Red Families, Blue Families?

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: May 05, 2010 9:04 PM
Red Families, Blue Families?

Two law professors have waded deep into the minefields of the culture war and come up with a doozy of a hypothesis: We Americans are not just divided politically into red states and blue states, our very families are colored-coded red and blue.

Oh, and the blue family is beating the red family, hands down.

"Blue family champions celebrate the commitment to equality that makes companionate relationships possible and the sexual freedom that allows women to fully participate in society," say Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in their book "Blue Families v. Red Families." "Those who have embraced the blue family model have low divorce rates, relatively few teen births, and good incomes."

What is a "blue family," you ask? On the individual level, blue families appear to be progressives who marry late -- often after finishing grad school -- and have relatively low rates of divorce or unwed childbearing. This is the blue family paradox: Blue families may talk liberal, but they end up living bourgeois lives.

The red family paradox, according to Cahn and Carbone, is that socially conservative red states have higher rates of divorce and teen childbearing. "Are 'family values' undermining the family?" as one reviewer put it.

The more you look at this provocative thesis, the more improbable it becomes.

The elephant in the room is the one issue Cahn and Carbone want to avoid because they wish to tone down the culture wars around the family: abortion.

The five states with the highest abortion rates, they note, are all blue family states: New York, Delaware, Washington, New Jersey and Rhode Island. By contrast, the states with the lowest abortion rates are mostly red or at least purple: Utah, Idaho, Colorado, South Dakota and Kentucky.

Could attitudes toward abortion be the real source of the red family/blue family divide?

Fueling this suspicion is the data that Cahn and Carbone provide on the out-of-wedlock birthrates. For here, the neat red/blue lines break down, especially once race is taken into account. In 2004, the five states with the highest white out-of-wedlock birthrates were a politically mixed lot: Nevada, Maine, West Virginia, Indiana and Vermont. States with the lowest rates of unwed childbearing were also mixed by party dominance: Utah, New Jersey, Connecticut, Colorado, Idaho and the District of Columbia. The authors note this fact but never integrate it into their theory.

The data that do not fit are usually the most important data.

The blue state/red state family divide appears to be largely driven by different values regarding abortion. Red states have more opposition to abortion politically (which makes them red), which would tend to result in more early childbearing, earlier ages at marriage and a more mixed record with regard to out-of-wedlock births. (More traditional commitment to marriage would drive down the out-of-wedlock birthrate, but greater moral objection to aborting unexpected pregnancies would drive up a state's out-of-wedlock birthrate.)

The marriage gap has a great deal to do with social class. People with graduate degrees may be more sexually liberal in theory, but end up surprisingly conservative in actual practice. They tend to discount the importance of public moral norms around sex and marriage because they see their families flourishing under postmodern conditions, and because they and their children have the most access to "private" social, human and moral capital.

Nonetheless, in spite of their theoretical imperfections, if Cahn and Carbone can convince progressives that reducing divorce and early unwed childbearing are not traditional family values at all but postmodern blue ones to be embraced as the happy fruit of liberal social values, they will have done a service to our country.