Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Q: What Caused the Culture Wars? A: Globalization and the Pill

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

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.


Matt said...

I don't know for sure about "generations of Americans", but if applied more broadly some of the ideas in the quoted section are just false, and an example of not really looking at history. For example, in Victorian England, for working-class men or even just people without family money, the average age of marriage was about 25 or even higher, because it took that long to gather up enough money to support a family. For women, if they got married, the average age of marriage was about 19. But marriage rates were lower than now, and the young men were not really expected to abstain from sex- this was an age with huge numbers of prostitutes and semi-prostitutes (and they high point for pornography, before the internet), and it was just as common or more so for a lower-class girl who got pregnant not to marry but to give the baby up, have a (dangerous) abortion, or just become unmarriable, at least for some time. (Such people did sometimes marry later, but usually not the father of the child.) There's a strong tendency to project an idealized vision of the 1950's back into time and all over the world, but this should be resisted. (Globalization is also a lot less new than people often think, too. It's arguably that the globalizing factors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were more desabilizing than those today.)

Russell Arben Fox said...


You're surely right to critique Rauch (or, if it comes to that, Cahn and Carbone) for a lack of sense of history. Obviously, the Industrial Revolution--and, more pertinently for the United States, the economic and demographic shifts which accompanied WWII--massively changed the way people grew up and developed family expectations. However, if one allows that the history is flawed, their specific argument still seems to me to hold: for a generation or two (perhaps three, but as per your suggestion probably not), families living in America's industrial/urban core, and the rural environments which supported it, could expect that there'd be work of some sort available to young men who knocked up their girlfriends, and so the consensus against divorce and the expectation that people would grow up and assume their duties functioned, mostly. But then things changed: women gained the ability to enter the workplace (concomitant to the protected sexual status of women disappearing), and the work available to men who hadn't waited to become sexually active (with the ensuing childcare responsibilities) tried up. No doubt there were other variables to the change (I need to read Cahn and Carbone's book for myself), but on the surface, this is good way make sense of the fact that "Red" and "Blue" America are, in a sense, still fighting over the 60s.

Hector said...


What you say is quite true (and in the mid 19th century the age of marriage in Ireland was even higher, low 30s for men and mid 20s for women, because of the difficulty of making a living). It was even higher in some especially poor parts of Ireland, and has always been high in Europe compared to other parts of the world- the picture we get of people marrying off their daughters at 14 was more a habit of the nobility, not the general population. In America though, marriage age was always lower and birth rates higher then in Europe, because of the ease of makin g a living.

I've heard it said that there was a time during the middle ages when Christian morality in Ireland and England was more lax/liberal then it later became, and where there was something called a 'celtic marriage' tolerated, but I can't vouch for that.


In general I'm on the liberal side in this debate, and think the blue family model is generally a better one. It has serious problems of its own though, and what I really would prefer is something in between. I suppose that makes me deep purple. :) Specifically, states like Massachusetts have far too many abortions (though really any abortion for non-therapeutic reasons is too many).

Of course on the other hand, the Scandinavian countries, which epitomize Blue State values, have much lower abortion rates than the United States. So it would seem the problem isn't so much with more liberal ideas about sex and contraception per se, as the fact that in America, those have often been associated with more liberal ideas (legal and cultural) about abortion as well. I'm all for responsible use of birth control and sexuality, but abortion is neither moral, responsible, or acceptable.

Aloysius said...

Superficial. Looking at states and not people will not provide any real insight. Conservatives may be a majority in red states but there are (in many red states) large minorities with non-conservative social values that threaten the family and provoke the conservative reaction.

Russell Arben Fox said...


I fully agree with you about abortion, as you know, which is one of reasons I support Scandinavian-type policies where possible in the U.S.: given that a significant amount of abortion (allowing for a constant level of unprotected sexual activity) is driven by poverty and/or absent family structures, policies like health care and day care enable women in one or both of those situations to feel less desperate, and less likely to choose to abort. Of course, one could also plausibly argue that getting rid of the sort of prohibitive norms which prevent the legitimation of sexual activity is exactly the sort of moral break-down which makes abortion loom as a viable choice in the first place; hence, the problem (from the perspective of the abortion opponent, anyway) really is entirely cultural. But the data which Rauch summarizes suggests that, at the very least, that cultural change has been massively abetted by socio-economic transformations as well.


Granted that looking at states can be misleading (here in Kansas, much data is skewed by the way the Lawrence-Topeka-Kansas City metropolis outweighs much of the rest of the state). However, your reference to "large minorities with non-conservative social values" suggests that you see the data Rauch summarizes--regarding divorce rates, for example--as reflecting the behavior of these minorities, not the "conservative social values" population as a whole. Is that correct? If so, then you have some serious explaining to do. The notion that the high divorce rates of Mississippi or Arkansas are entirely due to some set of liberal elites in Jackson or Little Rock makes no sense whatsoever, as local marriage and divorce info, broken down county by county, will show.

Aloysius said...

I don't have the wherewithal or time to do the research but do this thought experiment. Let's say a state is 60% conservative voters and 40% "blue" voters. Lets also say that blue non voters outnumber red nonvoters. Among the blue class there is possibly a significantly higher divorce rate, unwed birth rate or some other social dysfunction.

Could this not account for higher rates in some states than one would expect from conservative voting patterns? This may be especially true if there is a significantly higher minority population in that state than say Massachusetts.

Anyway my point is that red state/blue state issues are not a statistically viable way to look at social dsysfunction and politics.

Camassia said...

I can't find the documentation for this at the moment, but I remember in an adult Sunday school course a few years back we read something by a guy who'd researched sexuality in conservative and liberal churches. He found pretty much the same pattern -- people in conservative churches were more likely to have "non-traditional" families than liberal ones. His interpretation was similar to Rauch's -- that people from more distressed circumstances feel the need for more stringent standards. I don't remember the researcher's name, but I seem to recall that George Barna and Robert Bellah have commented on the same phenomenon.

Church affiliation and political views aren't exactly the same, but they probably have a closer correlation than geography, so the fact that churches correspond with the red/blue divide seems significant. On the other hand, I wonder if local norms about church attendance have something to do with it. Maybe in conservative areas the churches get a wider cross-section of the populace.

MH said...

My guess is that a large part of the culture wars stems from different views about 'hard times.' Much of the traditionalist view is non-adaptive if you are trying to maximize (materialistic) utility in the current setting. Much of the liberationist view is maladaptive in any other setting. In other words, I don't think you can hold the liberationist view without also holding that humanity (or whatever part of humanity you belong to) has permanently escaped extreme privation.