Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesday victory speech — while giving a nod to “every American” and “young people” as well as immigrants, women, people with disabilities and those who identify as LGBT — mentions “family” or “families” five times. There were seven mentions of “family” or “families” in President Obama’s final State of the Union address. There was also one mention of a single mom, a growing group that politicians have increasingly been talking about ever since President Bill Clinton made his own story of being raised by a single mom part of the national discourse.
But single moms’ needs aren’t necessarily the same as those of other unmarried women or men.
This is hardly a new problem; in a 2000 opinion essay in the New York Times, journalist K.A. Dilday bemoaned the fact that politicians ignored the unmarried.
As Dilday observed, there’s a challenge in lumping all singles together: “This rather large and amorphous body does not define itself as a group; the voters in it are also often folded into other target demographic categories, including younger voters, ethnic groups, divorced people, widowers and those older adults who have never married.”
Sixteen years later, more people are identifying as single — and many do want to be seen as a group. So why can’t politicians talk specifically to them? To understand why, I spoke to speechwriters, political scientists, a linguist and voting experts. All agreed that political language is changing, albeit slowly.
“Politics and political language [are] largely about people in groups,” said David Kusnet, former chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, as well as for Democratic presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. “There’s the country, there’s the community and then there’s the family. Single people may not have spouses and may not have children, but they have families.”
Single people do indeed have families — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, if not siblings. Yet that typically isn’t the family that comes to mind when we hear politicians talking about “American families.”
But as Mary Layton Atkinson, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina, notes, policies that help families often help singles, too.
“Of course we want to improve the country for the nation’s kids,” Atkinson said. “That is one of the few things most Americans agree on, so it’s a popular topic for political candidates. On the flip side, politicians don’t talk much about single adults, because the public just doesn’t see this as a group that is especially in need of help. If single adults, or a sub-group of single adults, do face a problem that the public becomes aware of and concerned about — like young workers who are saddled by huge college loans — politicians will address it. But without a salient problem in need of a solution, politicians are unlikely to focus their efforts — or their speeches — on plans specifically designed to improve the lives of single adults.”
Page Gardner, founder and president of the Voter Participation Center, wouldn’t quite agree with that. It’s true that some widely supported policies have particular resonance with single people, such as equal pay and college debt, and politicians increasingly have tried to address those issues. But Gardner said there’s a gap.
“What’s missing is the unique discussion around what it’s like to be on your own,” she said. “I don’t think many elected officials understand the huge demographic changes in this country as it relates to marital status. There needs to be a whole new mind-set of how we create a country that supports people who want to be good citizens, who contribute to the economy, who contribute to the country … and have public policies that support them.”
Even unmarried politicians tend to downplay their singleness and don’t especially associate themselves with their unmarried brethren. Just look at Lindsey Graham, the never-married South Carolina senator who dropped out of the GOP presidential race early. While he joked about having a rotating first lady, he never directly addressed issues unique to singles.
While single fathers are almost never mentioned in political speeches (and there are 2.6 million of them), single mothers are, a lot — and not always kindly.
It makes sense that people might be much more sympathetic to the plight of single moms, many of whom live in poverty.
“Our moral systems are family-based,” said George P. Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and author of numerous books on political thought. Technically, single people constitute a family, but many singles don’t necessarily want to be single all their lives, Lakoff added. “They have an ideal, and that ideal is the family,” he said.
Because we’re all born into families, and some singles want to have children one day, family is part of everyone’s identity and that shapes, often unconsciously, our identity and our reactions, Lakoff said.
Mary Kate Cary was single and one of just a handful of women speechwriters when she worked for President George H.W. Bush from 1988 to 1992. She was very aware that there was little in the speeches she or anyone else on her team wrote that spoke directly to her experience as a single woman. Since her time in the White House, she has argued that having more women speechwriters — paid on par with their male counterparts — would move the dialogue forward.
Political speech entails getting as many people as possible, including singles, to nod their heads in agreement, Cary said. “If you start slicing it into sectors, you get into trouble. The smart ones figure that out.”
Still, she does see change. “You do hear a lot more attention to single women than you do about single men. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because in the past single women were basically invisible and now they’re not,” she said. “The vocabulary is changing because you have so many families widely defined, in terms of two moms, two dads, or people who describe their family as friends.”
We may be far from the desires of those like law professor Martha Albertson Fineman, who believes government should stop privileging married couples and offer the same perks and protections to anyone who is a caretaker. But it’s not impossible to imagine policies that would create more equitable taxes that didn’t penalize people for being unmarried; encourage the development of smaller, more affordable housing options; and end housing discrimination based on marital status. Those changes are doable.
At the very least, politicians could use more inclusive language — “hard-working individuals” instead of “hard-working families.” Because most of us are.