Re-thinking the Politics of the Family: Part II

Re-thinking the Politics of the Family: Part II

As this issue of Dissent goes to press in late November, almost everyone from the center-left outward remains in various states of shock, disbelief, and depression about the election results. This series on rethinking the cultural war over the family unfortunately turns out to be more timely than we had hoped.

It’s not yet clear how big a role the “moral values” issue played in the outcome of the election; it seems to have been less decisive than first reports indicated. And war and terror may have come to G.W. Bush’ s political rescue, as September 11 did before. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that liberals and progressives have not done a good job in presenting our own ideas in a framework of values or challenging the right’s narrow version of morality, which seems to stop at the bedroom door. Nor have we exploited the right’s own vulnerability: the contradiction between its family values rhetoric and its economic and social policies.

It may seem Pollyannaish to find anything positive about the current political landscape, but this could be seen as a moment of opportunity for progressives. In the middle 1960s, after Barry Goldwater lost in a landslide, Republicans were frozen out of the political process; they used their time in the wilderness to rethink and reinvent conservatism. They constructed a radical new vision of American society, and built a grassroots social movement and a propaganda machine to change public opinion. When Ronald Reagan came into office in 1980 there was a set of conservative ideas and policies ready to be put into practice.

We need to use our own time in the wilderness as productively as they did-without benefit, of course, of the millions of dollars showered on conservatives to help them incubate ideas and sell them to the public and policy makers What we do have is a great deal of intellectual firepower, if we can use it well. Public intellectuals have a major role to play in the making of a new progressive vision.

THIS SECOND installment of the series presents four articles reflecting on how we can do better in addressing the public on the difficult issues raised by the sexual, gender, and cultural revolutions of the last thirty years. Lillian B. Rubin asks what is now, post-election, the central question: “Why Don’t They Listen to Us?” Why do blue-collar, working-class voters sign on to a politics that, as author Thomas Frank puts it “strangles their own life chances”?

Rubin points out that there is contempt along with truth in Frank’s much-cited recent book What’s the Matter with Kansas?-a dismissive attitude, all too common on the left-that precludes any attempt to understand the working- and middle-class people who used to be the natural constituency of Democrats and progressives. Since the 1960s and 1970s, she charges, we have become tone deaf to their concerns. Instead...