Given Donald Trump’s multiple marriages, penchant for infidelity, and alleged sexual misconduct, many commentators saw his presidency as a departure from the Republican Party’s investment in family-values politics. As longtime GOP consultant Stuart Stevens told Politico last August, “How does the party that’s supposed to be for family values stand by while the president, the head of the Republican Party, wishes [Ghislaine Maxwell] well [when she’s] just been arrested for being at the center of an international child rape ring?”
The Family Security act recently proposed by Senator Mitt Romney—one of Trump’s most prominent opponents in the GOP—seems to harken back to the family-values agenda propagated by social conservatives from the 1970s through President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” The proposed initiative would provide a cash allowance to families with children, in part by cutting existing programs, including Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. As two policy scholars recently characterized Romney’s plan in the Washington Post, the “child allowance is framed as a fiscally responsible, pro-family benefit.”
But the framework of family values never really went away in the first place. In fact, it has endured across at least five decades and transcended ideological boundaries along the way. The social conservatism espoused by Bush and his predecessors—privileging marriage, family formation, pronatalism, and family protection—shaped Barack Obama’s emphasis on “responsible fatherhood” and his support for the controversial 2016 International Megan’s Law, which restricts international travel for individuals convicted of certain sex offenses. Even the conspiracy theories of QAnon draw from this well, as do Trump’s efforts to shield “vulnerable” American families from Latinx immigrants.
The longstanding project of family values therefore cannot be understood as merely partisan, or as a superficial device, deployed only when expedient. It is a hegemonic rhetorical and policy framework with a coercive and punitive edge. And it stands in the way of more universal and egalitarian approaches to policymaking. By surveying the damage wrought by decades of family-values politics, those on the left can begin to look beyond the family as the sole site of social organization.
As the New Deal order disintegrated in the 1970s, the U.S. state increasingly devolved risk and responsibility to families, which began to assume greater significance in both political and cultural life. The family unit bore more of the burden of debt and the obligation to uphold morality—a move backed by both right-wing demagogues and liberal academics. Policymakers promoting marriage and family formation even found common cause with some left-leaning scholars and activists, including those within the LGBTQ+ movement who sought legal recognition of same-sex relationships and adoption rights. Figures like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Gary Becker decisively shaped policy by asserting that chronic social problems like poverty, crime, and inequality could be ameliorated by forging strong family bonds.
In these years, an increasingly tabloidized news media stoked Americans’ anxieties about the stability of the heteronormative, two-parent, reproductive family. Innumerable lurid tales of child abduction and exploitation, crack babies, superpredators, and teen drug use and pregnancy presented the family as an institution in crisis. These media narratives, often predicated on deep-seated notions of white innocence and Black familial inferiority, prefigured not only Obama’s Black respectability politics but also the fever dreams of QAnon.
More immediately, though, these anxieties fueled President Bill Clinton’s most consequential domestic policy achievements: the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (commonly referred to as the Clinton crime bill) and the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), colloquially known as welfare reform. Both laws reflected the historical moment by privileging punishment and imagining family formation as a panacea for structural problems.
The Clinton crime bill included the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act, named for a missing eleven-year-old Minnesota boy whose body would eventually be recovered in 2016. The Wetterling Act laid the foundation for today’s sprawling system of sex offender registries.
Another part of the crime bill, the federal “three strikes and you’re out” law, was passed in response to the 1993 kidnapping, sexual assault, and slaying of twelve-year-old Polly Klaas. President Clinton portrayed the law as a way to protect children—especially those who resembled Polly Klaas. In his 1994 State of the Union address, which championed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the end of the Cold War, Clinton proclaimed that “while Americans are more secure from threats abroad, I think we all know that in many ways we are less secure from threats here at home.” He directly referenced the Klaas case. “In Petaluma, California, an innocent slumber party gives way to agonizing tragedy for the family of Polly Klaas.” To thwart such acts of violence, Clinton vowed to get tough on repeat offenders. “[T]hose who commit repeated violent crimes should be told, ‘When you commit a third violent crime, you will be put away, and put away for good; three strikes and you are out.’”
Two years later, in 1996, Clinton signed the federal Megan’s Law, named for seven-year-old abduction, sexual assault, and murder victim Megan Kanka. Megan’s Law required states to publicize information regarding individuals designated as sex offenders. Moreover, Clinton’s Department of Justice launched new initiatives to police the internet—and especially to prevent the exploitation of minors online—including the FBI’s Innocent Images program established in 1995 and the Internet Crimes against Children Task Force formed in 1998.
The 1996 welfare reform bill operated on virtually identical punitive, family-centered principles. The law elaborated four key goals:
(1) provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; (2) end the dependency of needy parents on government support by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; (3) prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and (4) encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.
In the service of these objectives, PRWORA encapsulated and advanced the growing propensity to put poor mothers and fathers to work, stigmatize and punish alternative family forms, and extend the reach of criminal justice strategies. As law professor Kaaryn S. Gustafson wrote in her book Cheating Welfare, new policies and practices “equated welfare receipt with criminality; policed the everyday lives of poor families; and wove the criminal justice system into the welfare system, often entangling poor families in the process.” The bill’s enhancement of penalties for failure to pay child support demonstrated the state’s interest in promoting traditional family values, by force if necessary. Clinton further intensified penalties for individuals who failed to pay child support by signing the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act in 1998.
George W. Bush expanded on such efforts. He vociferously supported the 2003 PROTECT (Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today) Act, which federalized the AMBER Alert system—launched following the abduction and slaying of nine-year-old Amber Hagerman in Texas—and enhanced the federal government’s surveillance powers in the service of investigating child kidnapping and exploitation. Passed just as the United States declared its mission in Iraq “accomplished,” the PROTECT Act also bolstered the U.S. imperial project by targeting international sex tourism, empowering “prosecutors seeking charges against Americans accused of molesting children abroad.” The 2004 Unborn Victims of Violence Act, passed following the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son Conner, made it a federal offense to harm or kill a fetus in the course of assaulting a pregnant woman. Finally, the 2006 Adam Walsh Act—named for the slain son of former America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh—increased penalties for certain sex offenses.
Political theorist Iris Marion Young noted in 2003 that the U.S. “security state has an external and an internal aspect.” That’s certainly how Bush and his allies conceived of these punitive measures. As Bush put it in an October 2002 press conference, “Just like we’re hunting the terrorists down one at a time, we’re hunting these predators down one at a time too.” Walsh employed similar language during a press briefing marking the 2003 launch of Operation Predator, a program administered through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “[I]f there’s a predator in your area who’s lurking and trying to grab kids in the school, [in the] vicinity of your school, that’s a terrorist,” Walsh insisted. “That kind of terrorist is the top of my list, the terrorist who preys upon children, whether he comes from another country or he comes [from] within this country. . . . They’re hard to catch. They’re organized. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve had an open season for years.”
Fears of global sex trafficking, hinging on the threat of familial disruption and the despoliation of sexual innocence, spilled over from the Bush years into the Obama era. They found purchase in pop culture, like the Taken film franchise, in which Liam Neeson’s character violently pursues men who have abducted his daughter in order to sell her into sex slavery. And these fears animated the PROTECT Act, among other legislation soon to come. Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein has shown how secular feminists and Christian evangelicals alike found their way into the twenty-first-century anti-trafficking movement, in which they advocated for punitive and carceral solutions to an often-misunderstood issue. Signed into law in 2015 by President Obama, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act emboldened federal law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies—namely ICE and the Department of Homeland Security—in their fight against trafficking.
It is not difficult to see how these earlier developments helped lay the groundwork for Pizzagate and QAnon, which imagines Trump as the manly protector of American families threatened by a cabal of Democratic lawmakers, celebrities, and corporate leaders who engage in the satanic ritual abuse and trafficking of children. He enthusiastically cast himself in these terms, promising to protect upstanding citizens from marauding gangs of Mexican “rapists” and exalting families whose children were allegedly killed by undocumented migrants. “Year after year, countless Americans are murdered by criminal illegal aliens,” Trump exclaimed in his 2019 State of the Union address. “I’ve gotten to know many wonderful Angel Moms, Dads, and families. . . . Not one more American life should be lost because our Nation failed to control its very dangerous border.”
Family-values rhetoric has assumed forms that appear more benign, at least at first blush. But even seemingly innocuous marriage promotion and family formation programs undertaken at the federal level have proven exclusionary, coercive, and utterly ineffective. Take Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, which built on Clinton’s efforts to address poverty through marriage and the development of single-family households. Overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, the program looked to shrink the welfare rolls by strengthening the marriages of poor and working-class couples and encouraging low-income unmarried parents to get hitched. The initiative subsidized marriage seminars and classes, yet those who took advantage of the programming fared no better than those who did not.
While Clinton and Bush both endorsed federal fatherhood initiatives, it was under Obama, as scholar Melinda Cooper observes, “that responsible fatherhood programs . . . truly flourished.” Obama “more than doubled the funding for fatherhood initiatives” within the first few years of his term and helped facilitate the integration of fatherhood programs into the criminal justice system—a clear illustration of the coercive and exclusionary dimensions of even liberal family-values initiatives.
Near the end of his first term in the Oval Office, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden broke with their predecessors by expressing support for marriage equality. Rather than a rebuke of the family-values politics that had informed Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act (1996) and Bush’s pursuit of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2004 and 2006, Obama and Biden’s embrace of marriage equality represented the expansion and evolution of the family-values framework. The formal federal recognition of same-sex marriage in 2015 bolstered and extended the state’s investment in marriage and family formation. As many scholars and queer activists have demonstrated, the push for marriage equality orchestrated by mainstream gay and lesbian rights organizations worked to empower a conservative, perhaps outdated institution while alienating queer and trans folks with different interests and needs.
None of this is to say that the “traditional” family ought to be abolished or that proposals like Romney’s are without merit. The prospect of significantly reducing child poverty while delivering much-needed benefits to poor, working-class, and middle-class families alike is certainly appealing. Yet the broader pro-family, pronatalist sensibilities undergirding the Family Security Act and countless other programs have ultimately proven to be exclusionary, coercive, and utterly ineffective.
Family-values politics, in all their variants, have failed to deliver for American families, traditional and nontraditional, or for those abiding by alternative kinship arrangements. Poverty, hunger, and houselessness remain largely unaddressed by both liberal and conservative family-values politics. The political rhetoric and policymaking sketched above have exacerbated mass incarceration, household debt, and inequality, all while obscuring the dangers that reside within the idealized American family household, where so much interpersonal violence and abuse takes place. Only by offering a broader, universal vision, rooted in the material realities faced by Americans buffeted by economic collapse, the pandemic, and exclusion of all kinds, can we break the vise grip of family values.
Paul M. Renfro is an assistant professor of history at Florida State University and the author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State (Oxford University Press, 2020).