Watching the U.S presidential election from afar feels a bit like watching reality television. It seems interminable and very little of what the characters say seems to make sense.
On that front, at least, Tuesday night's second debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney didn't disappoint. While Mitt's incomprehensible and disingenuous "binders full of women" gaffe set records as an instantaneous meme, I was more staggered by his bizarre pirouette on the question of assault weapons.
Each candidate was asked what they would do to keep assault rifles off the streets. Romney, after first reassuring everyone, including the National Rifle Association who have endorsed him, that he would not be introducing any new gun-control legislation, turned to those reassuring ideas of the do-nothing politician: "Education", and "changing the culture".
If you can afford the two minutes it takes, then watch his whole answer:
So profoundly does Romney believe in the changing of culture, that he pivoted directly to a beloved conservative talking point: single mothers.
Gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea. Because if there's a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically. The opportunities that the child will, will be able to achieve increase dramatically. We can make changes to the way our culture works, to help bring people away from violence and give them opportunity.
The comment, even with Romney's mumbled qualifier ("lotta great single moms, single dads"), single parents -- at least those who weren't working an extra shift or putting their kids to bed -- took offense.
Any doubts about whether Romney's social conservatism is genuine should have been erased right there. The urge to blame single and unmarried parents for the most spurious of problems doesn't get any more reflexive than that.
I have a couple of problems with Romney's comment, and more generally with the Republican inability to resist treating single mothers as though they carried the plague.
First, they commit the high fallacy of extrapolating from correlation to causation. Are single parents more likely to be poor as a consequence of their relationship status, or are they more likely to be single parents as a consequence of their poverty? I'm happy to admit the links are probably complex and the flow may be bi-directional. But even if you could show that becoming a single parent caused the poverty, you would need to convince me that somehow, gosh, telling our kids that they should marry, would reduce poverty and violence.
More importantly, and here is where evolutionary psychology and evolutionary economics come into their own. These sciences (science, and especially evolution being another Republican weak point) suggest that the very core of Republican doctrine -- their positively misanthropic policies on welfare, health care, family planning and taxation -- reinforce the links between poverty, single parenthood and violence.
As economist Betsey Stevenson tweeted:
Do you know how to support 2 parent families? Give both moms & dads a safety net: health insurance, paid sick leave, good middle class jobs
Sounds a lot like Obama's platform to me.
At a deeper level, the surest way to reduce teen pregnancy and the number of young, poor, unmarried mothers (and I think these are the mums Romney blames for gun violence -- rather than unwed uber-mum Angelina Jolie) is to reduce income inequality.
First things first: Why do women become single moms? Mostly, it isn't a choice. Or at least the kind of choice wealthy politicians make, like "Do I cut support for Planned Parenthood, or raise taxes on the richest 1% of citizens". For many women, the choice is between raising a child alone or not having a family at all; or between leaving an indolent or violent spouse or staying in a situation that is worse than single motherhood.
The number of single parents is, among other things, a symptom of: the inequalities in wealth between the rich and the poor, and whether women (particularly poor and marginalized single women) have access to contraception and safe abortion.
It seems to me that the policies Republicans hold most dear, including a bronze-age approach to family planning, and welfare and tax policies that favour the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the poor, might be the root causes of the burgeoning infestation of single parenthood that threatens to overrun the American way of life.
Inequality isn't just a correlate of rising numbers of poor, single mothers. It is a cause. And, among many other things that inequality causes, it also causes violence - specifically the kind that involves angry young men killing other angry young men.
And when the violence claims the lives of young men, and sends others to prison, that also pushes up the number of single mothers by creating a shortage of men. Young women and girls have to compete among themselves for the few marriageable men available. And that means having sex earlier and more often, and under less ideal circumstances than they otherwise might have. And that occasionally leads to pregnancy and single motherhood.
These are exactly the circumstances in which women need affordable contraception, discreet family planning services and safe abortion.
So, how best could the winner of this election reduce both the number of gun-related deaths and the number of single mothers?
For one thing, he could stand up to the plutocrats and work to narrow the deepening income chasm between rich and poor. For another, he could stand up to the evangelicals and ensure that women have affordable contraception and that on those rare occasions when a poor and desperate woman needs to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, she can do so safely and without harassment.
I'm not sure the even Mitt Romney could land that pirouette.