The rhetoric of “family values” went into remission during the 2000 presidential election. In striking contrast to the moralistic tenor of prior Republican campaigns, this time the GOP co-opted the Democratic language of “inclusiveness.” George W. Bush, the so-called compassionate conservative, refrained from bashing gays, portrayed prochoicers under the “good people can disagree” banner and avoided the stock-in-trade Republican tactic of demonizing welfare recipients as sexually promiscuous cheats. Even Ralph Reed, of Christian Coalition fame, felt obliged to engage in big-family-tent talk. “I’m proud of my faith identification and of my conservative principles, but I also am somebody who is inclusive,” Reed declared in January, announcing his bid to be chairman of Georgia’s Republican Party and touting his ability to “reach out to moderate and prochoice Republicans.”
However cynical such utterances may be, the softer, “nonpartisan” brand of moralism that now reigns in public discourse signals a positive shift in the cultural climate. We can count it as a social victory of sorts that harsh rhetoric against gays, prochoicers, people of color and immigrants is no longer admissible in polite political company.
Less comforting, however, are the political origins of this shift. During the Clinton years, the ideology of a self-described “centrist” neo-family values movement triumphed over the religious far right, on the one hand, and progressive family politics on the other. Beating a hasty retreat after his early attempt to lift the military ban on gays, Clinton publicly converted to the marriage-first ideology (although his personal practice, of course, was quite another matter). The evils of single parenthood became national dogma, expressed most pointedly in the 1996 welfare law, which diverted federal support from single-mother families to state initiatives aimed at promoting marriage and reducing “fatherlessness” as a cure for poverty. Family-values rhetoric was shunted to the margins of electoral discourse because it no longer served to differentiate the two major political parties.
The neo-family values consensus paved the way for the Bush regime to introduce its far-from-compassionate brand of conservative family politics. Despite its rhetorical inclusiveness, the Bush Administration has already begun to undermine the sexual and family rights of all but married heterosexuals and their children. Most recently, Bush nominated Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative and a leading voice of the “fatherhood” movement, to be assistant secretary for family support at the Department of Health and Human Services–where he’ll be well positioned to put into practice his ideas about spending welfare dollars on programs aimed at boosting marriage rates.
Yet conservative family ideology is rife with internal contradictions that provide an opening for a progressive response. The marriage movement’s feel-good rhetoric collides with its exclusionary agenda, while its devotion to the fairy-tale family threatens the well-being of most real families. Anyone who hopes to sustain more democratic visions of family policy needs to train a seismograph on those fault lines.
The Marriage Movement Comes of Age
“The tired, old Murphy Brown debate is over. Marriage is not a divisive goal, but a shared aspiration,” boasted a press release last June from three marriage advocacy organizations with overlapping personnel and politics, announcing the launch of “a broad-based, bipartisan marriage movement.” It invited readers to sign a “statement of principles” whose initial signatories comprise a who’s who of neo-family values crusaders, including David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Maggie Gallagher, Judith Wallerstein, Amitai Etzioni, James Q. Wilson, David Popenoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Rabbi Michael Lerner. Candidates Gore and Bush both responded with congratulatory messages. “We commend the men and women of The Marriage Movement who have heard the call to strengthen this vital institution,” Governor and Mrs. Bush enthused. “Each of us must commit to restoring a pro-marriage culture in America.” Vice President and Mrs. Gore heartily concurred: “Fighting together against the forces that undermine family values, and creating a national culture that nurtures and encourages marriage and good family life, must be at the heart of this great nation’s public policy.”