[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Jonathan Rauch has written a fine article which presents a plausible Grand Unification Theory of the origins of “Red” and “Blue” America. It begins with the research of Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, a couple of family law professors, who themselves begin with the well–publicized fact that many of the states which contain populations most supportive of certain socially conservative values tend to also do very poorly at living those same values. As Rauch summarizes: “The country’s lowest divorce rate belongs to none other than Massachusetts, the original home of same-sex marriage. Palinites might wish that Massachusetts’s enviable marital stability were an anomaly, but it is not. The pattern is robust. States that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in both 2004 and 2008 boast lower average rates of divorce and teenage childbirth than do states that voted for the Republican in both elections.”
What to make of this contradiction between espoused “liberationist” values and lived “traditionalist” practices (and vice versa)? Rauch, summarizing Cahn and Carbone’s research, reduces it to a bare-bones slogan: “In red America, families form adults; in blue America, adults form families.” But Rauch then puts some meat on the bones:
For generations, American family life was premised on two facts. First, sex makes babies. Second, low-skilled men, if they apply themselves, can expect to get a job, make a living, and support a family. Fact 1 gave rise to a strong linkage between sexual activity, marriage, and procreation. It was (and still is) difficult for teenagers and young adults to abstain from sex, so one important norm was not to have sex before marriage. If you did have premarital sex and conceived a child, you had to marry. Under those rules, families formed early, whether by choice or at the point of a shotgun. That was all right, however, because (Fact 2) the man could get a job and support the family, so the woman could probably stay home and raise the kids. Neither member of the couple had to have an extended education in order to succeed as spouse or parent….
That is what “families form adults” means. Many teenagers and young adults formed families before they reached maturity and then came to maturity precisely by shouldering family responsibilities. Immature choices and what were once euphemistically called “accidents” were a fact of life, but the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation, combined with the pressure not to divorce, turned childish errors into adult vocations.
But then along come two game-changers: the global information economy and the birth-control revolution. The postindustrial economy puts a premium on skill and cognitive ability….Blue-collar wages fall, so a factory job no longer cuts it–if, that is, you can even find a factory job. Meanwhile, birth control separates decisions about sex from decisions about parenthood, and the advent of effective female contraception lets men shift the moral responsibility for pregnancy to women, eroding the shotgun marriage. Divorce becomes easy to obtain and sheds its stigma….In this very different world, early family formation is often a calamity. It short-circuits skill acquisition by knocking one or both parents out of school. It carries a high penalty for immature marital judgment in the form of likely divorce. It leaves many young mothers, now bearing both the children and the cultural responsibility for pregnancy, without the option of ever marrying at all.
New norms arise for this environment, norms geared to prevent premature family formation….Blue norms are well adapted to the Information Age. They encourage late family formation and advanced education. They produce prosperous parents with graduate degrees, low divorce rates, and one or two over-protected children. Red norms, on the other hand, create a quandary. They shun abortion (which is blue America’s ultimate weapon against premature parenthood) and emphasize abstinence over contraception. But deferring sex in today’s cultural environment, with its wide acceptance of premarital sex, is hard. Deferring sex and marriage until you get a college or graduate degree–until age 23 or 25 or beyond–is harder still…[And in] any case, for a lot of people, a graduate education or even a bachelor’s degree is unrealistic. The injunction to delay family formation until you are 24 and finish your master’s offers these people only cold comfort….
Moral traditionalism fails to prevent premarital sex and early childbirth. Births precipitate more early marriages and unwed parenthood. That, in turn, increases family breakdown while reducing education and earnings. “The consequential sense of failure increases the demands to constrain the popular culture–and blue family practices such as contraception and abortion–that undermines parental efforts to instill the right moral values in children,” Cahn and Carbone say. “More sex prompts more sermons and more emphasis on abstinence.” The cycle repeats. Culturally, economically, and politically, blue and red families drift further apart as their fortunes diverge.
This all makes good, if sobering, sense to me. What it leaves unexamined, though, is the impact of religion. To what degree is religious faith, or the lack thereof, a precipitating factor in this cycle, or just an additional variable? It would be easy, for example, for those critical of religion to fault it for refusing to acquiesce to and legitimize abortion, birth control, and pre-marital sex, and thus of obliging those who embrace such beliefs to remain locked into a model of family development which so often backfires when faced with a globalized economy which primarily rewards only the mobile and the meritocratically disciplined? But it seems to me just as likely that is was the lack of religious faith (and relatedly, a lack of strong family and/or community attachments) which kick-started the division in cultural norms in the first place. Absent communities ties or a sense of meaning which emphasized continuing attachments, a sense of literal (as well as economic) mobility results…and soon, whole generations of young people find themselves in environments where the “Blue” norms of economic advancement reign, and who would fault them for recognizing reality, and adapting their personal behavior accordingly? A few generations of this, and what do you have? Well, you have Massachusetts, where low-divorce traditionalism and a culture of liberationism co-exist.
Anyway, food for thought.