Bright Ideas: Cahn & Carbone, Red Families v. Blue Families

My colleague, Professor Naomi Cahn (GW Law School) and Professor June Carbone (U. Missouri at Kansas City) have recently published a very provocative and interesting new book, Red Familes v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford University Press,2010).  Their book examines the fact that “red” states, despite more restrictive family law, have higher teen pregnancy rates and higher divorce rates than “blue” states.

SOLOVE: What inspired you to write the book?

CARBONE & CAHN: We saw the commentary on the 2004 election about moral values and when we saw the statistics on higher divorce rates in the red states, we reacted, “But we know why that happens, red families marry at younger ages and age is a risk factor for divorce.” When we inquired further, we found the differences were much greater than that and worth much more exploration.

SOLOVE: What are the most central ideas of the book are?

CARBONE & CAHN:  There really are two family systems , and one is in crisis while the other is doing reasonably well. The “blue” one invests in women as well as men, delays family formation until after young adults reach emotional maturity and financial independence, and views sexuality as a private matter. The “red” system is a traditional one that continues to preach abstinence, early marriage, and more traditional gender roles. The blue system arose in response to the needs of the post-industrial economy while the religious backlash against the new values has locked red families into a war against modernity.

The two systems map onto increasingly ideological divisions in American politics, and make family a point of intense contestation.

The conflict between the two systems produces counterproductive results, such as abstinence education that has the most disproportionate consequences for poor women.

The solution is to reforge values at the state and local level while keeping the pathways (e.g., access to contraception) open through national efforts.

SOLOVE: What was your most surprising finding?

CARBONE & CAHN: We were surprised to find that the relationship between age and divorce is new. While teen marriages have always been risky, those who married at 22 in 1980 had about the same levels of divorce as those who married at 28; today, every increase in age reduces the incidence of divorce. This is surprising to us because it suggests that what is going on is not biological, that is, that the improved stability of later marriage is probably a function of better assortative mating (i.e., the successful marry later and marry similarly successful mates) rather than greater maturity at later ages. It also suggests that what’s wrong with marriage in the early twenties is the absence of the right societal support rather than anything about the immaturity per se of those in their early twenties.

SOLOVE: From the findings in your book, it seems that law as well as moral beliefs don’t actually lead to behavior that would be consistent with the values behind the law or the moral beliefs. One hypothesis is that law and moral pronouncements are a response to a perceived problem, so that the problems are driving the creation of the law and the strong articulations of morality. Another hypothesis is that people are hypocritical, such that those who proclaim values the loudest are likely to be the ones violating those values. Yet another hypothesis is that the passage of law and articulation of morality in these areas results in more rebellious behavior. Or there may be another factor at play. What do you think explains for the findings in your book?

CARBONE & CAHN:  We agree with the first point, viz., that those who in fact experience more family problems place more emphasis on public affirmation of values.

Rather than hypocrisy, we see the differences in terms of culture. “Red” culture — the Bible Belt, the working poor, etc. — place more emphasis on public affirmation of fixed values. In private, they believe in sin, redemption, and forgiveness. But “sin” and “forgiveness” uphold what are perceived to be fixed, eternal values. The blue world believes in internalized values, autonomy and public tolerance. It sees values as contextual and private. It’s okay for you to be abstinent, but not okay to impose it on me, and certainly not ok for you to preach abstinence for me, while you are running around with a mistress. In the red world, the hypocrisy is understandable, because the values are fixed and the “sin” is wrong. In the blue world, values are chosen, and the hypocrisy comes from insisting on values to impose on others that you are not yourself following. In the red world, acknowledging that individuals can choose their own values is deeply threatening because it means the values are not fixed. So the two groups talk past each other.

As far as the law goes, we see this as part of long term struggle between two groups of elites — the more technocratic, modernist and egalitarian left v. the more religious, traditionalist, and authority-oriented right. Each group wants its perspective to dominate legal decision-making, at least at the symbolic level. We see the biggest risk for the courts is that confidence in the rule of law can be undermined by the same kind of partisan and ideological gridlock that has hamstrung Congress. As far as the law affecting behavior, though, the larger issue is not the articulation of norms as much as the pathways of transformation — reducing the teen birth rate through greater access to contraception has more of an impact on the next generation than marriage promotion programs or bans on same-sex marriage.

SOLOVE: Thanks very much for the interview.  The book is Red Families v. Blue Families, published by Oxford University Press in 2010.

Readers interested in Cahn and Carbone’s ideas should check out their recent post at Huffington Post.

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4 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    One question that I have about early marriage is whether the transition to more stable marriages at older ages is gradual or abrupt. For example, it seems entirely common sensical to me that divorce rates would be higher for those who marry in their teens. On the other hand, I wonder if there is a dramatic difference in divorce rates for those who marry when they are 30 versus those who marry when they are 23. Also, I wonder to what extent early marriage is a proxy for low levels of post-secondary education. Obviously, early marriage can cause low levels of post-secondary education, but I wonder, for example, if divorce rates are significantly higher for people who marry shortly after college graduation — say when they are 23 — and people who marry when they are in their 30s.

  2. June Carbone says:

    Paul Amato (Alone Together, 2009) has some good data on the relationship between age and marital stability, and he does show that in 2000, but not in 1980, stability continues to improve with every increase in the age of marriage into the late thirties. Stephane Mechoulan, an economist who has looked at changes in divorce rate by state, has done more sophisticated regression analyses that demonstrate that once controls are put in for education and other factors, much of the difference disappears, but a small, statistically significant effect remains. (Divorce Laws and the Structure of the American Family, 35 J. Leg. Stud. 143 (2006))

  3. Wow – blue and red “family systems” (and is there any doubt as to how we should assign values to those designations?)

    Yet strangely, here in the very Blue state of Maryland, there has been no discernible delay in family formation in our “bluest” areas nor have I detected any huge investment in women in those Blue strongholds…except, of course, to the extent that some of them didn’t delay family formation and, absent marriage….

  4. Nate Oman says:

    June: Thanks for the citation. Does Paul Amato’s work show a steady increase in the durability of marriages or do we see diminishing or increasing marginal stability with age?