The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
When Mexican poet Octavio Paz went to Spain in 1937 to show his solidarity with the Republican Cause in the Spanish Civil War, he visited a segment of the front that was so close to the Nationalist lines that he could hear the enemy soldiers talking. Years later, Paz recalled the shock of realizing that the enemy, too, spoke with a human voice. That shock—a shock that can help to check the most brutal impulses in dealing with a foe—is one experienced by fewer and fewer Americans now engaged in the culture wars that now sharply divide America.
Not so very long ago most Americans lived in communities characterized by notable diversity in political views. As Bill Bishop points out in his provocative book, The Big Sort, as recently as the 1970s, “Americans were . . . likely to live, work or worship with people who supported a different political party.” But things have changed. “Over the past thirty years,” Bishop remarks, “the United States has been sorting itself, sifting at the most microscopic levels of society, as people have packed children, CDs, and the family hound and moved.” Increasingly, Americans have moved based on “choices about who their neighbors will be and who will share their new lives.” The consequence has been that Americans “have clustered in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics.”
In explaining this troubling socio-political phenomenon, Bishop identifies—with not entirely convincing precision—1965 as the pivotal year when “the old systems of order—around land, family, class, tradition, and religious denomination—gave way. They were replaced over the next thirty years with a new order based on individual choice. Today we seek our own kind in like-minded churches, like-minded neighborhoods, and like-minded sources of news and entertainment.” Bishop warns of serious political trouble coming out of this new process of self-segregation. “Mixed company moderates;” he comments, “likeminded company polarizes. Heterogeneous communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march toward the extremes.”
One illustration Bishop uses to reveal the dynamics of “political segregation” will particularly catch the interest of readers who care about family issues. Bishop notes that when Texas voted in 2005 on a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the sexual union of one man and one woman, the electorate endorsed the measure overwhelmingly, with more than seven out of ten voters supporting it. But the Big Sort translated into very different results in Bishop’s own affluent urban neighborhood. “In my section of South Austin,” he notes, “the precincts voted more than nine to one against the measure.”
This kind of referendum issue stands at the very heart of Naomi Cahn and June Carbone’s analysis in Red Families v. Blue Families. “Families,” write Cahn and Carbone, “are on the front lines of the culture wars.” On one side we find “red families” made up of “social conservatives” who make up “communities whose social life centers around married couples with children” and who “celebrate the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation.” On the other side, we find “blue family champions [who] celebrate the commitment to equality that makes companionate relationships possible and the sexual freedom that allows women to fully participate in society.” It is among the blue-family champions that Cahn and Carbone find those willing to “embrace all of our families, including single mothers, gay and lesbian parents, and cohabiting couples.”
Cahn and Carbone cite Bishop’s book repeatedly, and acknowledge its relevance for those trying to understand family politics in America. After all, if we Americans increasingly live in “homogeneous or insular communities,” we may “end up with even more extreme positions” on family issues and we run “the risk that we will hear only those with whom we already agree.” Unfortunately, Cahn and Carbone are both themselves so fully ensconced within the insular community of “the ultra-blue ‘liberal elite’” they describe in their book that they fail to recognize the political peril of the cultural balkanization that Bishop describes.
To be sure, Cahn and Carbone do concede a couple points to red-family advocates, acknowledging that red-family champions have good reason to assert that “the growing numbers of single-parent families threaten the well-being of the next generation” and that these red-family champions also stand on firm ground when they claim that “greater male fidelity and female ‘virtue’ strengthen relationships.” They even—tellingly—concede the actual family behavior of many blue-values champions is inconsistent with their rhetoric. That is, many advocates of blue-family values “bristle at restrictions on sexuality, insistence on marriage, or the stigmatization of single parents” yet nonetheless make sure that “their children simultaneously combine public tolerance with private discipline” in such a way that they “overwhelmingly choose to raise their own children within two-parent families” (emphasis in original). The enormity of this incongruity between the rhetoric and the conduct of many blue-values champions deserves prolonged and thoughtful scrutiny. For it exposes those who celebrate blue-family values as callous hypocrites whose professed commitment to family diversity ultimately reflects a condescending disregard for the distressed households they use as mere props for their more-tolerant-than-thou family-values posturing.
Living in an Echo Chamber
Cahn and Cahone, however, lack the moral seriousness to subject their own blue-values community to such painful scrutiny. They are too busy invoking a language of economic determinism within which blue-family partisans constitute the creative vanguard and red-family partisans form the retrograde rear guard of the inexorable march of economic progress. Red-family champions thus emerge as cultural simpletons blinded to economic realities because they are “driven by religious teachings about sin and guilt” so extreme that they make them “pointlessly cruel” in supporting abortion policies that would be hurtful “to those who lack the means to avoid unwanted pregnancies.”
A more perceptive analysis of the economic relationship between blue-family partisans and the red-family partisans comes from commentator Patrick J. Deenen in his response to Bishop’s book. Deenen is clearly talking about Cahn and Cahone’s blue-family champions when he speaks about the “Creative Class”—a class characterized by “upward mobility of education and career and by rootlessness, [and] cosmopolitanism.” But rather than depicting it as the “bold vanguard of economic progress,” Deenen indicts this class as deeply dependent upon Big Government to fill the void of the family ties they have left behind and upon the taxes of middle- and lower-class Red-States to pay for government’s surrogate services. The “massive inequalities” Deenen detects in this arrangement, however, simply do not register on Cahn and Cahone’s consciousness. Indeed, given Cahn and Cohone’s refusal to confront these inequities, readers may find it hard to take seriously their call for “a more honest conversation about the changed and changing terms of family stability.”
The impossibility of an honest discussion with these authors becomes apparent when careful readers wonder about the footnote on a passage that refers to “new information on . . . the genetic basis of homosexuality” as a likely reinforcement for “those predisposed to tolerance.” For the footnote reveals that “the science on this point remains speculative,” giving us no “conclusive evidence about [homosexuality’s] etiology.” Authors willing to play this kind of misleading game are not fostering the conditions for an honest conversation. Consequently, though it may distress Cahn and Carbone that adherents to red values often perceive blue-value advocates as “condescending and indifferent, if not downright hostile, to their plight,” their own book amply justifies such a perception.
But then Bishop’s book makes it clear why it so easy for Cahn and Carbone to indulge in condescension, distortion, and misrepresentation of family values, blue and red. The authors both live in a blue-value micro-community where groupthink is so strong that no one will call them to account for their rhetorical sins. Had an advocate of blue-family values collaborated with an advocate of red-family values, the result would have been far more balanced, far more searching, far more honest. But perhaps it is naïve to look for the publication of such a book in the Post- Big Sort America Bishop describes. This is not a world where advocates of sharply different family values are even likely to talk with each other. In a backhanded way, Cahn and Carbone seem to concede as much in pressing “the advantages of family law federalism,” which would allow “each part of the country to redefine family aspirations in regional terms based on shared values.” Always integral to the American political system, federalism would seem to have even more to recommend it in a country reshaped by the Big Sort of political self-segregation.
A Spurious Appeal to Federalism
But family-law federalism can hardly resolve the polarization separating Americans who believe in red-family values from those who advocate blue-family values. That polarization increasingly strains the fabric of national life. Witness, for example, President Obama’s fixation on using a lame-duck Congress to repeal the 1993 law that proscribes homosexuality as incompatible with military service. Even on the state level, destructive tension on family issues is increasing, as became evident when California’s Supreme Court revoked the state’s marriage law—which had been affirmed by a ballot initiative in 2000—to impose homosexual “marriage” on the state, after which the electorate enacted a constitutional amendment restoring the original state law in the bitterly contested 2008 referendum. Not happy with the outcome, those who had had cheered the state court immediately sued in federal court, where the issue will likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court, to overturn the second vote of the people.
The role of the California Supreme Court in sparking a statewide—and now federal court—fight over the legal definition of marriage shows how quickly a few unelected champions of blue-values can undermine family-values federalism. Some awareness of this problem appears to motivate Cahn and Carbone in their call for “restraint in the use of the coercive power of the state,” warning against the attempt “to impose [family] values on residents who may not share them.” Certainly, the need for restraint has never been greater. After all, it is highly educated urbanites who fill the ranks of the judiciary and the permanent bureaucracy, and such urbanites—as Bishop, Cahn, and Carbone recognize—disproportionately live in micro-communities in which blue-family orthodoxy prevails undisturbed by red-family malcontents. Consequently, a lack of political restraint would mean an imposition of family values of the very sort that Cahn and Carbone caution against.
But readers will quickly realize that a blue-family tendentiousness eviscerates Cahn and Carbone’s “federalism” and renders worse than meaningless their call for political “restraint.” They seem more than willing to allow—even to encourage—their partisans to impose blue-family values on red-family communities. They simply don’t want red-family communities to fight back. It seems strange that a pair of authors who advocate federalism in family policy and governmental restraint would endorse the Supreme Court’s overturning of a Texas law outlawing sodomy. Does federalism only extend to state lawmakers in, say, blue-value, homosexual-friendly states such as Vermont or New Jersey? Apparently so, since Cahn and Carbone dismiss as entirely unwarranted Justice Antonin Scalia’s protest in the Texas case that the Court was lending support to a “homosexual agenda” which is “directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.”
The authors severely strain the internal logic of their professed commitment to federalism in family law when they assert, “While the federal nature of family law creates the ability for states to articulate family ideals in different terms, the regional variations in expression should not extend to control over the most intimate and personal private behavior.” It is very hard to see any political restraint in their unqualified assertion that “what Scalia described as the ‘homosexual agenda’ is appropriate national policy.” How that national policy could ever be enacted without the use of government power “to impose [homosexual] values on residents who may not share them” the authors do not explain.
But then they probably feel little need to explain. After all, both they and their intended readers are part of what political scientist Angelo M. Codevilla has aptly called “our ruling class,” a ruling class that “does not like the rest of America,” especially when it comes to questions of “marriage, children, and religious practice.” On these issues particularly, the members of this “ruling class”—clearly, adherents to Cahn and Carbone’s “blue values”—regard those who disagree with them as “intellectually and hence humanly inferior” to themselves.
Only this sense of intellectual and human superiority can account for what the authors really mean by their call for political restraint. That real meaning emerges in their criticism of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), arguing that it had “preempted the state’s experiment on same-sex marriage.” Apparently, only advocates of red-family values should restrain themselves in the national political arena. In any case, the authors should know that one of the prime reasons that Congress passed DOMA (by an overwhelming and bipartisan majority [342–67 in the House, 85–14 in the Senate]) was precisely to safeguard federalism in family law by preventing one state (Hawaii was the prime focus at the time) from compelling other states to accept homosexual “marriage” through the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution. The likelihood that the authors reject DOMA chiefly because it allegedly preempts states’ rights in family law seems particularly low given that they heartily endorse Roe v. Wade, perhaps the most dramatic preemption of states’ rights in family law in the history of the country.
Even at the state level, the authors apparently are quite willing to forget about their own call for political restraint on family issues when applauding blue-value judges who have bypassed elected legislators while creating a legal fiction called “same-sex marriage.” The authors justify such blue-value judicial activism by citing public-opinion polls which they believe indicate that “the courts have not been ahead of the public” in creating this stunningly new legal definition of marriage. Apparently, despite their having repeatedly cited Bishop, they have not read his book carefully. Bishop acknowledges that many red-value conservatives have grown so distrustful of the media that they have stopped talking to pollsters, so significantly skewing poll results in the blue direction. When given the option of expressing their views on the nature of marriage in the privacy of the voting booth, Americans—even in liberal states such as California and Maine—send a consistent “red values” message.
A Tin Ear to Red-State America
It is a message that Cahn and Carbone are simply tuning out. Indeed, as blue-value university professors, they fit squarely within the pattern Bishop describes when he notes, “The more educated Americans become—and the richer—the less likely they are to discuss politics with those who have different points of view.” Even a blue-values liberal should understand why living in such an intellectual world could lead to shallow thinking. After all, it was the liberal theorist John Stuart Mill who warned of intellectual superficiality among “[those who] have never thrown themselves into the mental condition of those who think differently from them.”
As Bishop understands, Americans living and working in “like-minded, homogeneous groups squelch dissent, grow more extreme in their thinking, and ignore evidence that their positions are wrong.” The predictable consequence is that “democracy has become so balky that the normal processes of representative government are being replaced by systems of issue brokering that are only quasi-representative.” The breakdown does not seem to disturb Cahn and Carbone, since the unelected justices making family-law decisions mostly lean in the blue-values direction. Perhaps it is time to wonder—as Bishop does—whether this breakdown does not damage our political and social ecology.
That breakdown means that many Americans never hear the voices of those who disagree with them on family issues. This problem, as Bishop makes clear, is especially acute among the well-educated and affluent elite, a blue-values groupthink elite who consequently feel quite unrestrained in pressing their blue-value agenda through the media, the judiciary, and the permanent bureaucracy. They feel quite justified in playing the role of aggressors in the cultural war over the family because they rarely hear the voices of people who disagree with them. Though Cahn and Carbone never discuss the problem—and though Bishop alludes to it only glancingly when he mentions the Sixties breakdown of old systems of social order and tradition—the worst problem may be that well-positioned blue-values champions are not only no longer hearing the voices of living fellow citizens who adhere to traditional family values but are also no longer hearing the voices of their own deceased ancestors, the overwhelming majority of whom adhered to such values. Tradition, after all, represents what G. K. Chesterton aptly labeled “the democracy of the dead.” We have reason to fear when blue-value federal judges and bureaucrats forget that on family questions their ancestors, too, spoke with a human voice.
Dr. Christensen is editor-at-large of The Family in America.