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Red State Families vs. Blue State Families: The Family-Values Divide

Controversies over abortion, same-sex marriage, teen pregnancy, single parenthood, and divorce have all challenged our images of the American family. Red family, meet blue family.

Adapted with permission from Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Cultureby Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, published by Oxford University Press, Inc. (c) 2010 Oxford University Press.

Families are on the front lines of the culture wars. Controversies over abortion, same-sex marriage, teen pregnancy, singleparenthood, and divorce have all challenged our images of the American family. Some Americans seek a return to the “mom, dad, and apple pie” family of the 1950s, while others embrace all of our families, including single mothers, gay and lesbian parents, and cohabiting couples. These conflicting perspectives on life’s basic choices affect us all—at the national level, in state courts and legislatures, in drafting local ordinances, and in our own families.

In our new book, Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, we go behind the overblown rhetoric and political posturing of the family values conflict. What we have found is that the new information economy is transforming the family—and doing so in ways that create a crisis for marriage-based communities across the country.

The “blue families” of our title are on one side of the cultural controversy. These families have reaped the handsome rewards available to the well-educated middle class who are able to invest in both their daughters’ and sons’ earning potential. Their children defer family formation until both partners reach emotional maturity and financial independence. Blue family champions celebrate the commitment to equality that makes companionate relationships possible and the sexual freedom that allows women to fully participate in society. Those who have embraced the blue family model have low divorce rates, relatively few teen births, and good incomes. Yet, the ability to realize the advantages of the new blue family system appears to be very much a class-based affair. Women who graduate from college are the only women in American society whose marriage rates have increased, and they and their partners form the group whose divorce rates have most appreciably declined.

The terms of the successful blue family order—embrace the pill, encourage education, and accept sexuality as a matter of private choice—are a direct affront to the “red families” of our title and to social conservatives who see their families in peril. Driven by religious teachings about sin and guilt and based in communities whose social life centers around married couples with children, the red family paradigm continues to celebrate the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation. Red family champions correctly point out that the growing numbers of single-parent families threaten the well-being of the next generation, and they accurately observe that greater male fidelity and female “virtue” strengthen relationships. Yet, red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages, and lower average ages at marriage and first birth. What the red family paradigm has not acknowledged is that the changing economy has undermined the path from abstinence through courtship to marriage. As a result, abstinence into the mid-20s is unrealistic, shotgun marriages correspond with escalating divorce rates, and early marriages, whether prompted by love or necessity, often founder on the economic realities of the modern economy, which disproportionately rewards investment in higher education. Efforts to insist on a return to traditional pieties thus inevitably clash with the structure of the modern economy and produce recurring cries of moral crisis.

The intractability of the differences between the two perspectives has dominated legal and political debate. Part of the reason for the intensity of the conflict is geographic. The blue family model has taken hold most completely in urban areas, along the coasts, and in the increasingly Democratic areas of the country—from the Research Triangle in North Carolina to the Microsoft-dominated areas of Seattle—that have profited most from technological innovation. In contrast, red families generally, and the Republican strongholds in which they predominate, are more likely to be religious, rural, less educated, and less mobile, and the political leadership in these regions is more likely to value tradition and continuity. Geographic separation along demographic lines means that the two groups have increasingly less in common, and as the two political parties have become more ideological, these different values orientations have become increasingly partisan—making family form in the twenty-first century one of the most accurate predictors of political loyalties.

This partisan conflict at the national level, which pits two powerful constituencies against each other, obscures the ways in which family issues have magnified a growing economic inequality. The emergence of the blue family paradigm came with women’s ability to control the timing of pregnancy and childbirth. For those with the resources and discipline to take advantage of these techniques, family formation occurs at the point when adults can be expected to do the right thing—and have the emotional and financial resources to manage their children—with a minimum of external assistance. The prescription to delay family formation until after graduate-school age, however, carries little suasion for those who will not complete college. Red families would accordingly like to reinforce parental control over wayward teens and make it harder to escape the consequences of improvident conduct. Yet, the most likely effect of restricting the availability of the morning-after pill to 18-year-olds is to increase the number of non-marital pregnancies, and the emphasis on abstinence education has dramatically raised the odds that a poor African-American teen will have her first sexual experience without any information about contraception. The irony is that blue families, who overwhelmingly oppose these policies, simply accompany their daughters to the pharmacy while more-conservative families—with many minority parents approving of the measures—disproportionately bear the consequences.

To get beyond the existing divisions, therefore, we believe that the time has come for a more realistic and comprehensive conversation that begins with the recognition that the crisis in family values is real. The new information economy has exacerbated income inequality, and the three-quarters of Americans on the losing end of this transformation have seen not only their employment, but also their familial stability, decline. Marriage has effectively disappeared from the poorest communities, and more stable communities are now seeing divorce rates plateau at high levels and non-marital births continue to rise. While well-educated single parents may ably provide for their children, these changes in family structure reduce the resources available for the most vulnerable members of the next generation.

Genuine engagement also requires a recognition that leadership couched in the terms of one paradigm may needlessly antagonize the other. The blue family paradigm is built on a model of responsible parenthood that assumes that good things come to those who wait. Yet, the most visible representatives of blue family values bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage, or the stigmatization of single parents. Their secret, however, is that they encourage their children to simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline, and their children then overwhelming choose to raise their own children within two-parent families. The leaders in more troubled communities, including many African-American and Latino clergy, are often more socially conservative precisely because external authority is more critical where private discipline is harder to instill—and they understandably resent those who would denigrate their efforts.