In this bizarrely politicized environment, even the preservation of the most basic institution of society – the family – is morphing into a divisive partisan issue. Increasingly, the two parties are divided not only along lines of economic and social philosophy, but over the primacy of traditional familialism.
Increasingly, large portions of the progressive community are indifferent or hostile to the idea of the nuclear family, while many on the right argue that it’s key to a Republican revival. Observers such as the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last see familialism as key to the demographically challenged GOP. “Start a family, vote Republican,” he suggests. Long-term, Republicans can look forward to the rise of what New York Times columnist David Brooks cleverly calls “red diaper babies.”
In the long term, the logic seems impeccable. Salt Lake City is creating a new generation of what may tend to be more conservative voters; when San Francisco’s largely single and childless populace passes, their legacy ends with them – game over. Indeed virtually all areas of the country with the fastest projected growth in households are located in red states. Houston, Atlanta and Dallas are expected to add more households than true-blue New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago. New York, California and Illinois are losing children as a share of population, while deep-red Texas, Utah, Idaho, as well as Nevada, have increased their tyke population.
Others on the right take a more racially oriented tack. Linking lower fertility rates, particularly among Caucasians, Pat Buchanan warns of “the end of white America.” Steven Sailer, a staunchly anti-immigrant conservative theoretician, links Republican fortunes to “white fertility rates,” pointing out where whites choose to have children, particularly those who are married. George W. Bush, Sailer points out, won all 19 states with the highest rates of white fertility, as well as the 25 states where white women have been married the longest, on average.
This politicization threatens the building of a broad consensus on how to promote the family. The related issue of America’s sagging birth rate – the lowest since the 1920s, by some measurements – should not be seen as a matter of political expediency but as an existential issue concerning the health of society and the long-term prosperity of the United States. No matter what happens with immigration, minorities are going to be a growing portion of our population and will soon represent the majority of children. Unless conservatives seek to secede and form their own Republic, they need to favor familialism among all ethnic groups.
Yet for now, partisan concerns remain primary, and are compelling, if for narrow, political reasons. In the past two national elections, the differences in voting patterns between married couples and those who are not has become obvious. Democratic pollsters like Stan Greenberg now hail single women as “the largest progressive voting bloc in the country,” Ruy Texeira, a leading political scientist, calls singletons critical to the “emerging Democratic majority.”
The mainstream “progressive” view on families can be seen in the “Life of Julia” slideshow produced last year by the Obama campaign and designed to appeal to single, unmarried women. In this rather pathetic portrayal, the fictional Julia is helped by federal programs from early in life. When she finally “decides to have a child,” it’s on her own, a sort of an immaculate conception since no man seems to be involved. Then, her offspring is sent off to federally funded early childhood education programs and never heard of again.
Out of fashion
Familialism is deeply unpopular with many in two key Democratic constituencies – greens and feminists. Many feminists have long derided the traditional family and see child-raising as something that tends to reinforce sexual stereotypes by reducing the career prospects of women.
For their part, greens often disdain familialism since they see extra humans as a threat to the environment. The notion that depopulation, and too-rapid aging, at least in higher-income countries, could well become a greater issue than growth seems not to have sunk in, yet. Instead, people like Lisa Hymas, with the environmentalist website Grist, suggest that the “childfree” are something of a persecuted group that are in need of more societal understanding. Environmentalists also tend to be in favor of slow economic growth, which, in turn, tends to further depress birth rates.
These worldviews represent a break from the progressive politics of the entire era stretching from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. In the past, the basic emphasis has been to make families stronger by backing such institutions as public schools and parks, as well as creating the basis for broad-based economic growth. Support for single-family homes that most families require was part of this.
But today, many “progressives” disdain the suburbs, which were built largely with the help of New Deal and successor programs. Now, most planners, according to the American Planning Association survey, believe accommodating families is simply not worth the cost of the services, notably schools, that they engender.
Rather than looking at housing that fits families, many progressives now want to promote an urbanism that has little place for families. Some real estate sites, such as Estately, rank cities not by being child-friendly, but those most accommodating to the “childfree” – reminds me of gluten-free – a term which for some reason is deemed preferable to childless. Virtually all cities so ranked, such as ultralow-fertility San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, New York and Madison, Wis., are all places that increasingly are Republican-free as well.
Most still want kids
Since most people, including millennials, likely will choose to have children – and settle in suburbs – embracing familialism does offer an opportunity for conservatives and Republicans. Most millennials, note generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Mike Hais, place high priority on being good parents and having a strong marriage.
The potential political benefit, however, is being squandered by profamily activists who tend to focus on a Manichean worldview that sees anything other than traditional arrangements as inimical to core religious values about what is defined as a “natural family.” Rather than try to accommodate modernity, many family activists contend, as one leader told me, that we need to “march back to the ’50s.”
Unfortunately for more hard-line social conservatives, history may go in waves, with each shift engendering a reaction, but it does not generally go backward. To remain relevant, and not to, so to speak, throw the baby out with the bathwater, some agenda items need to be laid aside. This is particularly true on issues such as gay marriage, where millennial opinion is shifting toward ever-greater acceptance, with roughly two in three in favor. By forcing allegiance to increasingly unpopular views, social conservatives are in danger of losing touch with the next generation.
At the same time, many conservatives are so wedded to the market economy as to ignore the negative pressures on family formation imposed by our relentlessly competitive society. Some thought has to be given to mechanisms – such as free or subsidized child care and extended parental leave – that might make it easier for young families to survive, particularly in tough economic times. Conservatives, if they value family, should look at ways to support them, even if, sometimes, it’s done through government.
In the end, the issue of family is too important to leave to the mercilessness of narrow partisan political forces. The country – and its future generations – needs both parties to focus not just on pro-family rhetoric, but on how we can make it easier for young people both to create, and nurture, the next generation.
This piece originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Crossposted on New Geography