How Equality Became Elitist: The Cultural Politics of Economics from the Court to the "Nanny Wars"

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In this essay, developed for the 2004 LatCrit conference on "Countering Kulturkampf Politics," I challenge the presumption that the term culture wars captures controversies over the social or moral order distinct from the economic order. I argue that free-market economic ideology is a key hidden player on the right-wing team in the culture wars. In turn, the culture wars debate serves free-market economic fundamentalism by deploying morality both to mask and to legitimate rising economic inequality and the upward redistribution of resources. By turning class into culture, and culture into class, as journalist Thomas Frank suggests in his book "What's the Matter with Kansas?," conservatives can enlist the non-wealthy in the cause of promoting economic inequality.

Using examples from both recent Supreme Court rulings and popular media attention to work-and-family conflicts, I analyze the way in which the very division between economic and cultural politics works to undermine progressive and egalitarian visions of law. I compare Justice Scalia's criticism of the Court's involvement in the culture wars (in Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans) to the reasoning in Plessy v. Ferguson that divides social equality from questions of economic and political rights. In both, the invocation of culture makes the inequality at issue appear too contingent, but at the same time too fixed and universal to be amenable to constitutional redress.

Turning to popular culture, I analyze how the opposition between economic inequality and gender equality similarly works to undermine both in a 2004 Atlantic Monthly cover story by Caitlin Flanagan, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement: Dispatches from the Nanny Wars." Flanagan criticizes feminist advocacy of increased public support for child care as elitist, by presenting gender equality in the workplace as inevitably opposed to economic and racial equality. I show how Flanagan's purported effort to turn feminist attention to economic class, and particularly to the interests of low-waged immigrant domestic workers, actually serves to reinforce and naturalize not just gender inequality but also the economic and racial inequality that she claims to challenge. Flanagan uses the opposition between gender equality and economic equality to make poverty a personal moral matter, obscuring the legal decisions and political structures that promote gender, race and economic inequality.

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Seton Hall Law Review

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