Politics

The Alarming Savvy of Baby Formula Populism

Stephen Miller speaking at a lectern.
Former White House senior adviser Stephen Miller in 2021. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

American parents are running out of ways to describe how stressed out, panicked, and upset the current shortage of formula on store shelves is making them. Jocelyn Landers told the Los Angeles Times that she went to nine stores before she found formula for her 2-month-old: “I was grateful to even get a can to hold her over.” Gina Dolezar explained to local TV in Maryland: “If there’s a chicken shortage and there’s no chicken at the grocery store, the store is full of other things we can eat. For my 3-month-old, if I can’t find her formula, there’s really not a lot of options for her, so it can be very scary.” And on Tuesday, the New York Times reported that for some families, the worst-case scenario is already underway: Two children in Tennessee who have special nutrition needs have been hospitalized because their parents could not find EleCare, an amino acid–based formula made by Abbott Nutrition, the company whose plant in Michigan has been closed since February and only recently received permission to reopen.

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It’s inevitable that a crisis this important, and one that disproportionately affects those with fewer means (who are more likely to use formula), would become a political football. For the right, it was another thing to pin on Joe Biden. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement that read, “While mothers and fathers stare at empty shelves in a panic, the Biden Administration is happy to provide baby formula to illegal immigrants coming across our southern border.” Sen. Ted Cruz echoed the line.

But the best, most devastating strategy came from Cruz’s fellow right-wing populists. And the primo example came in response to an unfortunate and silly Bette Midler tweet: “TRY BREASTFEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.” Replied Stephen Miller (yes, that Stephen Miller): “What a profoundly offensive & ignorant statement. There are countless reasons why breastfeeding is not an option for many mothers—too many to get into here. And if you’ve been using formula you can’t just flip a switch. Not to mention millions of babies with milk/food allergies… .”

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Given this true and correct tweet, which prompted a flood of “The Worst Person You Know” memes, Miller’s renown as the architect of Trump’s cruel child-separation policy may seem contradictory. It’s not. What he did was land on the crux of the breastfeeding vs. formula debate: It is a topic that has made many people profoundly guilty, shamed, and miserable, because what’s “best” for babies—the breast, as the overwhelming and dominant public health messaging goes—is just not attainable for a lot of people. While some of his fellow right-wing culture warriors chose woman-shaming or political blame as a response to the formula crisis, Miller went with sincerity. At least one of his fellow Trump White House alumni, former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, took a similar approach, replying to Midler with “Not if you’ve had a prophylactic double mastectomy”(as McEnany did in 2018). Replies to McEnany praised her “strength,” and one said that Midler’s tweet “is on par with ‘can’t afford gas, just buy a Tesla.’ ”

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The genius of Miller’s earnest-sounding tweet is in its anti-elite bona fides. It recognizes that the decades of pro-breastfeeding messaging, coupled with a lack of material support for establishing and maintaining the practice, have stirred up a lot of resentment about people who say things like what Midler said, and the relatively rarified spaces where women have the time and wherewithal to really work on breastfeeding. Eighty-four percent of American babies start out breastfed (according to the CDC’s latest data); only 58.3 percent are still there at six months, and 35.3 percent at a year. We shouldn’t assume that every breastfeeding parent wanted to continue, but couldn’t, but it’s likely that there are a fair number of those cases to be found in those numbers. And those people have experienced the potent mix of guilt and fear that such a situation produces. Those feelings are out there for the taking.

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Last week, I interviewed Lesley Frank, a scholar in Nova Scotia who studies infant food insecurity, whose book asks why women in poverty are more likely to be the ones who choose to use formula instead of breastfeed—a fact she calls a “paradox,” since these women are the least able to afford it. She found that the public health message made it to the women she spoke with—they referred to breast milk as being “like gold.” But their stress, work, or lack of groceries (nursing mothers need more, and better, food to eat) made breastfeeding an unobtainable goal. “The public policy efforts we put in place around the protection and promotion of breastfeeding have worked to place the responsibility on individual women. But we haven’t done a good job at creating the social and cultural environment for breastfeeding work to actually be done,” said Frank. “This is not an infant feeding politics discussion for me at all. This is about food security. It’s about poverty.” In many instances, her interviewees said that in their circumstances, they preferred formula, which they thought of as a scientific magic bullet: a technology that could be hard to access but that would make sure their babies were fed—even if they couldn’t produce, or if their work schedules made feeding or pumping impossible.

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Right-wing populism, as shaped by its current practitioners in the United States, is very good at capitalizing on real problems it doesn’t intend to solve. The things that should be done to make sure babies get fed well, whether it be by breast or by bottle—better parental leave policies, a formula industry that isn’t dangerously concentrated—aren’t the point. The point is Donald Trump Jr. quote-tweeting a CBS News clip of actor James Cromwell supergluing himself to a Starbucks counter with “If only Hollywood democrats cared as much about baby formula shortages as they do about a slight up charge for ‘vegan milk’ in their overpriced coffee.” Or Tucker Carlson putting up the Midler tweet on his show last week with the chyron: “OUT OF TOUCH ELDERLY LADY: JUST BREASTFEED!” “If you can think of a more perfect distillation of modern politics of the left, circa 2022, than that, send us an email and let us know what it is, because we’ve never seen anything that perfect,” he said. Meanwhile, the actual perfect distillation of modern politics was happening on air, that second.

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