I've been following the discussions of the new book Red Families v.Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture by law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, since oddjob pointed out this excellent article about it by Jonathan Rauch at National Journal a couple of weeks ago. The book raises a number of interesting issues with respect to culture, public policy, religion, economics, and political identity, each of which could probably occupy a long post. The major finding of the book, (and I haven't read it yet -- I hope to pick it up in an hour or so) reducing it to an oversimplified sound bite, is that families in Blue States are far more likely to be stable and intact than those in the more conservative states, with higher levels of educational and economic attainment, lower levels of divorce, and far less likelihood of teenagers becoming parents. I think the thing that most struck me about the facts elucidated by the book is the rather hapless and helpless reaction to it from the culture warriors on the right, who seem to really have had the wind taken out of their sails by the cold hard numbers staring at them.
I take both a personal and political interest in this discussion, because it's something that I feel like I've observed throughout my adult life with the book affirming my own anecdotal perspective on this phenomenon. I think I am part of the first demographic wave who began living the "Blue State" life depicted in the book. If I had to reduce that lifestyle to a series of stereotypes it would be one in which pursuit of higher education, often including post-graduate studies, followed by some sort of professional career is at the heart of its culture. It is a life that is typically urban-centered, where one's twenties are dedicated to acquiring the credentials necessary to a career and to a social life that is built around peer networks and sexual relationships that are often monogamous and long-standing, but do not necessarily result in marriage. It is assumed that people will be sexually active long before marriage and that they will likely have a variety of sexual partners before and if they eventually marry. The idea of a "shotgun wedding" in this milieu would be considered absurd -- and rightly so in my mind. Cohabitation is pretty common and never frowned upon in this environment. The use of contraception is a given and resort to abortion in the event of some failure of birth control is not stigmatized.
As a commenter notes at one site that I was reading, "the book makes the point in several places that the “blue family” model is a mix of public tolerance with private discipline - that their sexual ethic locates discipline in planning for and managing the consequences of sexual behavior which translates into having access to and using contraception, planning for the chance that you might need the morning after pill and/or access to abortion." I think that this notion of public tolerance and private discipline is correct in part, but I think it misses the broader point that in this culture sex is seen as a legitimate avenue of pleasure, personal expression, love, etc., but that it is demystified (to the extent sex can be demystified) and made a normal part of life, but just a part -- one that doesn't negate or interfere with other goals. There is no passive acceptance of "accidents" no feeling that forced marriage is an appropriate response to an unwanted pregnancy.
There is some hell raising that goes on in this world, but it tends to be of the kind that is managed in such a way that it doesn't detract from performance at either school or work. One may wake up hungover in a stranger's bed on Sunday, but come Monday it's back to business.
And when people ultimately do spawn in this world, they tend to become the most conservative creatures on earth -- oh not politically at all -- but in terms of life actually lived. Once the kid or kids arrive, life pretty much revolves around them and work. I see this in my circle all the time -- among couples both heterosexual and gay or lesbian -- a transition from what some denounce as an extended adolescence (I rather enjoyed it) to a highly responsible, heavily scheduled, and deeply regimented life. There's no time to get divorced in this world -- the SATs are going to be in a mere sixteen years and we need to get cracking. (I exaggerate only a little.) Seemingly every ounce of energy and every spare dollar is devoted to optimizing junior's prospects and it is a two-parent effort all the way (although to the extent that there are career sacrifices they still seem to fall disproportionately on the women even in this fairly egalitarian universe). (Hell, I recently told a friend of mine who was boldly contemplating single parenthood at the age of 49 that I thought the appropriate parent to child ratio was actually 3 to 1 -- she made the leap nonetheless.)
In short, this blue state model is one designed to permit people to achieve the highest possible educational attainment, establish careers, and then give maximum nurturing to eventual offspring. It is a model designed for a sexually egalitarian, post-industrial environment. And even though people like David Brooks, George Will, and Ross Douthat -- aided and abetted by the hysterical "you're going to die alone and with a withered womb being eaten by your cat set -- keep trying to make the case for early marriage and children, it's just not catching on for people in the real world.
Conversely, the red state model -- or a not complete exaggeration of it -- marry early and randomly after unprotected coupling leads to an unplanned pregnancy -- is not really optimal in any sense. And is this surprising? The idea that it would work well to take two young people -- teenagers even -- and immediately throw both marriage and parenthood on them simultaneously in this manner just seems so transparently preposterous.
And yet, empiricism just won't cut it in right wing world, where one still has to pretend that the only acceptable context for sex is within marriage -- a fairy tale that these jokers tried to turn into public policy during the Bush years. Not only is the right obstinately opposed to abortion, it is publicly uneasy with contraception, opposed to fact-based sex education, ambivalent about women working (unless it's Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann or Phyllis Schlafly), and to some degree scornful of educational achievement. The result is states in which access to both contraception and abortion are extremely circumscribed and where the predominant political culture shames those young women who would seek mastery over their fertility.
Ross Douthat, one of those terminally nostalgic for days that never were, sounds woefully depressed as he describes the findings of Cahn and Carbone:
The authors depict a culturally conservative “red America” that’s stuck trying to sustain an outdated social model. By insisting (unrealistically) on chastity before marriage, Cahn and Carbone argue, social conservatives guarantee that their children will get pregnant early and often (see Palin, Bristol), leading to teen childbirth, shotgun marriages and high divorce rates.
This self-defeating cycle could explain why socially conservative states have more family instability than, say, the culturally liberal Northeast. If you’re looking for solid marriages, head to Massachusetts, not Alabama.
Ouch, that last line's gotta hurt. And so where does that lead the boy columnist in terms of policy conclusions:
Liberals sometimes argue that their preferred approach to family life reduces the need for abortion. In reality, it may depend on abortion to succeed. The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term. Over all, the abortion rate is twice as high in New York as in Texas and three times as high in Massachusetts as in Utah.
So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.
Whether it’s attainable for most Americans or not, the “blue family” model clearly works: it leads to marital success and material prosperity, and it’s well suited to our mobile, globalized society.
By comparison, the “red family” model can look dysfunctional — an uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, whose ideals don’t always match up with the facts of contemporary life.
But it reflects something else as well: an attempt, however compromised, to navigate post-sexual revolution America without relying on abortion.
In other words, me and my fellow righties have embraced a political cultural model for the family that is an objective failure in terms of promoting the thing we claim to be central to our goals -- strong and stable marriages in which children can be reared. Moreover, we've embraced a model that doesn't square in any way with the life actually lived by real people in real America. But our consolation prize is that all of this dysfunction will take place within an environment in which women will either not have access to abortion or will not seek one because they have been propagandized into thinking it would be murder.
So what then do Douthat and his ideological fellows suggest for those caught in this dysfunction? Should we continue the abstinence only farce? Is there really no way to make contraceptive use more universal and more effective -- statistics from Europe would strongly suggest so. Should we adopt laws that make it easier to unionize, that protect domestic industry, that raise the minimum wage, that mandate paid maternity and paternity leave as means of leveling the playing field for those who do not have college educations in order to make their economic lives less stressful? I don't think you will see any such suggestions emanating from the right. Instead, they will take solace in the pyrrhic victory of lower abortion rates. And they will encourage their fellow travelers to embrace the red state ethic -- the very opposite of the blue state one I discussed above -- personal license and public intolerance, where every sin I commit is forgiven, but you, well you need to live a better life.
One final note -- for all of their expressed love for Real America, you notice you don't see any of these right wing pundits actually living there?