Josh Hawley’s attacks on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson are part of a long, sad tradition.
At some point between the ’80s and now, leaving children unattended in public became unthinkable. To let children as old as, say, 10 walk by themselves became grounds to investigate parents for neglect. As a child of the late ’90s and early 2000s, I knew latchkey kids existed, but nearly exclusively from the aging 1980s children’s paperbacks in my elementary school’s library. My friends whose parents worked too late to pick them up from school stayed in the building for a child care program or took a bus to the nearby Boys & Girls Club.
Statistics confirm the decline of the latchkey kid that I witnessed and that continues today. A primary reason for the change was the fear that children were constantly on the cusp of being kidnapped, abused, or taken advantage of, and thus could never be left alone.
Paul Renfro, an assistant professor of history at Florida State University, chronicled in his 2020 book Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State, how such a notion became widespread in the ’80s and ’90s. Pictures of missing and abducted children were plastered on milk cartons, as media ramped up coverage of random, isolated incidents of children being abducted in ways that it hadn’t before—even as the number of children who were abducted did not substantially increase.
Critics of this moment often blame the media, who did play a part in elevating these concerns—but there’s more to the story. Their coverage played right into the hands of, and was exacerbated by, a reactionary right-wing movement that was eager to notch culture war wins by conflating the so-called “stranger danger” threat to children with pornography, underage drinking, drugs, teen pregnancy, and the like. Ancillary battles on similar moral fronts hastened a harsher “war on drugs,” and the corresponding mass incarceration policies that disproportionately hurt Black America.
Today, the leveraging of unfounded fears that children are in unprecedented danger toward political ends is animated by QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories. While these are generally too absurd for elected politicians to directly endorse—the few that have, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) have walked back—Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and most recently Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) have tried to tap into the same fear and energy QAnon has harnessed. They want to use it to push a reactionary political project—but without having to say “QAnon” out loud.
During Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, Hawley repeatedly claimed that she had been soft on child pornography offenders, despite being accused, earlier in his own career, of displaying untoward leniency towards sexual abusers as a prosecutor and attorney general. He largely focused on Jackson’s deviations from federal sentencing guidelines in child porn cases, even though judges appointed by Trump have also deviated from the guidelines, which have been broadly and bipartisanly criticized.