We should take Katie Britt seriously

She's weaponizing the kitchen table because she understands its power. Which is more than I can say for many of the Democrats.

We should take Katie Britt seriously

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Last night, Alabama Senator Katie Britt delivered the GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union. She sat at her kitchen table and gave a 17-minute long speech delivered in tones that could not be mapped to one another. Britt moved from angry whispers to weeping warnings to the smiling snap of a creature ready to draw blood.

The substance of her speech was equally incoherent, moving from graphic descriptions of child-rape to a nation steeped in the blood of patriots to a man landing on the moon.

It’s being reported that Republicans are calling her speech “one of our greatest disasters.” Her response really does play like a failed audition for an 80s soap opera. It’s tempting to mine Britt’s response for memes and then move on, but that would be a mistake. 

Katie Britt is not just some random Republican. The youngest Republican woman elected to the Senate, Britt is considered the party's next great hope. She has the reputation of a moderate Republican who is respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. 

Who has given her that reputation? Why is she respected across the aisle? Is any of this true? I don’t really know. It is just a description that gets repeated in news stories written about her, without any named non-Republican sources to support it. Someone wrote it once and so it has been written again and again. 

Trump is reportedly considering her as a possible running mate. The idea is that she’ll be a moderating presence that helps mollify women who have traditionally voted Republican but cannot bring themselves to vote for raping, gaping insurrectionist Donald Trump. 

Her impersonation of Margaret White Giving a SOTUS Response wasn’t a misstep. Katie Britt wasn’t overcoached. Republicans only reportedly thought it was a disaster when they gauged the public’s response to it. Initially, they were all in.

Before her response aired, the New York Times reported that Republicans sent out “talking points to conservative influencers suggesting words of praise they could offer after Ms. Britt’s speech.” Elegant little compliments that influencers were supposed to give with as unstudied an air as possible. (You know I love a Pride and Prejudice reference, ahem.)

The suggested praise ranged from “She came off like America’s mom - she gets it” to comparing Britt to Reagan, calling her response, “reminiscent of Reagan’s message of that Shining City on a Hill.”

Katie Britt’s kitchen table SOTUS response is the Republican vision of and for America. We should take it seriously. Its incoherence cloaks its violence, but it doesn't blunt it. We should be very afraid of it and the people who want to make it a reality.

The Kitchen Table

Pundits and analysts across the political spectrum have expressed bewilderment over the decision to film the response in Britt’s kitchen. This concerns me. Because they have not been paying attention. And like isn’t that their job?

For perhaps the first time ever, a majority of American voters can name ways in which the Republican Party has actively disempowered them individually - when it comes to reproductive healthcare, voting rights, parental rights, the right to survive a day at school, and the books available in their libraries. 

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The Republicans have to assume a position of vulnerability to try to justify their oppressive agenda. We are hurting you because we are fighting for our future! Few places in America are as widely disempowered by bipartisan policy, our current form of capitalism, and American culture as the kitchen. Anyone who has spent time doing unpaid care work has a visceral understanding of this, even if they haven’t articulated it. 

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The Republicans wanted to juxtapose the power of the president - giving his address, surrounded by flags and supporters, with a lone woman in that disempowered space. And I think it could have been successful, aesthetically at least. A lone mother sitting at her kitchen table, bewildered by decisions made by people more powerful than her. That would've felt relatable to many people.

But the composition of the shot was off - it emphasized Britt’s custom cabinetry instead of a table dotted with crumbs. 

The subtext matters here too. Who works in the kitchen, who gets to have a kitchen, who gets to stay out of the kitchen. These are all expressions of power in America. Americans have historically tried to engineer society through kitchen design. It is incredibly foolish to pay attention to the way America is using the courts to re-engineer our society while ignoring the kitchens and kitchen tables. 

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I’ve seen so many Democrats sniff about the kitchen table setting. It’s infuriating. Maybe if they recognized the dignity of the kitchen table and the work done around it, economically and legislatively, we wouldn’t be so vulnerable to Trumpist extremism. 

Because here’s the thing. Both parties are still adherents of the myth of the separate spheres. They think economic power belongs to the marketsphere. And that the marketsphere has rights to the work done in the homesphere. And despite protestations to the contrary, both parties fundamentally believe that caretakers, women and children belong in the disempowered sphere.

The Democrats’ interpretation of the myth of the separate spheres is far less harmful than the Republican version. But it’s still incredibly damaging: So no universal childcare, no universal paid parental leave, no universal healthcare, no social security for unpaid caretakers, no codification of abortion rights even when the Democrats had the votes to do it. 

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The separate spheres are misogynistic, classist, and fundamentally racist for reasons I’ve written about extensively. The Democrats embrace the separate spheres while denying the homesphere even the illusion of power. The Republicans are being more strategic. 

The myth of the separate spheres requires the home to always be subjugated. But it promises middle-class women a kind of soft power. They don’t belong in the world but they can influence it from their kitchen table. Katie Britt was showing them their seat of power, if they choose to vote Republican. It was a botched attempt. But they will be better at it when they try again later. 

There were a few jokes comparing Britt’s odd vocalization to the Voice used by the Bene Gesserit, a supernatural sisterhood in Dune. The Bene Gesserit can control people with the Voice, which Franke Herbert described as “selected tone shadings.” And that’s funny. But it's also frightening.

In Dune, the Voice is an exaggerated version of the soft-speaking women have relied on to survive hard male power for millennia. Britt’s tone was an exaggerated version of the persuasive soft-speaking that many modern women in traditionally conservative Christian religions learn as children. They have no authority, but they can speak in regulated tones that influence those in power.

Many, many women heard that old soft-speak as Britt spoke. Hell, I heard it. They recognized the cadence, the reliance on emotional insight - the only authority traditionally given to in the home - and the strained smiling through tears. It was a particularly grotesque version of the soft-speak! But that didn't keep it from feeling familiar. And for some people, familiarity feels like truth.

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The Republicans aren’t just doubling down on the border and immigration because they are xenophobic racist nationalists. Although there is that! They are doubling down on it because one way to entrench the myth of the separate spheres is to make the home feel like it is under siege. This also explains the book banning, the anti-transgender legislation and every other Republican-made hysteria. 

In Britt’s description of America, no one is safe - not even a rich white woman sitting at her kitchen table. (Those are the only women who are supposed to be safe in a Republican America.)

The Republicans have to make the Home the weakest it has ever been, in our imaginations and in practice, to grasp the power they want. How much power? All of it. The Republicans want all the power - the power to choose, the power to kill, the power to starve.

Along with everything else, Britt’s kitchen table message was supposed to feel like a movie scene. You know the one,

The aliens are attacking, or an asteroid is hurtling toward the earth, or a nuke is enroute to the eastern seaboard. Despite his aide’s protestations, the president decides to stay behind to give one last message from the Oval Office. He is so brave.

The scene cuts to families watching the address in their living rooms and cars as they hide from aliens/asteroids/nuclear bombs. The disaster ensues. And then darkness.

Light filters back onto the screen. The people who survived struggle to their feet. Inspired by the vision of their President, they will rebuild a better world.

It’s just that in this case, the Republicans are manufacturing the disasters while warning about them. This was made stark in Britt’s talk as she....

Graphically described the rape of a child while also representing a party run by a rapist. Praised IVF, which the powerful in her party keep hinting they hope to ban state by state. Fretted about a man who could not afford food and medicine while her party opposes price caps on insulin. Wailed about border security, while her party blocks Biden's (draconian) border security measures. Whimpered that women are in danger while her party keeps women from accessing life-saving reproductive healthcare. Wept about our children’s future while Republicans deny hungry children access to food. Seethed about community safety while Republicans wear AR-15 pins to work and sacrifice our children’s lives to the gun lobby. 

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White women like Britt, Moms for Liberty and all the women who worked for years to take away our right to abortion, weaponize the kitchen table because they understand its power.

So what should the Democrats do? 

Well, I am no analyst or pundit but I have a few ideas. 

Stop pretending the myth of the separate spheres is true! Abandon it! Acknowledge there is no magical line dividing care work from work, production in the home from production outside the home, the family from the community. 

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Strip the marketsphere’s rights to our homes and lives. How can it be legal for a company to collect data from within my home without paying me for it? How can my healthcare be tied to employment? This only makes sense within the logic of the myth.

Sure! Your billionaire friends and corporate lobbyists won’t like to see the spheres crumble. Their current business models and investment funds rely on the disempowerment of the home and the people who labor within it, especially Black women and women of color. Oh well!

Stop rolling your eyes at kitchen tables. Women have historically organized around the kitchen table. It’s the place we all gather to eat and talk and cry and hope and mourn and plan. The kitchen table has more inherent dignity than any pulpit or desk. And for generations, Democratic politicians and white liberals have been relying on the kitchen table organizing work of Black women while offering little to nothing in return. Take a damn seat.

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Stop protecting your access to power and start protecting us with the power we’ve let you wield. Retire early and often, filling the seats of power with young talent.

Stop premising your policies and platforms - from immigration to parental leave - on manufactured scarcity. We are abundant. We simply need to keep the powerful from hoarding our abundance. It's not that fucking hard. (How do I know? Lots of countries have figured this out, to some degree or another.)

And finally,

Stop acting like Katie Britt is a joke. She is the future unless we gather around every kitchen table and organize a different horizon.