and other civil associations to the health of society, would certainly have been horrified by the toll that these forces take on families today, even if the commentators on Fox cheer these forces on.

In addition, the conservative view that government action inherently undermines families is wrong in other ways. It rests on the assumption that families function in some natural way whose proper balance is upset by the state’s interference. The fact of the matter, though, is that the ways in which families function are deeply and inextricably intertwined with government policy. Not only is state action essential to determining what constitutes a family as a legal matter, but state action inevitably affects how families function. For example, laws regulating child labor and education shape the lives of children and influence parents’ control over them. Equal employment legislation for women enabled women to get paid jobs, which, in turn, influenced the availability of childcare within families. Equal employment laws have also probably contributed to the increase in divorce, as women are more likely to have the financial wherewithal to divorce their husbands. The modern administrative state built on this foundation does not and cannot have the neutral, isolated position available to it that would keep it from affecting families that these conservatives call for.

On top of that, the “free-market” forces that conservatives say must be inflicted on families are, of course, not natural, but themselves required extensive state action.  Recent work of Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, and David Harvey, shows the extensive government action needed to build “free” markets.

Even more important, the critical tasks families perform, including raising children and caretaking for ill or aged family members, are activities that cannot be wrapped up in seconds or minutes. Instead, they are complex tasks that are part of a process that generally takes place over many years. During those years, families don’t live on islands somewhere by themselves. They live in society, and necessarily interact with a range of societal institutions – most prominently work, but also schools, daycare, health care – that profoundly influence their ability to meet family members’ dependency needs. And how these institutions are set up has a real impact on families. Individual workers aren’t in a great position to influence how employers construct jobs, or the ways other institutions are structured, but government is uniquely positioned to do so.

So if, as these conservatives argue, government shouldn’t be involved in guaranteeing breaks for mothers who choose to breastfeed, the result will be that mothers who work just don’t have the opportunity to breastfeed. Put another way, these conservatives are too quick to see the possibility of tyranny by the state, and blind to the tyranny of market forces.

This straitened view of the role of government is relatively new. Since the Industrial Revolution, the role of the state in tempering the effects of the free market on families to allow them to lead decent lives has been ascendant. The New Deal institutionalized this view of the role of the state. But this view of the role of government is now under attack, and there has been very little resistance to this offensive.

One final thought: this narrow view of the role of the state is not helped much by the recent rhetoric of the First Lady’s own husband. President Obama generally, as in his last State of the Union address, is far more apt to dwell on the role of government in enabling the country to compete in the global economy, therefore cheerleading for the role of government in supporting market forces, than he is to focus on the way that government must curb market forces to allow citizens to lead decent lives and to build the healthy families necessary in a flourishing society. Both liberals and conservatives should recognize that it is the latter course that is the real pro-family position.

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19 Responses

  1. Orin Kerr says:

    Maxine writes: “The view that now dominates the hard right construes government support for families – even when it comes to activities like breastfeeding whose benefits are undisputed – as undermining families’ autonomy. Conservatives take[] this view even when government action would actually increase families’ choices…”

    I don’t think that’s right, or at the very least isn’t supported by the examples you give. You mention three examples: (1) Sarah Palin, who complained about the price of milk, (2) Michelle Bachman, who said that the first lady’s comments about the federal government encouraging breast-feeding reflect a view that the federal government should be involved in everything, and (3) someone named “Sandy Rios,” who apparently argued that a federal government requirement that employers give off unpaid time to breast-feed is a bad idea. As far as I can tell, none of those three made the argument that a proposed federal law undermines family autonomy. Palin’s comment clearly doesn’t; Bachmann’s comment says nothing about family autonomy; and you haven’t said what Sandy Rios’s argument was. (Perhaps that was Rios’s argument, but you didn’t include a link to her comments or suggest that it was, so I’m not sure.)

    It’s true that — both on the left and on the right — there is a concern that government regulation of the family can interfere with family autonomy. To oversimplify a complicated subject, liberals tend to worry about the state interfering with certain deeply personal decisions such as whether to have a baby; conservatives tend to worry about the state interfering with certain deeply personal decisions like how to raise their babies. Each is worried about the role of the state in interfering with family choices deeply valued within their community. Each has the same fear that the state will get involved in a set of choices that they deeply and passionately feel should be left as their own, even if the details of what that choice is varies on the left and on the right. But although those views are held, I don’t quite see that at least in the sources you cite.

    More broadly, to the extent that this issue is being used as a symbol of the broader political trends, we all realize that the issue of the proper role of the state (and particularly the federal government) in regulating different markets is the most debated and controversial political issue of the last year or so. There is very real disagreement about this, with one side arguing we have gone way too far with too much government and the other side arguing we have not.

    Your comment doesn’t leave any doubt as to which side you are on in this vibrant ongoing debate. Indeed, I believe iI read you as suggesting that this debate was once held, your side won, and as a result the issue should not be debated again. But I don’t see how the very general arguments you raise really deal with the specifics of the different policy rules raised, which is where the line should be drawn. Take the issue of unpaid time to breastfeed. On one hand, it has implications for the family. But it also has implications for businesses, of course, as businesses are the ones who are regulated by the law. Depending on how the law works — its limits, which workplaces are regulated, etc. — I can imagine a plausible case for its merits either way. But I think its merits depend on the details, not general claims about the role of the state or family autonomy. The problem, I think, is that we’re dealing with matters of degree. No one argues that there should be no government, and no one argues that the government should take over absolutely everything. The tricky issue is what the government should regulate and what the government should leave alone.

    Different people have different senses of the risks of too much or too little government action, as well as the marginal benefits of regulation and unintended consequences. My own sense of our experience with regulation is that the default should be less not more, and that an affirmative case should be have to be made to regulate more. On the whole, I think people do a better job of taking care of their own needs than government does. But wherever we come out on that question, I think every case should depend on the specifics, I think: We need to delve into the details of how that actual regulation is going to work or not work. My own sense is that this is a better approach than grand claims that the government is always the answer (or never is), or that “the conservatives” are (or are not) “pro-family”.

  2. Maxine Eichner says:

    I’m right there with you, Orin, in thinking that it’s the specific government policy and its advantages and disadvantages that matter in any given case. It’s precisely the knee-jerk view that all government support for families is bad that I’m objecting to. (By the way, I suppose you can read Bachmann’s statement that tax breaks for breast pumps create a “nanny state” as having nothing to say about family autonomy, but, as a number of feminists have pointed out in other situations, such statements counterpose dependency against the ideal of family autonomy. Other recent clips that are more explicit on the autonomy issue have been added.)

  3. Maxine Eichner says:

    One more thing, Orin, (how could I have forgotten to mention?), I discuss specific measures through which the government should support families, as well as the appropriate limits to government support, in my new book: The Supportive State: Families, Government, and America’s Political Ideals (Oxford, 2010).

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    Thanks for the response, Maxine. I hope you will also agree that the knee-jerk view that all government support for families is *good* is equally unpersuasive.

    As for Bachmann’s statement, I don’t know the context, but it sounds to me like it had nothing to do with the family: It seems to me it was just trying to make a joke based on the “nanny state” objection. I don’t think I know what it means to “counterpose dependency against the idea of family autonomy,” so I can’t say if I agree or disagree with that, but in any event Bachmann’s comment strikes me as harmless.

  5. TJ says:

    Maxine, I can’t speak for conservatives, but I do think you are painting with an overbroad brush. Few conservatives (none that I know) want no government interference with families. They do tend to want less government interference than liberals. But that is entirely a matter of degree, and it also depends on the issue.

    And your post leaves one with the impression that government intervention here is an unmitigated good. At least for the mothers of my experience (admittedly mainly working mothers of upper-middle-class circumstance), the “intervention” of promoting breast feeding has reduced the pressure to use formula, but has increased the pressure to breastfeed so now that a middle-class mother who fails to do so is regarded as little short of abusing her child. Let me submit that is not a particularly “autonomy-increasing” outcome. (And for obvious reasons, I doubt you can argue the pressure is a matter of “private” social forces.)

  6. Maxine Eichner says:

    I certainly wouldn’t dream of arguing that all government support is good for families (and, in fact, didn’t in my original post). The place where you and I disagree is over whether the rollback in support for families during the last few decades, and conservative calls against more support and in favor of further rollbacks, has been and is a good thing for families. In my view, given that, 1) we are one of
    four countries out of 192 countries (the others being Swaziland, Papua New Guinea, and Liberia) who are not guaranteed paid parental leaves, and the vast majority of U.S. employers do not provide it; 2) although we are the wealthiest country in the world, 21.9% of all our children, and 30% of our African American children live in poverty, a far higher rate than in other wealthy, developed democracies because our welfare supports are much less effective; 3) American parents in two-earner families together spend an average of eighty hours a week at their jobs (compared to seventy-one hours for dual-earner couples in the United Kingdom, and sixty-nine hours per week in Sweden), almost two-thirds of American dual-earner couples with children report joint work weeks of eighty hours or more, a figure much higher than in peer nations, and 13% of dual earner couples with children work more than one hundred hours, a figure unheard of in other countries, because we do not have the effective regulations on working hours that other countries do; 4) unlike other wealthy democracies, the US has no comprehensive plan for early childcare education, and, with little regulation or support for daycare, more than half of daycares provide care that experts have deemed only “adequate” to “poor,” while only one in ten provides care that has been deemed developmentally enriching– and these daycares are out of reach of poor and many middle-class families — and don’t even get me started on the proposed cuts to Head Start; 5) partly as a result of these factors, in a recent UN study, we came in 20th out of 21 of our peer wealthy countries in terms of children’s overall wellbeing — the answer is clear, although readers can make their own decisions.

    Let me break down my statement that Bachmann’s use of the term “nanny state” sought to counterpose dependency against the ideal of family autonomy more plainly: What Bachmann was suggesting is that government aid infantilizes families, and that families instead should stand on their own two feet, which she construes as antithetical to receiving state support. She meant her objections seriously, although you’re right that she used the term “nanny state” to elicit a laugh from her audience. The lack of adequate supports we have in the U.S. for families, though, is no laughing matter.

  7. A.J. Sutter says:

    I for one, don’t see any of these conservative comments as “harmless” or as “jokes” (at least, as jokes in appropriate taste, despite the “nanny” pun), especially when taken in context of the ongoing precipitous disintegration of civility in the US. I don’t buy the attempted divide-and-conquer smokescreen about looking at each utterance of Palin, Bachmann et al. in isolation. They’re not so innocent. It’s mind-boggling to me that these policies could be objectionable. What’s next: conservatives’ objecting to apple pie and the flag, just because someone in the Obama Administration says something nice about them?

    And why is family (or any other type) of autonomy always defined in terms of individual versus the state? What about the autonomy of individuals versus employers? (Or even versus “business” generally, as Maxine seems to indicate by her reference to “market forces”?) Seems to me that a time and place to nurse a child during work — unpaid time, mind you — is pertinent to this sort of autonomy. Though considering the panorama from Reagan and the air traffic controllers through the war in Wisconsin, obviously this autonomy isn’t something that Republicans exactly prize. (That’s not necessarily a “neoliberal” attitude, BTW; rather it’s a result of America’s inheriting the radical, Hayekian form of neoliberalism instead of one of the more moderate European ones, e.g. Röpke’s in Germany, which regarded unions as having an important role to play. See here.)

    So how about cutting to the chase, Orin, instead of hiding behind the generalities: are you in favor of (i) the tax deduction, and (ii) the unpaid time for nursing, or against one or both of them? Like the song says, which side are you on?

  8. A.J. Sutter says:

    As for TJ’s comment: I think you’re taking “intervention” out of context. Michelle Obama is talking about intervention by parents against childhood obesity, not government intervention. The government policies facilitate breastfeeding for those who want to do so, rather than requiring them to do so. And as long as we’re considering anecdotal evidence, one of my ex-sisters-in-law joined a, to put it mildly, zealously proselytizing breastfeeding group during the height of the Reagan years. When it comes to lacto-fascism, private social forces are indeed at work, especially in the socio-economic group you mention.

    If your argument is that Michelle Obama’s comments are sufficient to constitute governmental exacerbation of the social pressure, why not also consider the costs to the government, and society at large, of an obese population? There are even national security aspects: e.g., where would we be if our military really were “doughboys”? (No joke.) So government has a legitimate interest. Moreover, that hypothesized argument would ultimately mean that no one in government — and no private citizens in the families of members of government — would be able to comment on any public issue, because to do so would entail government pressure and a loss of autonomy for the rest of the population. A ridiculous result.

  9. Orin Kerr says:


    You appear to see politics as a battle between good and evil: You are “good,” and people who disagree with you are “evil.” Given that, I suppose it’s to be expected that you would expect me to have chosen already between good and evil, and, having chosen already, to know whether I agree with you. The truth is, though, I have no idea where I stand on these questions. I haven’t read the statutes, haven’t studied the issues, and don’t really know. Perhaps you will conclude that this is a smokescreen, because everyone must have a view based on whether they are good or evil. But it is not.


    Yes, I think we disagree — or at least I am not nearly as certain as you are on these questions. I do have the sense that welfare reform and the like were generally a policy success. I don’t really know what I think about “further rollbacks” because I don’t know what the specific proposals are, and I haven’t studied them, obviously. But I suppose I am open to them, if it looks like they will work.

  10. A.J. Sutter says:

    Orin, I don’t see politics (in the general sense) in such a Manichean light at all. Your comment about your own agnosticism is perfectly fair. However, I do think that many of those who currently call themselves conservatives or of the “right” in the US do see politics in the polarized way you mention. Especially the most vocal and mediaphilic ones. You don’t have to be Manichean to lament the politicization of breastfeeding — e.g., that “educating all women about the benefits of early food choices for children, including breast milk” should come to called a “hard left” position. One can only imagine what they’d make of a bygone consensus — Communism?

    Moreover, I do think there are those in the US who are pushing positions that are to the detriment of most people who live there, while rhetorically cloaking their positions to be in the public interest. I don’t exempt all members of the Obama Administration from that category; but Mmes. Palin, Bachmann and other soi-disant populists supported by the Koch Brothers usually do fit into it. I admit I don’t have a very gray view of such activity.

    Neither Bachmann nor Palin seems to be fretting over the details of the policies, as you may be doing. Rather, they’re mischaracterizing them. E.g., since when is the government’s not taking your money equivalent to a government expenditure? You’d think a Tea Partier would be happy about it. Or else, apply the same logic to her financial backers.

  11. Orin Kerr says:

    A.J. writes:

    I do think there are those in the US who are pushing positions that are to the detriment of most people who live there, while rhetorically cloaking their positions to be in the public interest. I don’t exempt all members of the Obama Administration from that category; but Mmes. Palin, Bachmann and other soi-disant populists supported by the Koch Brothers usually do fit into it. I admit I don’t have a very gray view of such activity.

    Right — that’s the attitude I meant. In your view, the folks on the other side are evil: They are merely pretending to act in the public interest. Maybe not *everyone* on the other side, but certainly lots of them, and certainly the shadowy Koch Brothers and the leaders on the other side. It must be comforting to have this view, as it seems to make you a moral champion in a sea of immorality: You are not only correct, but you are the one acting in good faith amidst those seeking to wrong our country.

    You’re certainly free to have this view, of course — much like some on the right can have this view of the left if they don’t know any liberals. But, at least in my experience, neither side has any more or less genuine concern for the public interest: They just have different views, genuinely felt, as to what is in the public interest.

  12. Joe says:

    I concur with AJ and don’t find Prof. Kerr asking if the author of the top piece believes obviously silly things (EVERY program helping families is a good idea; she isn’t a walking stereotype … I’m glad we cleared that up) is a worthwhile enterprise.

    He can calmly do his absented minded professor routine all he wants, but meanwhile the politicians in question are doing troubling things (as noted by others here). In fact, it is a routine with a troubling edge. AJ is assumed to be more kneejerk than his comment warranted. I don’t see how he sees politics as “a battle between good and evil” by arguing that certain comments are troubling.

    He doesn’t know the context of remarks but then opines on them. Finding something “harmless” might be easier that way, perhaps.

  13. Joe says:

    I see Prof. Kerr responded as I was typing.

    “the folks on the other side are evil”

    The comment spoke about people the author thought acted in “the detriment” of public interest. This is not the same thing as being “evil” (that’s a loaded word; the devil is “evil” … I don’t like Pat Buchanan, but he isn’t the devil; evil is more child molester than pundit). You are the one added adjectives like “shadowy.”

    The calm shell comes off.

  14. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Joe. Orin, I can assure you that my attitude is not only quite different from what you impute it to be, but it is distinctly not comforting. Folks like the Koch Brothers — and, let it be said, like Tim Geithner, among others, as well — make me feel much more like a patient than an agent in the American political process. That sense of futility, as well as the degraded discourse, e.g. the ad hominem style into which you unfortunately have so seamlessly fallen, make me wonder where the country of my birth has disappeared to. I was much more optimistic about America even when I and hundreds of thousands of others were getting tear-gassed in the District of Columbia before you were born. The feeling that I’m lucky not to be living there now isn’t at all the feeling of a champion, moral or otherwise, but is tempered with great sadness.

  15. Orin Kerr says:


    AJ Sutter wrote that the other side is using a “divide-and-conquer smokescreen” that is “not so innocent,” that they are “rhetorically cloaking their positions to be in the public interest,” and similarly that I was “hiding.” Perhaps I am mistaken, but these sorts of terms are generally associated with claims of bad faith. People who are acting in good faith do not generally “hide” behind “rhetorical cloaks” and “smokescreens” of claims of being in the public interest.

    The question then becomes whether it is comforting to believe that so many others are acting in bad faith. AJ responds that actually it is not, the argument being, I believe, that it’s actually pretty depressing to believe that the world is so full of people acting in bad faith. I suppose it depends on whether you’re focused internally on your own sense of certainty or externally on your sense of society: A sense that you are acting in good faith and others are acting in bad faith would seem to be comforting internally but depressing externally. I suppose different people have a greater or lesser concern with their sense of internal versus external comfort.

  16. Orin Kerr says:

    Oh, and if AJ or Joe wants to take the view that people who are acting in subjective bad faith in ways that have greatly harmed America are not “evil,” because that term is reserved for child molesters and the like, then I am happy to substitute a more appropriate term. My point was about good faith and bad faith. In my experience, both sides are acting in good faith: They just have different views, held in good faith, as to what is in the public interest.

  17. Joe says:

    Orin, I’m sorry if to you “evil” means “subjectively acting in bad faith ways,” since objectively speaking, that is not really how I (not alone here) see the word “evil.” If acting in bad faith is “evil,” we need a new word for what many of us truly think of as “evil.” Super evil, maybe?

    Politicians repeatedly “rhetorically cloaking their positions to be in the public interest,” as well, so if you find that sort of thing depressing, fine, but it’s reality. The ultimate problem amounts to degree. Call it “bad faith” or whatever, but at some point, a person (and AJ cited examples from both parties) does not act in the public interest. Lots of people “mean well,” but if they act recklessly, they still are problems and we can be upset at them. Even if you know like a child, they didn’t “mean that to happen.” And, the “good faith” of many people in public life is hard to see. How Newt Gingrich, e.g., has much “good faith” at this point given his record, well, hard to see there. Though I guess he convinces himself otherwise.

    If you don’t think a person like Palin poisons the discourse with kneejerk, divisive rhetoric that doesn’t advance much positive, that’s fine. But, there is a reason many people in their own party find Palin and Bachman troubling. There is a reason they make such prime targets for the other side.

    But, the popularity of Palin suggests (not that I find this pleasant), we can’t just ignore her inane comments as “harmless.” If people see them as role models, it is not harmless. Finally, I think AJ answered well enough to address my comment that I think you responded to him in a too kneejerk fashion. Your comments as to “bad faith” really doesn’t dispute my sentiment there.

  18. Orin Kerr says:


    It seems to me there are two different questions: (1) Are conservatives generally acting in bad faith on these issues?, and (2) Do Sarah Palin and New Gingrich often use kneejerk, divisive rhetoric that does not advance the debate? It seems to me that the answer to (1) is “no” and the answer to (2) is “yes.”

  19. Joe says:

    Since some of us here are worried about #2, and said as much, there appears to be some common ground on that point.

    I’m not sure if “conservatives generally” as compared to some segments of the movement, along with others (like “some members of the Obama Administration), are at issue here. So, I find that questionably phrased.

    Use of kneejerk, divisive rhetoric among other things is a form of “bad faith” in my book, especially at some point. If they claim to be promoting the public good and intentionally use such divisive (and often lazy) tactics, their good faith is open to question.

    I can disagree with a politician on some issue but if they use cheap tactics to promote their side, bad faith is being shown.