POLITICS: by Allan CarlsonNews Weekly
Plight of families under uncontrolled capitalism
, May 27, 2006
Can conservative parties be depended upon always to support the traditional family? Not at all, says prominent American family activist Allan Carlson.The new US Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act - enacted last year, after a long delay, with support from congressional Republicans - makes a "clean start" after filing for bankruptcy much more difficult for families with at least one wage earner.
Instead, most affected households will find themselves essentially indentured to a bank or credit card bureau, paying off their debt for years to come. "A new form of feudalism," one critic calls it.
Significantly, though, the new law made no real changes on the lenders' side, measures that might have reined in an increasingly predatory credit industry.
It is common knowledge, for example, that credit card companies intentionally urge financially troubled families to borrow still more money, because they can charge these households exorbitant interest rates.
As one Citibank executive has candidly observed, "They are the ones who provide most of our profit." Late payment fees, another favoured industry device, reportedly deliver over 30 percent of credit card financing revenue.
True, in the context of America's new debt-driven economy, this treatment of financially troubled families may constitute "good business". More fundamentally, though, the Grand Old Party (GOP)'s opting for an outcome that's good for Citibank's profits while disregarding the effects on families should cause no surprise.
Some history may help here. The modern "family issues" are actually about a century old. The first openly "pro-family" president was a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt. Between 1900 and about 1912, he wrote and spoke often, and eloquently, about the dangers of a rising divorce rate and a falling birth rate.
He celebrated motherhood and fatherhood as the most important human tasks, and described the true marriage as "a partnership of the soul, the spirit and the mind, no less than of the body". He blasted as "foes of our household" the birth control movement, equity feminism, eugenics, and liberal Christianity.
However, the Rough Rider was the only prominent Republican of his time to think and talk this way. The dominant wing of the GOP tilted in favour of the banks, the great industries, and - perhaps more surprisingly - the feminist movement.
Indeed, as early as 1904, the National Association of Manufacturers had formed an alliance with the feminists, for they shared an interest in moving women out of their homes and into the paid labour market. When the feminists reorganised as the National Woman's Party in 1917, the manufacturers' association apparently provided secret financial support. More openly, Republican leaders embraced the feminists' proposed Equal Rights Amendment, first advanced in Congress in 1923. The GOP was also the first major party to endorse the ERA in its platform.
Meanwhile, the Democrats consolidated their 19th-century legacy of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion": that is, as the party favouring beer halls, the new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, southern agrarians, northern Catholics, small property, the trade unions, and - importantly - the "family wage" for male workers. This cultural and legal device sought to deliver a single wage to fathers sufficient to support a wife and children at home.
The Democrats also welcomed the "Maternalists" into their ranks, female activists who - while believing strongly in equal legal and political rights for women - also emphasised the natural differences between the sexes when it came to childbirth and child care. They favoured federal programs for the training of girls in home economics and for "baby saving", meaning efforts to reduce infant and maternal mortality.
They fiercely opposed working mothers and day care. Under this Maternalist influence, every New Deal domestic program openly assumed or quietly reinforced the goal of a "family wage" and the model American family of a breadwinning father, a homemaking mother, and an average of three or four children.
In short, from 1912 until 1964, the Democrats were - on balance - the pro-family party. The Republicans, on balance, were the party of business interests and the feminists.Destruction of family wage
All this changed between 1964 and 1980 with the emergence of the "Reagan Democrats". This radical reorientation of American domestic politics began with debate about adding "sex" to the list of prohibited discriminations under Title VII (employment issues) of the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964, a fascinating event that ended with the addition of "sex" and the ensuing legal destruction of the "family wage" regime.
The broad transformation continued with the rise of the "pro-family movement" during the 1970s, behind early leaders such as Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich. It ended in 1980 with the solid movement of northern Catholics and southern evangelicals into the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan, a proud four-time voter for Franklin D. Roosevelt and a lifelong admirer of the New Deal, explained his 1980 victory to a group of Catholic voters this way:
"The secret is that when the left took over the Democratic Party, we [former Democrats] took over the Republican Party. We made the Republican Party into the party of the working people, the family, the neighbourhood, the defence of freedom. And yes, the American Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance to One Nation Under God. So, you see, the party that so many of us grew up with still exists, except that today it's called the Republican Party."Alliance with Wall Street
In fact, this was only partly true. For the Republican Party, as reshaped by Reagan, now saw pro-family social conservatives in political alliance with the interests of the banks and the large corporations. Main Street and Wall Street were under the same tent, which was a very new development.
So, how well has the Republican Party performed as the party of the traditional family? Since 1980, pro-family activists have successfully shaped Republican platforms that oppose ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, endorse a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade
and protect pre-born infant life, and call for pro-family tax measures.
The Tax Reform Act of 1986 doubled the value of the child-friendly personal exemption and indexed it to inflation. Ten years later, another tax bill created a new Child Tax Credit. George W. Bush's 2001 tax cut raised this credit to $1,000 per child and began to eliminate the tax code's notorious marriage penalty.
Judges with pro-family records have won presidential appointment to federal courts, most recently Samuel Alito.
Even so, all is not well within the existing Republican coalition. Indeed, there are other indicators that the Republican Party has done relatively little to help traditional families. Certainly at the level of net incomes, the one-earner family today is worse off than it was 30 years ago, when the GOP began to claim the pro-family banner. In contrast, the real earnings of two-income married couple families rose by 35 percent over the same years. Put another way, families have been able to get ahead only by becoming "non-traditional" and sending mother to work or forgoing children altogether. As the Maternalists had warned, eliminating America's "family wage" system would drive male wages down and severely handicap the one-income home. So it has happened.
Despite the economic pressures, though, such families are not extinct. They still form core social conservative constituencies such as home schooling families and families with four or more children. But again, they have little to show from the years of the Republican alliance.
Or consider child care. In 1971, Richard Nixon signed a Republican-designed measure also backed by the National Organization for Women (heir to the GOP-favoured National Woman's Party). This law allowed families to deduct day care costs from their income tax, cleverly labelling them "business expenses." This has since grown into a credit worth between $1,500 and $2,100 in reduced taxes for households using day care. Even the wealthiest qualify.
Meanwhile, families that sacrifice a second income to keep a mother or father at home receive nothing except a higher net tax.
Add to these examples the bankruptcy reform measure discussed earlier, and ask: What do these issues have in common? All three are matters where the interests of big business and the interests of traditional, one-breadwinner families have collided, and in each case the Republican Party has sided in the end with business.
Concerning one-income families, the great corporations continue to view them as a waste of human resources, artificially raising labour costs by holding adults at home. For the same reason, large businesses generally favour federally subsidised day care, for it creates incentives for mothers to work rather than care for their children.
Another troubling new issue is the Federal Government's child support collection and enforcement program. There is mounting evidence that the system now encourages marital break-up and exacerbates fatherlessness by creating a winner-take-all game, where the losing parent - commonly a father wanting to save the marriage - is unfairly penalised by the loss of his children and by a federally enforced child support obligation. Here we find objectively false feminist views - the assumption that men are always the abusers and women are always the victims - driving public policy. Phyllis Schlafly calls this runaway federal law the most serious danger facing American families today.Reagan Democrats
Democrats often dream of wooing the "Reagan Democrats" back into the fold. Democratic strategist Stanley Greenberg, who actually coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats," argues that "a new, family-centred politics can define and revitalise the Democratic Party." Its message should highlight "family integrity and parental responsibility".
If the Democratic Party remains the party of the sexual revolution, as its open yearning for same-sex marriage suggests it may, such dreams will remain just that.
Moreover, when push comes to shove, social conservatives remain second-class citizens under the Republican tent. During the 2004 Republican convention, they were virtually confined to the party's attic, kept off the main stage, treated like slightly lunatic children.- Allan Carlson is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois. The above piece is a shortened version of an article that appeared in The Weekly Standard (Washington DC), March 27, 2006.