Liberals and the (Not So) New Family Values

06/18/2015 02:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016


"You (as parents) have no rights. That statement is coming true at an alarming rate - but here and there, isolated voices are crying out, 'This far and no farther - we will not surrender...'" John Steinbacher, The Child Seducers,1970.

In 1970, archconservative journalist John Steinbacher seethed at what he considered the worst casualty of the Sixties, a decade defined by two Democratic presidencies, expanded federal intervention in what felt like every dimension of daily life, and defiant young activists sporting shaggy beards and miniskirts rejecting authority of all kinds. Unable to withstand these seismic shifts, he despaired, the American family was in grave peril. In the 45 years since Steinbacher's bestseller, this far-right outrage has amplified from a handful of "isolated voices" to become a cri de coeur of contemporary conservatism: an impassioned mission to safeguard "family values" and the nation's moral health from the depredations of ethically suspicious liberals.

During the same period, Democrats have mostly sidestepped the accusation that their principles and policies are at root "anti-family." Instead, they loudly champion the civic benefits of polemical policies such as comprehensive sex education, abortion, and gay rights and gleefully exploit Republican transgressions (think South Carolina governor Mark Sanford's infidelity, North Carolina senator Steve Wiles' drag-queen past) more as a means to expose conservative hypocrisy than to cement their own party's credibility as defenders of family values.

Yet if Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton's splashy new campaign is any indication, these familiar positions are in flux, and family will be front and center in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Perhaps least likely to spearhead a liberal reconquest of family values, given Clinton's powerful identity as a career-focused feminist, the notorious infidelity of her own husband, and comments like her derisive 1992 slight that she could have "stayed home to bake cookies and have teas," she is already unapologetically positioning herself as a champion of the American family for 2016. Her campaign videos cast her as a kindly grandmother, a mother of the bride, and an adoring daughter, co-opting the familiar language of right-wing groups such as Focus on the Family to celebrate gay and interracial marriage, family leave policy, and the contributions of working women.

Clinton's rhetorical about-face is initially jarring, but actually harkens back to a long progressive tradition of advocacy for policies that strengthen (rather than sabotage, as conservatives for decades have successfully suggested,) American families.

That's right. Long before Steinbacher and his ranks bemoaned the destruction of the American family, early 20th-century women framed their pleas for welfare and protective labor legislation as an extension of their identities as mothers and guardians of the sacred family. This mobilization provided a key foundation to the suffrage movement; these feminists went on to demand the vote as a way to extend the into the public sphere the moral guidance they exercised at home as mothers and wives. During the Depression, this "maternalist" political strategy was powerfully elaborated by activists who demanded a "family wage" with the goals to legitimize the housework performed by women and to expand males' access to the shrinking pool of jobs that would enable them to remain breadwinning heads-of-household. As a raft of feminist scholarship has shown, this activism effectively narrowed to the married the provision of many New Deal economic benefits and cemented traditionally gendered division of labor. Decried by conservatives in Steinbacher's day and today as the most damaging phase in the decades-long expansion of the fearsome federal government, the quintessentially liberal New Deal did more to inscribe an assumed nuclear family in federal policy than any "family-values conservative" will have you believe. Embodying a range of intents and impacts, progressives have been intimately invested in elevating the family for over a century.

It was only after World War II, when women's workforce participation grew dramatically, and when the sexual revolution, feminist, and gay liberation movements converged in what looked to be a full frontal assault on heterosexual marriage and its attendant domesticity, that the Steinbachers of the world found an eager, emergent conservative movement seeking a rallying cry. By 1972, activists such as Phyllis Schlafly seized upon the family as the imperiled target of liberals and progressives, and threatened that if the Equal Rights Amendment passed, women would end up "drafted by the military" and using "public unisex bathrooms," not to mention forgoing their "dependent wife" Social Security benefits. Still, progressives hardly abandoned their interest in protecting families during this tumultuous period. From different quarters, Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial 1965 report on the state of the black family demanded federal action to counter the trend of female-headed households in poor black communities. President Jimmy Carter convened a White House Conference on Families. Countercultural feminists celebrated womanhood specifically in service of intensified family bonding, championing "attachment parenting," natural childbirth, and co-sleeping, a movement that has moved from the cultural fringes to shape policies like the contemporary breastfeeding measures adopted by the Obama White House and New York City. Conservatives condemned all of these initiatives.

Today's cultural climate is arguably ripe to redefine "pro-family" as something more inclusive than the heterosexual, white, suburban version of pious domesticity that conservatives have made one of their most resonant tropes in the last half-century. The New York Times recently reported an unprecedented consensus on abortion, the issue that helped cement the Right's hold on the family with the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Working mothers, it turns out, might confer long-term benefits on their children's development as individuals and family members. The widening acceptance of gay marriage in the United States and abroad and the spread of gay families even in conservative enclaves intimates that the moment might be optimal for the Democrats make the fight to protect the family a core plank of the platform.

The impact of resuscitating this liberal tradition as part of the 2016 Democratic platform is anyone's guess: will it radically reshape one of society's most conservatizing institutions, enabling progressives to advance in territory unchallenged for decades? Will it alienate progressives resistant to an apparent throwback to early 20th-century maternalist politics that defined even civically active women foremost as mothers and wives? It's possible, given the newly public voices of those who decide not to have children and who might not race to the polls to support a candidate who launched her campaign with the declaration that "When families are strong, America is strong!," a refrain that feels reflexively right-wing in 2015. What is assured is that these social and cultural questions, often dismissed as secondary to economic or geopolitical concerns, will be paramount in the presidential contest of 2016.