Public Display

By Andrew J. Cherlin
Sunday, September 7, 2008

With the debut of the Palins before a nationwide audience, a presidential campaign that was supposed to be about the economy, Iraq or even race has unexpectedly become -- for a little while, at least -- a conversation about family. But even before the surprising news of 17-year-old Bristol Palin's pregnancy, the Obamas, Bidens and McCains had spent an inordinate amount of precious convention time introducing us to their loved ones: videos, scripted shout-outs, smiling tableaus as the confetti came down. Both parties clearly thought that it was crucial for the candidates to show how deeply they value their family lives.

But if the candidates wished to convince viewers that their families were just like ours, they were undone by a 21st-century reality: There is no typical family anymore -- at least not in terms of who lives in the household and how they are related. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin noted as much on Wednesday. While introducing her clan to a cheering crowd of the Republican faithful, the GOP vice presidential nominee said: "From the inside, no family ever seems typical. That's how it is with us."

In fact, the diversity of American households was the unspoken lesson of both conventions, as four strikingly different kinds of families came into view. First, the Obamas. The Democratic nominee's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, spoke to the Denver crowd, highlighting his biracial family background, dominated by an often single mother and a largely absent father. Obama's wife Michelle also took a powerful turn at the podium, focusing on her husband's biography but also playing up her own high-powered career and modest roots. The Bidens were introduced to a national audience that week as well, a stepfamily formed after the tragic death of the senator's first wife. With the McCains, we see another stepfamily, formed this time after the senator's divorce. Their family also includes Bridget, a daughter adopted from Bangladesh. And the Palins bring to the stage two working parents with five children, including a pregnant teenager and an infant with Down syndrome.

Divorce itself is not new to the presidential politics -- Ronald Reagan and John F. Kerry both campaigned with second wives by their sides -- but never has such an extraordinary range of family histories been center stage.

A half-century ago, when the two-parent, breadwinner-homemaker, first-marriage family was at its peak, all of the candidates would have conformed to the same mold. In the 1950s, iconic TV shows -- the ones that you can still find while channel-surfing -- celebrated the Cleavers and their ilk. Ward went to work and earned enough so that his single paycheck could keep June, Wally and the Beaver happily provided for at home. Sentiment against divorce in public life was so strong that New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's presidential aspirations were stymied in 1964 because he had recently divorced and remarried.

But the Cleavers are only available in reruns now, and the prominence of the breadwinner-homemaker family rapidly declined in the last third of the 20th century. Married women moved into the workforce, divorce rates rose, and more children were born outside of marriage.

That traditional family unit has been replaced by a wide variety of living arrangements. Today, only 58 percent of children live with two married, biological parents. Many others live with stepparents or with single parents. Even having a pregnant teen in the home is not that unusual: About one out of six 15-year-old girls will give birth before reaching age 20, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The candidates seemed to realize that none of their families is typical in the old sense. None of them tried to look like the '50s family. Instead, they focused on being "typical" in a different, 21st-century sense: They worked hard to show us how emotionally close they are.

Over the past few decades, the emotional rewards of family life have become more important to Americans, as compared to the rewards of bringing home a paycheck or raising children. In a 2001 national survey conducted by the National Marriage Project, more than 80 percent of women in their 20s agreed with the statement that it's more important "to have a husband who can communicate about his deepest feelings than to have a husband who makes a good living."

Personal satisfaction, the feeling that your family is helping you grow and develop as a person, communication, openness: These are the kinds of criteria people use in evaluating their family lives. Practical concerns still matter, but if that's all that holds your family together these days, people may view it askance. Given the demographic diversity of American families, emotional closeness, not who the Census takers find in your home, has become the new gold standard.

And so all four aspiring first and second families, despite their differences, appealed to the voters in much the same way. Each wanted to show how much support and warmth they provide to one other. What matters here is not whether your current wife is your first or second but whether you draw emotional strength from her. So Obama refers to his wife as "my rock" and McCain says of his wife, Cindy, "she's more my inspiration than I am hers." What matters is not whether your teenage daughter is pregnant but whether you provide loving support to her. So Palin and her husband issued a statement assuring the nation, "As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support." What matters is being a loving, devoted father, even after the tragedy of losing one's spouse. So Biden's son Beau introduced his father to the Democrats in Denver as "my friend, my father, my hero."

This is not to say that the modern family is a free-for-all, choose-your-own-Thanksgiving-guest-list adventure for everyone. Social conservatives, for instance, still hold the family to stricter moral standards. In 1998, sociologist Penny Edgell asked all of the pastors in four upstate New York communities whether they agreed with the statement, "There have been all kinds of families throughout history, and God approves of many different kinds of families." Eighty-eight percent of pastors from the more liberal Protestant denominations agreed; none of the pastors from conservative denominations did. Social conservatives tend to disapprove of divorce except in cases of infidelity or desertion. They teach their children to abstain from sex until after marriage. But the religious right's reaction to the news of Bristol Palin's pregnancy shows they are willing to embrace a family that deviates from their ideals if the parents are willing to support each other and their children through difficult times. As former Baptist preacher, Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee said last week, "People of faith aren't people of perfection."

What is important today, in other words, is not who you live with -- and how you're legally bound to them -- but rather how you feel about them.

This is a barrier-breaking election in so many ways. But apart from the race and gender hurdles being trampled, the 2008 campaign has also shown that Americans, whether from red or blue states, have embraced a broad definition of what constitutes a family. Some traditionalists may lament the decline of the first-marriage, single-earner households. But diversity, in this case, has clear virtues. Would we really want to go back to an era when a divorce disqualified a person from running for president? Come November, it is unlikely to bother many voters that McCain is on his second marriage or that Michelle Obama had a demanding career or that Palin's daughter is facing what used to be called a shotgun wedding.

Of course, Americans' tolerance for family diversity still has limits; many voters, for instance, find it difficult to accept gay and lesbian unions. In 2004, Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of Vice President Cheney, sat in the audience with her partner as her father delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. But the couple did not join the rest of the Cheney family on stage afterward and did not sit with the vice president when President Bush delivered his speech the following evening.

If the trend toward embracing greater diversity continues, however, convention stages a generation from now could easily look quite different from this year's. We could all be watching as a gay or lesbian candidate shouts out to his or her "rock" or "inspiration": a same-sex partner, smiling from the VIP box.

Andrew J. Cherlin is a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company