Whose family values?

The elections may be all about "families," but families don't build schools, provide health care or make the streets safe

By Lori Leibovich

Published October 10, 1996 10:29AM (EDT)

"Family" has become perhaps the most used buzzword of this year's presidential campaign. In their debate last night, both Al Gore and Jack Kemp repeatedly focused on the impact various policies would have on "families." The near-obsession both parties have with the buzzword stems from the politically potent use made by Republicans beginning in the late 1980s of the term "family values." Determined not to be on the wrong side of the issue any more, Democrats have attempted to become more-family-than-thou; for example, the Congressional Democrats' recent manifesto is entitled the "Families First Agenda."

How real are these various invocations? Will they solve social problems like violence, drugs and teen pregnancy, as the family values crusaders aver? Or are they mere nostalgia for a fantasy of American life that never actually existed? We talked with Judith Stacey, a sociologist at the University of California at Davis and author of the recently-published "In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age" (Beacon Press).

How did "family" and "family values" become the major political buzzwords of the '90s?

I don't know. But it's a sad commentary on our political process that they did because the words don't mean very much.

You say that the so-called pro-family movement was an important part of Ronald Reagan's constituency, and of the anti-abortion movement, the Moral Majority and the right wing Christian movements. Then it began to spread across the political spectrum and entered the rhetoric of not just the Republican but the Democratic party as well. "Family values" have become a centrist message.

Yes. And that's what motivated me to write this book. Dan Quayle was responsible for making family values a crucial part of the 1992 election -- especially in his attack of Murphy Brown. But very soon after, articles appeared using the term in positive way. For example, the Atlantic Monthly cover story in April 1993 proclaimed "Dan Quayle was Right." It became a centrist campaign when its advocates, like those in Atlantic Monthly, began to base its claims on social science rather than religion. Still, when people use the term, they mean values they associate with 1950s family life. The phrase is just two words that some people think sound good together.
In your book you talk about America's nostalgia for the days of Ozzie and Harriet. How long did the Ozzie and Harriet paradigm actually exist?

It existed for about 20 years, in the 1950s and 1960s, when a majority of men were able to make a bread-winning wage, and even a man with relatively little education could afford to support a wife and children. That changed in the '70s with the decline in real wages, and people began falling off the track. There are other reasons why the Ozzie and Harriet model didn't last -- a lot of people found it very stultifying, a lot of social problems were swept under the rug.

In your book you emphasize the importance of "social values" rather than "family values."

My view is that it does "take a village" to raise a family -- certainly up to any decent level. Families can't build their own schools, provide for their own health care or guarantee safe streets. It's social values that provide people with work that pays a decent living wage, a strong commitment to public education and access to health care.

How do you view the Clinton administration's family agenda?

Some things have been absolutely horrendous, like the welfare bill. Clinton has done a few window-dressing things. The Family Medical Leave Act was a step in the right direction, but it's a joke compared with the family leave provided by every other post-industrial society. The act doesn't provide paid leave, which means that only the wealthy can take advantage of it.

Clinton also signed the Defense of Marriage Act. You say in the book that making gay marriage legal would strengthen families. But clearly the public isn't ready to sanction it.

The Defense of Marriage Act is a scandal and a disgrace. But I truly believe that in the long run we are likely to see same-sex marriage legalized in many states, if not all of them. It's hardly surprising that most people are opposed to same-sex marriage. But there is also a liberalization of attitudes about homosexuality in general. I think this issue will pan out a lot like abortion. There will be hard core opponents and hard core supporters and the rest of the population will have a lot angst around the issue but won't necessarily want to limit other people's rights.

You write that other countries -- especially Scandinavia -- have been much more willing to embrace a broad vision of "family," resulting in fewer social problems there.

The biggest difference between here and Scandinavia is that instead of moralizing about issues, they provide economic and social support to people regardless of what their family structure looks like. Single parenthood doesn't mean poverty because you have a strong welfare state. There is hardly any teen pregnancy, sex education is widely available and abortion and contraception are free. Then again, Scandinavian society is much smaller and more homogeneous.

In the book you mention the Promise Keepers -- an evangelical brotherhood that urges men to put faith in God and to honor the traditional role as a father, husband and breadwinner.

I'm worried about this movement because of its covert, right-wing political agenda. But there are some very positive things in some of the messages they distribute to men, like instilling a sense of self-worth and encouraging men to take responsibility for themselves, as well as for their families. The Promise Keepers also promote racial reconciliation -- although they are an overwhelmingly white movement, they at least address racial issues, unlike the typical right wing.

Quote of the day


"He's a cult figure. Like Che Guevara."

-- Ann Borstad, 18, from Norway, emerging from a bookstore in Prague wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Kafka didn't have much fun either."

"Kafka today means business rather than something that touches the soul. I'm sorry about that."

-- Lenka Hybkova, 20, a drama student in Prague, who refuses to wear a Kafka T-shirt.

(From "Kafka Is a Symbol of Prague Today; Also, He's a T-Shirt. Stuff Invoking His Name Sells To Gloom Lovers, Books Move Rather Less Briskly," from Thursday's Wall Street Journal.)

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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