(Oliver Munday for The Washington Post)

It is at “the center of the public policy process,” Ronald Reagan asserted in his 1988 State of the Union address. It is “the foundation of American life,” Bill Clinton agreed in his 1996 address to Congress. It will “always be front and center” in President Obama’s agenda, the White House has declared.

What are they talking about: Democracy? National security? The economy? No. They’re talking about the family.

Odes to families — their values, their struggles to make ends meet, their efforts to protect their children — have been broadcast in nearly every political campaign in recent times. Mitt Romney, in his speech accepting the Republican nomination last month, made the promise “to help you and your family” his central message. Obama, in his convention speech, argued that this election will have a huge impact “on our children’s lives for decades.” And at both conventions combined, “families” was the fourth-most-mentioned word or phrase, right behind “jobs,” “Romney” and “Obama.”

Of all the interest groups and voting blocs courted in a campaign, the family reigns supreme. Presidential candidates from both parties frame themselves as good for families and, by extension, good for the country. And while targeting families seems like an inclusive strategy, it’s actually very exclusive: Candidates speak mostly to the experience of middle-class, married parents. They rarely talk about the struggles of the 30 percent of parents who are not married or the 18 percent of families with children who are in poverty, trying to enter the middle class.

And for most of the 20th century, the American family was simply not on the political radar; its rise to prominence has been recent. In the 1952 campaign, for example, Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson rarely mentioned family or parents. Over the next several decades, the few times Republicans or Democrats mentioned “the family,” it was usually in reference to the plight of poor families, disadvantaged children or family farmers.

It was only when the traditional family structure began to unwind, starting in the 1970s — when divorce rates rose, mothers streamed into the workforce and more people began having kids outside marriage — that the parties began to politicize the family. These dramatic changes complicated the lives of many parents and were viewed as an assault on the American way of life, creating dissatisfied constituencies that both parties have furiously tried to court: parents, especially mothers, stressed out by trying to balance increased work and family responsibilities; and more-traditional voters who became deeply concerned about the decline of the conventional family.

This focus became most apparent in 1992, when the phrase “family values” exploded onto the political scene — highlighted most dramatically in Pat Buchanan’s controversial “culture war” speech at the Republican convention, in which he railed against the Democrats’ “radical feminism” and “anti-family” agenda. That was also the year that presidential candidates’ wives began the tradition of extolling their husbands as family men at the conventions.

Like Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton before them, Ann Romney and Michelle Obama have been high-profile figures on the campaign trail, emphasizing how their husbands’ roles as fathers are part of what makes them qualified to be president. This was the central theme of Romney’s GOP convention speech, which she wrapped up by underlining the stakes of this election: “This is our future. These are our children and grandchildren. You can trust Mitt.”

In her speech at the Democratic convention, the first lady emphasized her husband’s concern for families: “Barack knows what it means when a family struggles. He knows what it means to want something more for your kids and grandkids.” And she reminded us that her No. 1 job remains “mom in chief,” heavily emphasizing the importance of family in the Democratic Party’s vision.

Having a picture-perfect family of your own seems almost a prerequisite for reaching high-level office. Not only does Mitt Romney often speak of his five sons and 18 grandchildren, but all of his sons are busy speaking on their father’s behalf. And as Michelle Obama highlighted Tuesday night, the president insists on having dinner with his family at least five nights a week.

The two parties strategically invoke the family to articulate the most important disagreement between them: What is the appropriate role of government in the day-to-day lives of Americans? Democrats cite families when they advocate for more regulation and stronger government programs, while Republicans hold up the family when calling for lower taxes and less government. For example, Romney’s “Believe in America” plan, drawing from his book “No Apology,” states: “Lower taxes and a simpler tax code will help families and create jobs.” Likewise, Obama’s campaign Web site defends the Affordable Care Act by emphasizing that it provides security for working families.

And although the Republican Party has come to be associated with “family values,” both parties have played large roles in making parenthood political. In 2000, for example, Al Gore referred to families 50 times in accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, explicitly defining “family values” as protecting Social Security and Medicare and passing a new drug benefit for seniors. In fact, Democrats have relied on themes of family and parenthood even more than Republicans over the past few elections. In 2008, the Democratic Party devoted an entire section of its platform to “Fatherhood,” something neither party had done previously. It implored fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives and proposed government initiatives to support dads, including “providing transitional training to get jobs” and “expanding maternity and paternity leave.”

The politicization of parenthood has also reinforced the parties’ gender gap, in which Democrats draw far more female voters than do Republicans. Our research comparing the political attitudes of men and women, with and without children, from 1972 to 2010 shows that motherhood is associated with more robust support for the social welfare state, while fatherhood is associated with the opposite.

Detailed studies show that women are spending both more time working and more quality time with their kids than mothers of previous generations. This juggling act makes moms more likely to see government programs and regulation as an ally in their efforts to care for, protect and raise their children. Generally, mothers are more open than fathers to the messages of the Democratic Party, which pledges to help working families through more regulation (e.g., mandating family-leave policies, raising the minimum wage) and increased funding for public education, health care and job training.

Parenthood has a liberal influence on all mothers: married, unmarried, white, nonwhite, wealthy and working-class. And given that parenting affects the day-to-day lives of women more than men, it is not surprising that being a parent more heavily influences women’s political views.

Surveys show that both men and women still expect men to be the main economic providers for their families and respond to fatherhood by working more hours outside the home. As a result, men are more likely to view government programs, and the taxes they entail, as undermining their ability to provide for their families. Thus, fathers are drawn to the appeals of the Republican Party, which emphasize minimal government and lower taxes as the best ways to support and strengthen families.

After decades of using “family” in a rather offhand way, since 1980 the Republican Party has made clear that it is interested in protecting one particular type of family: a mother and father bound in marriage. While the 2012 Republican platform states that “we recognize and honor the courageous efforts of those who bear the many burdens of parenting alone,” it makes clear that “traditional marriage” is the ideal and should be protected. This position energizes social and religious conservatives but may account for the party’s lack of appeal among single parents, especially mothers.

Meanwhile, under Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party replaced pledges to help low-income families and poor parents, which had been common in its public statements, with promises to help working parents and middle-class families. For example, in his 1996 convention speech, Clinton held up welfare reform as a “new social bargain with the poor,” in which social welfare programs would help poor children but not their parents. Since the 1990s, working parents and working families — groups with much greater aspirational appeal and, because of their sheer size, electoral influence — have become the new marginalized groups that need government intervention and for whom the Democrats must fight.

The problem is that both parties have given up any talk of helping poor families, instead focusing on an idealized, narrow slice of family life — married and middle-class — leaving some of the hardest, most pressing issues facing American families off the agenda.

Family-based appeals can be smart politics. After all, Americans describe their families as the most important part of their lives. The two-parent, middle-class family is viewed like apple pie and celebrated with stick-figure stickers on the backs of minivans. But this constricted view of families provides a skewed vision of what they need: quality, affordable day care; the opportunity to buy homes in safe neighborhoods with good schools; the ability to provide food, health care and a college education for their children; and perhaps most important, time to spend with their kids. The parties should start talking about concrete policy solutions to the soul-tugging work-family balancing act that so many mothers and fathers are left to solve on their own.

Moreover, campaign odes to mothers give child-free women — and moms who have concerns beyond those associated with motherhood — a smaller place in the political spotlight.

Will the political parties, the self-proclaimed champions of the American family, offer meaningful solutions for all types of families having trouble affording child care or putting food on the table?

They should. Because right now, single parents and those in nontraditional families aren’t getting invited to the feel-good family dinner that is American politics. And these voters could be just the dinner guests the parties need.


Laurel Elder and Steven Greene are associate professors of political science at Hartwick College and North Carolina State University, respectively, and co-authors of “The Politics of Parenthood: Causes and Consequences of the Politicization and Polarization of the American Family.”

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