After spending an unseemly amount of time in the nation’s bedrooms and bathrooms, the culture wars have migrated into the kitchen. Once the grievance-minded Republican Party finally took control of the House, the mediasphere lit up with an acrimonious controversy over comments from Richard Trumka Jr., who serves on the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, citing research showing that gas-range cooking can create adverse health effects, particularly for children. Trumka told Bloomberg News that such safety concerns might justify a future ban on the appliances.
Anyone who might have expected a reasoned policy debate to proceed on the empirical merits of the anti-gas position must have miraculously managed to sit out the past four decades or so of conflict on the frontiers of the American culture wars. The otherwise banal preference for gas as an optimal mode of heat delivery for the American hearth was transformed overnight into an existential badge of American identity and belonging—particularly among provocateurs of the right, who have a long history of ferreting out jackbooted assaults on our liberties in the unlikeliest corners of our consumers’ republic. Florida GOP Representative Matt Gaetz, fresh from the marathon battle to turn House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s speakership into a subsidiary of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, tweeted out a photo of a lit gas burner over the rallying cry, “You’ll have to pry it from my COLD DEAD HANDS!” (How the jumpy lawmaker’s hands might become cold at the edge of a live burner was a mystery left unplumbed, unless he’d failed to light it when he turned it on—a circumstance that would also explain his abrupt death.) The professional tantrum throwers at Fox News devoted acres of coverage to the Great Stove Replacement, with a full complement of Gaetzean headlines such as “regulation run amok” and “Dems are literally insane.”
It mattered not at all that the “gas stove ban” at the bottom of all this militant posturing doesn’t really exist: the Biden White House has issued statements opposing any such measure. It’s true that last year’s Inflation Reduction Act includes funds to promote the adoption of induction stoves in new home construction, but that initiative is founded on tax credits for stove swaps, following the same template that created a robust market for electric vehicles. (One likely reason there’s not a right-wing hue and cry over the government’s war on the internal combustion engine is that these incentives have created a vast fortune for Elon Musk, who’s now frantically turning Twitter into a halfway house for right-wing demagogues previously confined to the incredible shrinking echo chambers of Parler, Gab, and Truth Social.)
No, the point of the new kitchen flame wars on the right is simply to gin up more mass outrage to feed a grievance-addicted conservative electoral base—the same mission propelling the House GOP’s newly launched Subcommittee on the Weaponization of Government, and the same operatic narrative of multifront victimization of the Real America that has fueled the right-wing culture-war industry since at least the Nixon years. By now, the core set piece behind such passion plays follows a clear formula: Identify a new government idea or initiative, bestow it with the most sinister possible sub rosa motivations, arm aggrieved opponents with an overheated account of sacred personal liberties marked for extinction, and blast away on autopilot. It’s the high-libertarian animus that’s driven mass mobilizations on the modern right ranging from the backlash against desegregation to the Tea Party insurgency against the Affordable Care Act to the Donald Trump’s angry-uncle assaults on everything from wind-power installations to higher-efficiency toilets, showers, and light bulbs. So it came as no surprise that, after a week’s worth of unhinged culture-war invective, GOP Representatives Bill Huizenga of Michigan and Alex Mooney of West Virginia introduced the Stop Trying to Vilify Energy, or STOVE, Act. “The last thing Americans need or want is another big government bureaucratic decision telling us which appliances we can have in our home,” Huizenga huffed in a statement. “It is absolutely ridiculous how out of control and out of touch the nanny state in Washington has become.”
These libertarian tirades all flow from a common wellspring of resentment, drawing endless momentum from the vague but powerful sense that the impersonal workings of a national regulatory system have to be an exercise in ostracism. The libertarian ethos is grounded in the belief that “bureaucratic demons are coming to get you, and the reason they’re coming to get you is because they’re evil,” says Northwestern University law Professor Andrew Koppelman, author of Burning Down the House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted by Delusion and Greed. “That’s why libertarians are focusing obsessively on the danger presented by the state, and are always ignoring dangers presented elsewhere. It’s generally the case that when people buy stoves they don’t want to hurt their children. So regulators take account of things like leakage and other health effects. Maybe in an ideal world, this would be another parameter that stoves would compete on. But part of the reason we have regulation is that consumers can’t research every product they buy. People normally count on regulators to decide these issues for them.”
The irony, Koppelman notes, is that public regulatory bodies actually make for more aggregate freedom in the marketplace. “I think I’m freer if I live in a less dangerous society where there are people who are investigating the risks I face. One of the surprising things I’ve learned looking at libertarian philosophy is how much contemporary libertarianism is tantamount to anarchism. If you’re ideologically opposed to taxation and the funding of government, you think you’d be better off in a failed state. And what that tells me is that these are people who don’t know much about what it’s really like to live in a failed state.”
There are other subordinate ironies in the countertop culture war. In point of fact, most of America’s gas-stove infrastructure is concentrated in coastal cities with high population density—i.e., the very bastions of elite liberalism that the pseudo-populist right professes to abhor. Gas stoves also are fetishized among the privileged foodie crowd, and in high-end restaurants supposedly purveying exotic ethnic fare that caters to toffs who despise the simpler yeoman offerings of the heartland interior, as branded by chains like Cracker Barrel, Chick-Fil-A, and Applebees. Indeed, Gaetz sent out his gas-stove call to arms with the hashtag #FoodieRevolt, referencing an insurgent demographic that exists virtually nowhere on today’s cultural right.
What these contradictions speak to is a pronounced libertarian longing for the patrician golden age of the postwar consumer republic—a time of unapologetic gas-guzzling and litter throwing. (Nostalgists for this high-consumerist Valhalla never get around to noting that the apex of that bygone era of middle-class prosperity was accompanied by marginal tax rates for high-income households that were north of 90 percent.) “What we’re seeing is a conservative movement more interested in reclaiming the past than anything else,” says Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, a chronicle of a libertarian secessionist movement in Grafton, N.H. “Anything that in any way tries to enforce or encourage any good behavior is something they’re virulently opposed to. So they’ve appointed themselves to save us from a long string of nonexistent threats, from weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Obama’s death panels, and woke language in Dr. Seuss books.” That’s why the stove debate has a distinct preserved-in-amber resonance: “Doesn’t it feel like your great aunt posting on social media that they’ll never get my cutting board?” Hongoltz-Hetling asks.
Indeed, that moment feels not at all far off—with the important caveat that this same great aunt is somehow now empowered to program prime-time coverage on Fox News, and marshal no end of frivolous legislation and heavy-breathing investigative subcommittees in Congress. One day soon, perhaps, she’ll be demanding that Hunter Biden be roasted over a propane-fueled open-pit fire.