Monday, December 17, 2007

The Family Deal

Dr. Joseph Wheat of Des Moines, IA with his family, 1901. The young woman with intense eyes and a black collar on the right end, middle row is my great-grandmother Bessie.

Jesse engages in a dialog with Digby below about how little we progressives understand about what motivates fundamentalists, and how poorly we've sold our own values to the American people generally.

I could write a book on this very subject (and maybe someday I will) -- but for today, I'd like to point y'all to one of the more perceptive articles addressing this that I've ever read. Unitarian minister Doug Muder wrote Red Family, Blue Family in the aftermath of the 2004 election -- and his explanation for the huge disconnect between right and left in America is simply the most sensible and useful one I've ever seen.

The core of Muder's argument starts with George Lakoff's well-known split between the strict father and nurturant parent family metaphors. Muder picks up this idea and fleshes out far more completely than Lakoff dared to, looking at the far-reaching implications and underlying worldview that support this metaphor. The core of his argument is that that the "strict father" conservative model might more accurately be described as the "inherited obligation family." Fully realized, this is the traditional agrarian family structure that underlies almost every other conservative value and policy:

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.

It's in this network of obligations, Muder argues, that we find the true unifying thread between all the apparently unrelated conservative political positions. IOFs are found in most non-industrialized areas of the world. Before the Enlightenment, a family that didn't operate within this tight network of commitment was vulnerable to economic, social, and physical disaster. In much of the world -- including the rural parts 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 NCFs:

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 not 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. An IOF member 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 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 why the Republicans have done 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 the Fundamentalist Project found was usually reason enough for people to fight and die); it's also a directly concrete threat to their own personal well-being. If my daughter goes to college, and my gay son 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, do right by the kids, and work it out. If the county opens a shelter and gives her an out, she won't have the incentive to suck up and do right.

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 them 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, the feckless performance of Democratic politicians 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 lot of legislative and political battles in the late 60s through the 70s), they assured themselves a moral victory every time 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 IOF families that place a high value on sticking to your commitments at all costs.

Until Democrats find their core values and start sticking to them in exactly this way, win or loss be damned, our efforts at taking back the country will be dead in the water.

Muder makes the point that IOFs are not naturally fundamentalist -- though many of them have become so because fundamentalism speaks directly to their ideas about family, obligation, and commitment. He also notes that the right has no monopoly on that kind of language. We can use it very credibly when we start framing our arguments in terms of supporting the family with living wages; passing laws that enable people to spend time at home where they belong with their families; and passing budgets that respect the limits of our national family's resources. We used to be able to speak the language of commitment and principle -- FDR was a master at it, and IOF families lined up behind him for four elections as a result.

The reason we don't is that we have a bunch of people in Washington, both Republican and Democrat, who don't care about either kind of family. They're proudly serving their corporate masters, and will never ever pass a bill that doesn't sell us all out if it profits their financial backers. And there are a great many families of both types who are ready to hear a real family-first message, strong on values and principle. The day the progressive movement can clearly articulate that message is the day we begin to win.