Fighting for Our Families

Last month’s piece on how to talk to your conservative relatives over the holidays was apparently welcome and necessary. Not only was it one of the biggest hits at this year; several hundred other sites also picked it up, and I’ve gotten a steady flow of thank-you notes from people who were finally grateful to have some options besides mumbling into their mashed potatoes or packing up and leaving early.

Even more interesting was the reaction from a dozen or so conservative sites, most of whom objected — no surprise there — finding my generalizations about how conservatives think either infuriating or laughable. Also not a surprise: bullies never like it when somebody comes along and teaches their victims how to fight back.

Some of my letter-writers said they’ve noticed an increasing boldness among progressives over the course of this year. Conflict-averse we may be, but we’re finally fighting back. Conservative failure is now an inarguable fact of American discourse; and the election emboldened people who’ve been intimidated into silence every since 9/11 to recover their voices and shoot back with a crisp, “We told you so.”

Unfortunately, though, being right is not enough. Neither is being fearless and agile in firing back on that handful of conservative relatives, co-workers, and neighbors who are still clinging doggedly, in the face of irrefutable counter-arguments, to the only political story they’ve ever known. The hard truth is that these conversations are rooted in a debate that’s as old as the republic, and will continue as long as there’s an America to fight over.

My friend Doug Muder pondered this perpetual disconnect between right and left in America in the aftermath of the 2004 election; and came up with one of the more sensible and useful insights about the deep origins of this cultural chasm that I’ve ever seen. In his essay Red Family, Blue Family (which I encourage you to go read the whole of) Muder starts with George Lakoff’s well-known split between the strict father and nurturant parent family metaphors — and then fleshes it out far more completely than Lakoff dared to, looking at the far-reaching implications and underlying worldview that support these disparate metaphors.

For example, Muder points out that Lakoff’s conservative “strict father” model operates within the larger context of the “inherited obligation family.” Fully realized, this is the traditional agrarian family structure that underlies almost every other conservative value and policy. In this family model,

Life is defined by roles and relationships that are given, not chosen. One has parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, and eventually a spouse, children, and grandchildren of one’s own. Each of those relationships defines a set of mutual obligations. Your well-being depends on the faithfulness of others in meeting their obligations to you, and your character is judged on how well you meet your obligations to them. Choice and freedom are fine in the economic sphere, but in family life they undermine obligation and put everyone at risk. Fulfilling your obligations is not always pleasant and may even at times be thankless, but in the long run such faithfulness leads to deep satisfaction.

In difficult times, you depend on those who are obliged to help you: First, on your extended family, and on the larger community if necessary.

Continuing and extending the family by having children is a duty, not an option. This entails men taking on the roles of husband and father, and women taking on the roles of wife and mother. These roles are timeless and not up for negotiation. Although the obligations of these roles become primary, obligations to other family members do not go away, nor do theirs to you. Parents and children remain linked for life in a special relationship. Grandparents, if they are able, have a major role in the child-rearing project. And when they become feeble, the grown child is obliged to care for them.

This tight, inescapable network of obligations is the unifying matrix that links all those apparently unrelated conservative political positions. Inherited-obligation families are the norm in most non-industrialized areas of the world. Before the Enlightenment, a family that didn’t have these tight commitment contracts was vulnerable to economic, social, and physical disaster. In much of the world — including the rural parts and working-class precincts of the US — they still are.

But that’s not how modern, enlightened, progressive people run their families. The liberal alternative is the Negotiated Commitment Family, which evolved as a response to the economic necessities of industrial and urban life, and has gradually been coming to dominate as America becomes more urban with every generation. In these families, Muder notes,

Your responsibilities come from the commitments you have chosen to make, and not from congenital obligations. Voluntary commitments form the substance of life; a life without them is superficial and empty.

Adult relationships are negotiated to be mutually acceptable. Although traditional forms of relationship have stood the test of time and contain much folk wisdom, people are now free to amend them as needed.

Because young children are incapable of meaningful consent, you can’t attach strings to your nurturance of them — is it a gift, which they may or may not reciprocate when they are grown. Only those who feel that they have the psychological and material resources to fulfill that basic commitment should take it on. As long as children’s basic needs are being met, the members of a household are free to distribute child-raising responsibilities in whatever way seems best to them.

You depend on a social safety net to catch you if you are unable to support yourself: Social Security when you are old, disability and unemployment insurance if you are unable to work. While you may maintain relationships with your parents and other family members, you are not obliged to do so if they do not treat you well. If they are unable to support themselves, they rely on the social safety net just as you do.

Looking at these two models, a lot of other things start to make sense. A person invested in the first model is going to be against abortion and birth control, because these things interfere with the family’s imperative to produce new members to strengthen the network. S/he will oppose equal rights for women — and gay rights entirely — because these changes allow people to shirk their fundamental responsibility as fathers and mothers. The social safety net is seen as weakening the absolute obligations that family members have to take care of each other. Taxes take money away from the family network, which makes it harder for it to fulfill its primary obligations.

And, says Muder, this explains how the Republicans were able do such a thorough job of making liberals scary. The policies we promote are seen as not only an existential threat to “their way of life” (which, according to the findings of the Fundamentalist Project, is often reason enough for people to fight and die); people invested in the inherited obligation model also interpret them as a direct, concrete threat to their own personal well-being. If my daughter goes to college, and my son decides he’s gay and moves to the city, who’s going to look after me when my job finally wrecks my back and I can’t work any more? I raised those kids, and they owe me — but those liberals are telling them they’re “free” to “choose.” Likewise, if my sister leaves her abusive husband, the family’s going to have to look after her and their kids. It’s a burden we’ll bear, but it’s better for everyone in the long run if they can stick to their vows and work it out. If the county opens a shelter and gives her an out, she won’t have the incentive to suck it up and do the right thing by the rest of us.

Given that the rural areas of the country see far more of almost every social ill you can name, the perception that the liberals want to knock out what few supports remain to these traditional families packs a visceral and deeply personal punch. And, says Muder, the GOP fed this fear, fashioning it into the main wedge that cleaved apart the yawning gap now separating red and blue America:

Republican propagandists take advantage of that misunderstanding by projecting a shadow frame onto us. Their demonic liberal is a person with no moral depth or seriousness. Convenience is his only true value. Words that we revere, such as freedom and choice, rebound against us: We like these words because we want to be free of our obligations and choose the easy way out.

Just as married people sometimes imagine the single life as far more licentious and libidinous than it ever actually is, so people born into life-defining obligations imagine a life free from such obligations. The truth about liberals – that we more often than not choose to commit ourselves to marriage, children, church, and most of the other things conservatives feel obligated to, and that we stick by those commitments every bit as faithfully, if not more so – easily gets lost.

The virtue of the Negotiated Commitment model is that it is flexible and efficient. The negative framing of those qualities is slippery and slick. Democrats cooperate with their own demonization when they talk about “moving to the center.” Such tactical moves emphasize our slipperiness: We feel free to re-choose our positions whenever they become inconvenient to our quest for power.

This explains why Democrats never seem to get to the center, no matter how far they move. Swing voters aren’t waiting for us to say something different, they just doubt that we mean what we say. The more we change our message to court them, the more our slickness turns them off.

The most important fact that conservatives don’t know about liberals is this: We believe that a life without commitments is superficial and empty. Unlike the demonic liberals you hear about on Fox News, real liberals are morally serious people who are not looking to take the easy way out when there are greater issues at stake.

Unfortunately, when Democratic politicians go all spineless and refuse to stand up and fight for progressive principles, it does nothing to convince morally serious people of either group that they’re capable of taking a stand and sticking to it on principle. The GOP understood from the get that even when they lost (and they lost a never-ending series legislative and political battles in the late 60s through the 70s), they assured themselves a moral victory whenever they refused to compromise. Even in defeat, they affirmed their dedication to principle and reinforced, one more time, a potent message about who they were and what they stood for. In time, voters came to respect that — particularly voters from traditional families that place a high value on sticking to your commitments at all costs.

When Democrats find their core values and start sticking to them in exactly this way, win or loss be damned, our future leadership of the country will be assured.

Muder makes the point that inherited obligation families are not naturally fundamentalist — though many of them have become so because fundamentalism speaks very directly to their ideas about family, obligation, hierarchy, and commitment. He also notes that the right has no monopoly on the language of commitment. Progressives can use it very credibly when we frame our arguments in terms of families’ right to a living wage; enacting laws that enable people to spend time at home where they belong with their families; and passing budgets that are a wise investment of our national family’s resources. We once owned the language of commitment and principle: FDR was a master at it, and traditional families lined up staunchly behind him for four elections as a result.

Our progressive ascendance is happening, in no small part, because Americans of both persuasions finally realized that our corporate masters (who have no party allegiance, but dominate the discourse of both parties), don’t care about either kind of family. In strict economic terms, families are simply a distraction that keeps employees away from work, an excuse for higher wages and benefits, and a drain on productivity — not to mention the repository of all kinds of non-economic nurturant values that are seen as useless and weak to people who hold profit as the highest human good. In the straight economic calculus so beloved of conservatives, there’s no good financial reason families should exist at all — which is why so many corporate policies are overtly hostile to family life, and so many workers are pressured to hide the shameful fact that they have any family commitments at all.

This attitude is an affront to both kinds of families, and Americans have had enough. Progressives are winning now because they’ve learned to speak to that in a way that resonates. We may have widely different ideas about what a family should be — but we’re increasingly united in our determination to create an America in which both kinds of families can have a fighting chance to survive.

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