Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Families of Duty; Families of Choice

Thanks to Orcinus blog for offering a link to an excellent article that takes a serious, insightful, compassionate view of a subject that so frustrates liberals -- why so many working class people vote Republican when it seems so much against their economic interest. The article, "Red Family, Blue Family" by Doug Muder, takes a serious, in-depth look at the appeal of (social) conservatism to working class families and discusses why seemingly innocuous liberal proposals can be very threatening to them.

The liberal/conservative distinction is describes is one between what he calls Inherited Obligation families and Negotiated Commitment families. An Inherited Obligation family is a typical extended family of the kind commonly seen in pre-industrial times. Extended families form a close-knit support network, helping and protecting each other. Unmarried adults live with their parents until they marry. Newly married couples stay close to the community to participate in it. Children care for their parents in their old age. People form life-long attachments within a network of kin. This entails obligations and duties to one's family and rules and roles that must be followed, but in exchange ensures protection against ever being alone and offers a regular network to draw on for material and moral support.

The Negotiated Commitment family, on the other hand, has no fixed roles or rules, but allows the members to work out whatever arrangements suit them best. And, as Muder points out, there is a basic asymmetry here. An Inherited Obligation family poses no threat to a Negotiated Commitment family. Indeed, many people who live in Negotiated Commitment families look upon the security and closeness of Inherited Obligation families with a good deal of warmth and nostalgia. But the reverse does not apply. Negotiated Commitment families pose an inherent threat to Inherited Obligation families, simply by making family membership and rules voluntary. Everytime liberal call for gay marriage or other actions to "broaden" the definition of family or make it more "inclusive," they threaten families of Inherited Obligation by making more and more rules voluntary.

Economics plays a role here, too. Professionals and people relatively high on the income and education scale don't need protection and security from the sort of family network that people closer to the margins need. General economic upheaval and dislocation make working class people more and more dependent on extended families. The weakening of government-funded social programs again makes the support of family and church more critical. And (although Muder does not address the issue) the weakening of unions has also undercut another important support system for working class people and once agan forced them to fall back more on relatives. All of which means that anything that allows families to self-define and makes family obligations voluntary is not merely a threat to moral values. It presents a real threat to economic security.

So, then, what is wrong with Inherited Obligation families? Who does not feel a certain attraction and nostalgia for families that stuck together and helped each other out? What is wrong with a close-knit network of mutual protection and support? One simple liberal answer is that it unduly infringes on the individual. Everyone's role is clearly set forth in such a system. A lot of square pegs are forced into round holes. But, one might say, what of it? Perhaps the benefit to society is worth the inconvenience to a few eccentric individuals.

Muder give the answer in another article, "It's Not Hypocrisy", namely, the Inherited Obligation model just does not work very well in today's society. A variety of factors are undermining it. Modern industrial capitalism call for a degree of individual mobility that undermines close-knit communities (as do the economic upheavals industrial capitalism can create). Growing ethnic variety introduces new groups of people, all with different concepts of Inherited Obligation. And mass media and general culture are calling the old obligations into question. The modern world cannot be shut out. As Muder puts it, "[O]nce the questioning starts, people who have been trained not to question are in trouble, because they have no answers. On the other hand, people who have been trained since childhood to question the rules until they find answers that satisfy them -- the liberal model -- are in much better shape." He goes on to point out that conservative states and conservative churches have higher rates of divorce (and drop-outs and teenage pregnancy, and crime) than liberal ones. In short, the old rules can no longer be maintained. Families with overly rigid rules are breaking; the only way to save families to to make them flexible enough to bend.


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