Special Series: Rethinking the Politics of the Family

Special Series: Rethinking the Politics of the Family

After September 11, 2001, Dissent published a series of articles that critically assessed traditional left ideas about America and its place in the world. For some time, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and I have been thinking about undertaking a similar review of domestic policy, focused on the cultural war over the family.

Like many others on the liberal to left side of the political spectrum-progressives, for short-we have been frustrated by the right’s ability to dominate public debate about gender, family, and sexuality, even though most Americans don’t agree with core conservative policies. Meanwhile, the vast majority of American families are struggling to cope with a brutal sink-or-swim economy, intensified time pressures, and a gender revolution.

We have invited a number of progressive intellectuals to consider what we have been doing wrong and how we could do better. How can we change the terms of political debate to advance our own moral message and vision of a better future? In this issue, we present the first three articles in the series, dealing with the theme of women, work, and family. In future issues, we will publish articles on the politics of marriage and divorce, the evolution of family values as a partisan political weapon, discourses of cultural and moral decline on the left, parental anxieties and possible left strategies for dealing with them, the abortion wars, and other matters.

Cultural warfare has evolved over the past three decades into an essential political tool for conservatives. In 1984, the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained why: ordinary American voters, he argued, tend to be economically liberal but culturally conservative. They have “no compelling reason to vote Republican,” unless the GOP raises social and cultural issues.

In fact, however, most Americans are not so much conservative as ambivalent about family change. As Alan Wolfe and others have found, the split between traditionalists who lament the passing of the Ozzie and Harriet era and modernists who welcome the new freedoms exists within individual men and women, as well as between the two sides in the culture war.

Nevertheless, the culture war and its key words-“traditional family values,” “moral decay,” “breakdown of the family,” “permissiveness”-provide the language in which morality, sex, gender, and marriage (other matters too, such as crime and drugs) are discussed. And conservatives tell a seemingly plausible story about the origin of the social upheavals that have transformed the country since the 1950s. They trace the source of all our social problems to the counterculture of the 1960s, with its “anything goes” sexuality, its selfish individualism, its revolt against authority and tradition.

In fact, under the cover of “family values,” Republican economic policies have done more to destabiliz...