Re-thinking the Politics of the Family: Part III

Re-thinking the Politics of the Family: Part III

The post-election stress disorder afflicting Blue Americans (wherever we live) continues four months after the election. We still obsess about what went wrong. Was gay marriage the determining factor? Moral values in general? Was it the threat of terrorism? Did we suffer from a flawed candidate and a poorly managed campaign? How can we be more successful in 2006 and 2008, or are we doomed to remain a minority party overwhelmed at the polls by a rising tide of religious fervor and social conservatism?

The three articles in this section offer some new insights into the progressive predicament and how to find our way out of it. First, John Dombrink takes issue with the dominant story line that emerged to explain the outcome of the election-that it was religion and traditional morality that led to the Democratic defeat. He argues that public views on morality and family are far more complex and ambiguous than the simple red state-blue state dichotomy implies-rather, most Americans tend to be “purple” on values issues.

By most measures, Dombrink shows, only a minority of the public agrees with religious conservatives on what they define as their key issues: abortion, gay rights, stem-cell research, assisted suicide, and cloning. For example, polls consistently find that most Americans (59 percent in a November 2004 poll) support Roe v. Wade. The paradox, according to Dombrink, is that Americans have grown more secular, tolerant, and pluralistic in recent years. And yet, at the same time we are the most observant of Western societies. Religion is thriving not in spite of this growing modernity, but because of it.

For liberals, this “marriage” of secular modernization and religiosity poses a challenge. Dombrink warns that we should not underestimate the power of conservative laments about moral decline. How can we speak to the tolerant, pragmatic side of American hearts and minds in defense of abortion, gay rights, and other hot-button issues without offending the traditionalist religious side? We need to take seriously the alarm that many people feel about the rapid transformation of American life and culture. Even liberals can relate to conservative complaints about what the media make available to their children-Internet pornography, the pervasiveness of four-letter words in movies, the gratuitous sex and violence.


James Morone also deals with the appeal of what he calls “the great conservative narrative of American decline”-the widely held belief that the family is in crisis, moral standards have collapsed, and the social fabric is being frayed by a narcissistic flight from commitment and community-all of which can be blamed on the permissive counterculture of the 1960s.

What progressives need more than anything else, Morone argues, is a compelling alternative narrative for our times. We have no shortage of good policy ideas-health care, child care, job tr...