Excerpt: 'Red Families V. Blue Families'

Excerpt: 'Red Families V. Blue Families'

Cover of 'Red Families V. Blue Families'
Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture
By Naomi Cahn and June Carbone
Hardcover, 304 pages
Oxford University Press, USA
List price: $29.95


The demographic data suggest that life patterns do differ regionally, that some of the differences -- higher teen birthrates, for example -- may be a source of concern, and that the differences are great enough to suggest that family policy and family law are likely to differ regionally. Moreover, the differences in the age at marriage and the incidence of teen births are relatively recent in origin. The entire country experienced a decline in age at marriage and an increase in the teen birthrate in the 1950s; the subsequent decline in fertility and increase in the age at marriage, in contrast, has been far more regionally concentrated, with the changes occurring more thoroughly and dramatically in the Northeast and more slowly in the South, the Mountain West, and the Plains.

The differences in family structure, of course, do not occur in a vacuum. We recognize, for example, that they strongly reflect wealth and that wealth plays a major role in reinforcing both the political and family patterns we describe. Moreover, we realize that family formation varies within the states. White Californians, for example, may experience patterns more like that of Massachusetts, while the large Latino population in California marries and bears children at younger ages, producing state totals distinctly different from those of the South or Northeast. We also make no statement about causation; we cannot say, for example, that a pregnant 19-year-old is choosing to conceive and bear a child because she lives in Mississippi rather than Massachusetts, or even that the Mississippi teen has become pregnant because of a lack of access to contraception, less optimism about her economic future, racial patterns that make early sexuality more common for blacks than whites, or religious patterns that discourage use of birth control or abortion, though we note that others have looked at these issues.

Finally, we acknowledge that our red and blue family paradigms intersect with other cultural constructs. Mormon life in middle-class Utah, for example, may differ significantly from rural life in Baptist portions of Arkansas even as they both embrace portions of the social conservative family frame. Indeed, we suspect that while there may be one dominant blue pattern for the well-educated, there are at least two comparable red patterns. The poorer red areas, such as Arkansas and Oklahoma, combine high rates of early marriage with high teen birthrates. The somewhat better-off families in states such as Utah and Nebraska have high rates of marriage at younger ages with relatively lower levels of teen pregnancy.

Despite the differences within and between states, however, we believe that the cultural differences between regions of the country frame the world views voters bring to the ballot box and the milieus in which legal issues are decided. Issues related to marriage, contraception, abortion, and divorce take on different symbolic and practical meanings if young adults characteristically marry at 22 rather than at 29, and if teen pregnancy is a routine pathway to marriage rather than an inopportune event to be managed. Moreover, we suspect that political attitudes might well vary between states where over half the population lives in married-couple households versus those where household patterns are more diverse.

Causation, however, runs in multiple directions. Bill Bishop's book The Big Sort argues that the regions have become more distinct -- and different from each other -- as the like-minded have become more likely to move closer to each other. He maintains that the most dramatic movements have occurred in the country's technological centers (e.g., Silicon Valley in California or the high-tech corridor near Boston), which attract well-educated, ambitious -- and overwhelmingly blue -- professionals. Steve Sailer, a columnist at the American Conservative, notes further that states where the costs are lower (cheaper housing and family-related expenses) are more likely to be Republican, suggesting that family-oriented Americans may be voting with their feet as they also seek out more family-friendly communities. Moreover, even if diversity exists within each region, and even if regional differences reflect an amalgam of income, class, race, and the ethnic origins of the original European immigrants who settled there, they frame family law decision making. Other scholars are examining the correlations among these factors and finding statistically significant connections between family styles and voting patterns. Michigan political scientists Ron Lesthaeghe and Lisa Neidert, for example, have demonstrated that family characteristics showed a significant correlation with voting preferences in the last three presidential elections.

They measured family factors in terms of a host of variables that include postponing marriage and childbearing, overall fertility, marriage, abortion, and cohabitation rates, which they describe as indicators of the second demographic transformation (SDT) and which we link to the blue family paradigm. The political scientists found that the weaker the state's score on the composite SDT measure, the more likely it is to vote Republican, which "is to our knowledge one of the highest spatial correlations between demographic and voting behavior on record."

What we are doing in our analysis is both simpler and more complex than that of the political scientists. It is simpler in that we are not performing the type of statistical analysis they perform. Although we accept their more-sophisticated calculation of the strength of the correlation between family characteristics and voting patterns, we do not attempt to say whether each of the variables we discuss independently correlates with political preferences. Instead, we break down the components of their term, "second demographic transition," to examine the role of factors such as teen births or abortion rates in the construction of family understandings.

In the process, we have begun to unlock the factors that help determine the acceptability of legal innovations. Family life has changed in the United States, it has changed unevenly across the country, and it is a major factor determining the life chances of the next generation -- and aggravating the increased inequality that characterizes our society. The critical question for us is understanding the legal frameworks that create and reinforce different pathways to family life, such as the variations between support for abstinence-only education or contraception, the restrictions on or broader availability of abortion, the creation of family-friendly workplaces, and the meaning of marriage or cohabiting relationships. Having observed substantial demographic variation between regions, this brief exercise convinced us to probe further. We wondered what accounts for these regional differences and whether they are reflected in the law. Finding some answers requires returning to the broader literature on the family to which both of us have contributed.

Reprinted from Red Families v. Blue Families published by Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright 2010 Oxford University Press, Inc.