The Big Bet Against Joe Biden’s Childcare Agenda

President Biden has won the approval of voters with legislation that boosts education and childcare funding for working parents. But the GOP hopes the backlash to critical race theory proves voters crave protest politics even more.

Kimberly Joyner
5 min readJul 3, 2021
Credit: Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via Reuters Connect / via

In the five months since Democrats took control of the White House and both houses of Congress, critical race theory has been the locus of political agitation for their Republican opponents. At least four states have passed bans targeting the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public schools, and similar bans have been introduced in at least 20 additional states. As columnist Jeet Heer explained in a recent podcast episode on moral panics, the current panic over critical race theory follows a long tradition within the American right of using public education issues to “harvest” angry voters for upcoming elections.

Though mostly confined to Fox News TV segments, red state legislatures, and conservative PAC-engineered activism in local school board elections, the movement against critical race theory does seek some bipartisan buy-in. Conservatives can’t admit they’re using school children to intimidate teachers and to stifle academic scholarship they don’t like; instead they aim for media outlets to cast them as concerned parents opposing “divisive” theories rather than as partisans looking to stoke racial tensions ahead of next year’s midterm elections. This is a familiar tactic in the ongoing conservative panic over transgender student athletes competing in school sports. Conservatives trot out liberal feminist empowerment rhetoric to seem as though they are fighting trans girls’ rights because they care about the rights of cis girls.

But with passage of the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s signature legislation giving parents of small children a majority of direct financial relief from the covid-19 pandemic, the false anti-politics of critical race theory opposition should be seen as a bet against the broad appeal of Biden’s economic agenda over the broad appeal of white identity politics. Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans hope to prove that moral panics are much better at driving white voters to the polls than are Democratic promises of putting more money into people’s pockets.

President Biden’s rescue plan, which he signed into law back in March, provided considerably more direct financial relief to typical families than the previous covid-19 relief bills signed into law by former President Donald Trump. Adults making under $75,000 received $1,400 stimulus checks (up from $1,200 in the CARES Act) and an additional $1,400 for each of their dependents (up from $500 in the CARES Act). Biden’s rescue plan also included an expanded child tax credit, raising the credit amount from $2,000 per child to $3,000 per child (or $3,600 per child under age six). Parents could also opt to receive part of the new tax benefit as a monthly direct payment of up to $250 per child (or $300 per child under age six) beginning in July. Finally, in June, the White House announced a month-long partnership with local daycares that would provide parents with free childcare while they were getting the covid-19 vaccine.

During negotiations over the American Rescue Plan, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer insisted that Democrats had learned from the mistakes they made while negotiating the 2009 economic recovery bill with Republicans. “Ten years [the recovery] took, because [the American Recovery Act] wasn’t deep enough and strong enough,” Chuck Schumer said in an interview with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow according to The Intercept. “We’re not going to make that mistake with Covid.”

For Democrats, optimizing pandemic relief for parents could reposition the party in the minds of voters as the party of family values.

This may not be a tall task given the way white identity politics have replaced the GOP’s usual fixation with the family. And former President Trump’s rise to power and unwavering support within the GOP despite his many sex scandals suggest evangelicals are far less animated by the optics of social conservatism than they are the raw power of Republican rule. Consequently, whatever inroads the GOP made with socially conservative Black and Latino voters in last year’s election are now being undermined by the party’s deeper commitment to making it harder for them to vote.

In looking to reclaim “family values” from the GOP through child-friendly economic policies, Democrats also answer lingering questions over how to compete with Republicans for rural and working class white voters in the Rust Belt as well as sustain the party’s inroads with college educated white voters in urban and suburban districts along the U.S. coasts. The choice of expanding the social safety net over moving to the right on issues like abortion and immigration is a clear sign that Democrats are siding with left economic populists who argue that the best antidote to white identity politics is a social-democratic agenda that proves government can be a force for good.

And fortunately for Democrats, there just isn’t much evidence that culture war-mongering on the right has moved public support toward the GOP in recent months. Biden remains relatively popular in job approval polls, and Democratic voters remain fired up according to the generic ballot, likely in response to a record number of voter suppression bills working their way through state legislatures.

The other problem for Republicans is the consistently mixed messaging of their own moral panic pursuits. Just a few years ago President Trump threatened to defund public universities that ban far-right activists like Milo Yiannopoulos who have a history of using hate speech; today, Republican-run state legislatures are banning entire theoretical traditions that threaten their delusions about America’s past. Similarly, following the wave of George Floyd protests in 2020, Republicans attempted to brand Democrats as anti-police radicals whose “defund” rhetoric contributed to the uptick in violent crime in major U.S. cities. A year later, however, one of conservative media’s most post TV stars wants to defund the military after a high-ranking general defended critical race theory education.

Still, what gives critical race theory opponents power beyond the base of the GOP is their appeal to a protest identity — to politics that clarify who they are and who their political enemies are. In that sense, the movement against critical race theory is the natural successor to the Tea Party movement from a decade ago or the MAGA movement of the last four years. The Biden policy agenda remains quite popular, but with good reason Republicans are betting that a year from now white voters will reward the party that gave agency to their anger and alienation from educated elites over the party that helped pay for their daughter’s daycare.



Kimberly Joyner

I write about American politics, current events, and gender/feminism in TV and film. Based in Atlanta, GA. Email: