Defining the terms of a debate ahead of the opponent helps one side to control it. The far right today owns the family issue. The right is willing to speak to it directly and assertively whereas the left treats the family issue as an afterthought, a lesser priority than race and gender.
The left’s looking away from the family weakens its position with other issues, such as education and crime, where the family also matters pivotally. What results from disinterest on the left and a too-narrow ideal on the right is a middle ground where no one meets.
It’s a familiar pattern. The far right stakes out its defense of the traditional, married family with the husband in charge and the wife as a stay-at-home mom. It attacks forms that it sees as a threat to this ideal, including married gays, single parents by choice, plus unmarried adults living together — and worse — also raising children. It seeks policies and court rulings that favor its family form and punish the others.
The left reacts, not by defending a more embracing ideal of the family, but by attacking conservatives for threatening the rights of gays, women, and racial minorities.
This counter puts the left on the defensive; it also prevents them from speaking affirmatively about the fundamental importance of healthy, loving family life in whatever form it takes. In fact, it is so concerned about rights, that affirmative talk about strengthening marriage (other than the individual right of gays to wed) or expecting people to responsibly form and love their families, is dismissed as conservative, oppressively traditional, or worse, racist.
What remains is a political playing field in which the middle ground on the issue stands empty. The right’s side holds a clear, yet unacceptably limited, standard. The left, however, has no standard: it simply rejects the entire conservative position, and it pursues individual rights to the detriment of its own, better, definition of the family. In the end, to the far left, these rights matter more than the family as an institution.
But what would the middle look like were the family not displaced from civil, political discourse by this desperate extremism?
The middle ground would embrace deep commitment to family formation, which entails marital commitment. It would recognize that people are built differently, and that a good marriage, straight or gay, is good for its partners and for society. It would affirm equality between women and men, and apply this equality to marriage as well as to work. It would identify racial discrimination as a force that has undermined the black family but would remind us that marriage is not a white idea: It evolved from diverse cultural and religious traditions. It would acknowledge that not all marriages work out, and would support those who keep their families viable under whatever conditions they might find themselves.
Without healthy and loving families, those controversial areas of policy — education, crime prevention, and health, for example — just won’t deliver the results we need. We need to rebuild the middle ground around the family as a step toward building it around others.
Rich Kordesh, Ph.D., is an Oak Park resident and the author of ‘Restoring Power to Parents and Places.’