Red vs. blue family in black and white

Book outlines stark divisions

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Young parents Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston may have gotten engaged again recently, but they are still a quintessential “red” family trying to swim against the tide of family change, say two family law professors who have launched a debate about “red” and “blue” American families.

The 2004 and 2008 elections showed a divided America — and that division extends even to families, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone write in their book, “Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture.”

In blue states, families tend to be well-educated, have high-paying jobs, be tolerant of diversity and be politically liberal. They marry later in life, have children in wedlock and are dedicated co-parents.

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are good examples of this “blue” paradigm, Ms. Cahn, who teaches at George Washington University, and Ms. Carbone, who teaches at the University of Missouri, said at a recent event at the New America Foundation think tank.

Red-state families, however, seem to be stuck in a time warp — they tend to be more strict in their religious beliefs and aspire to abstinence until marriage and marriage for life. But they often fall short of these goals: Red states have high rates of teen births, young (“shotgun”) marriages and divorce. Red-state families are also less likely to be college graduates, get top jobs or create households where husbands and wives share equally in parenting and chores.

This shows that “blue” families have adjusted to the evolution of America’s family culture, while “red” families have not, Ms. Cahn and Ms. Carbone said.

“The blue paradigm is the other end of the sexual revolution. Its families have been remade and the remaking is a huge success,” they wrote. But red families are still trying to live in bygone times, and when children fail to live up to lofty aspirations, these families bear the consequences.

Ms. Cahn and Ms. Carbone’s book has animated the pundits, with criticism and praise from multiple quarters.

In California, Ruth Institute founder Jennifer Roback Morse sees America’s family division through a different prism, one that was outlined in the 1940s by Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman.

The Norman Rockwell-style “domestic” family has been “atomizing” for decades, meaning that parents and children quickly move into individuated lives, said Mrs. Morse, a former economics professor at Yale and George Mason University.

Such an atomized — or “blue” — family culture cannot sustain itself, and constantly calls for help from the state, she said. So a division is created, but it is between families that want the state in their lives and those that don’t.

A “domestic” family culture can regenerate, Mrs. Morse said.

But, as Mr. Zimmerman said, it reappears through a “counterrevolution” against the state.

Others have called “Red Families v. Blue Families” groundbreaking: “Cahn and Carbone have updated the old maxim that the personal is political, and enormously enriched it,” Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker.

“[I]f you want to find two-parent families with stable marriages and coddled kids, your best bet is to bypass Sarah Palin country and to go Nancy Pelosi territory,” scholar Jonathan Rauch wrote in National Journal magazine. That’s because in modern America, the new mantra is “*on’t form a family until after you have finished your education and are equipped for responsibility. … Adults form families,” he added.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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