Academics Judge The Values Divide

Posted March 22, 2010 at 3:44pm

Following the 2004 election, featuring a standoff between “compassionate conservative” President George W. Bush and liberal Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for the presidency, family law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone took a look at the way personal values affect Americans’ political perspectives.

Cahn, a professor at the George Washington University Law School since 1993, said she and Carbone looked at the contrast between families in states that voted for Kerry and those that voted for Bush. Their world views affected the way they voted and subsequently the laws in each state, according to their new book, “Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture.”

“We just thought what we had found was so neat and also so startling that there were these differing life patterns in the United States,” Cahn explained in an interview. “What was surprising to us was matching that up with where people lived and how they voted and then also looking at the different kinds of laws that supported those systems.”

Carbone, a family law professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, met Cahn years ago as their paths crossed for professional reasons. They co-wrote their first article in 2002, but this is the first book the two experienced authors have written together. Cahn said the idea for the book came after the election, but they didn’t start working on it in earnest until a couple years later. They used their own case analysis, others’ law review articles and census data to uncover how the law varies depending on the values of the people in that state. The distinction between blue families and red families is found in those values.

“How we defined the blue family was a blue family invests in women as well as men, it delays family formation until both men and women have reached emotional maturity and financial independence,” Cahn said. “It also views sexuality as a private matter, so it generally views marriage and family life as being based on autonomy.”

A red family, on the other hand, has more traditional values, promoting abstinence until marriage, early marriage and heterosexual marriages, she said.

Cahn said that though she and Carbone would personally identify more closely with blue families, as they delayed marriage and children until after earning advanced degrees, they tried not to make value judgments about red and blue families. She said both groups have similar priorities — such as a better future for their children — but they pursue them in different ways.

Ultimately, Cahn said she hopes readers find new ways to bridge the cultural divide. Red families and blue families can agree, for example, that there need to be new ways to balance work and family. Others are a matter of reframing the debate.

“One is changing the subject from abortion to contraception, not exactly easy in this current debate over the health care bill,” she suggested.

The two authors will discuss “Red Families v. Blue Families” at 2 p.m. Friday in the Young Faculty Conference Center at GW Law School.