Tuesday, May 11, 2010

There's Not Much Purple in Family Values

Two dad-mom-boy-girl families colorized so one is red and the other blue
We all know that "family values" is the mantra of conservatives like Sarah Palin.

But which states have the most intact families and the lowest rates of teen birth? The states that voted for Kerry and Obama.

Which states have the highest divorce and teen birth rates? The states that voted for Bush and McCain.

And why is that?

Jonathan Rauch, writing for the National Journal, had a fascinating column about families in "red" and "blue" states. Based on the work of family law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in their book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, Rauch describes a dichotomy between red and blue:

In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.

Translation: Red states hold to the traditional pattern of early marriage, in which young marrieds grow up together, while blue states have entered into a new pattern where people marry after college, with some work experience and more maturity. As evidence, Rauch cites the
average age of marriage, which is lower in red states, higher in blue. The extremes are 23 in Mississippi and 28 in Massachusetts.

So that's interesting. But maybe it's just two different ways of going about life, equally valid?

Possibly not, according to Cahn and Carbone. In a society transformed economically by the information age, requiring more education to hold a well-paying job (and with the introduction of effective birth control), which way of doing things seems like a better fit? Rauch summarizes:

The postindustrial economy puts a premium on skill and cognitive ability. A high school education or less no longer offers very good prospects. Blue-collar wages fall, so a factory job no longer cuts it -- if, that is, you can even find a factory job.

In this very different world, early family formation is often a calamity. It short-circuits skill acquisition by knocking one or both parents out of school. It carries a high penalty for immature marital judgment in the form of likely divorce. It leaves many young mothers, now bearing both the children and the cultural responsibility for pregnancy, without the option of ever marrying at all.
He goes on to write:
The result of this red quandary, Cahn and Carbone argue, is a self-defeating backlash. Moral traditionalism fails to prevent premarital sex and early childbirth. Births precipitate more early marriages and unwed parenthood. That, in turn, increases family breakdown while reducing education and earnings.
Reading Rauch's take on Cahn and Carbone's book made me think of George Lakoff's earlier work On Moral Politics. In it, Lakoff applies the techniques of his field, cognitive linguistics, to modern American politics and comes to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals have divergent mental models of government, based on their world views of what families should be: Conservatives believe in a "strict father" morality, while liberals adhere to a "nurturant parent" morality. These two types of morality diverge in many important ways, of course. (Details on how they play out in political opinion are available in this good summary on the Wikipedia.)

Combined with the economic and sociological implications of Cahn and Carbone's work, Lakoff's ideas make even more sense to me. I hope that having an understanding of the structural factors that underlie our country's vast differences of opinion and approach might make it possible for us to talk with each other in useful ways.


Daughter Number Three said...

A comment (via email) from a reader:

Fascinating post and article.

I agree with its premise and I also think that the cultural implications of this could be extended even further. As a person who has jumped classes and escaped early parenthood through educational opportunity (and became a liberal in the process), I see this red vs. blue totally played out in my family on a very personal level. Plus, I think our country is experiencing a profound identity crisis related to these red and blue points of view.Is the U.S. the father-figure or the enlightened friend to our enemies and allies abroad? How well people adapt to the information age depends on your level of education.

That the traditional morality is losing high ground could be the source of a lot of people's fears. But then again, when I think about the gains the anti-choice movement continues to make... I'd like another article on that!

Ms Sparrow said...

That makes great good sense!