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.