Ed: “Family Values” rhetoric is a major tool used by the right to gain votes and score morality points. But it’s the progressive left that actually takes steps to help families. Two weeks ago, a the Progressive Family Values Conference took place at Yale, where progressive thinkers came together to discuss these issues and strategize ways to incorporate our values into policy. The following is a commentary from one NYU Law student who attended the conference. It’s interesting stuff, so read on! And now, on to Colin:
A guest post by Colin Parent, NYU 3L, and former president of the NYU Law Chapter of the American Constitution Society
The American Constitution Society (ACS) is a relatively new organization of progressive law students and lawyers. Among their varied actives is a series of conferences for students and lawyers designed to develop a progressive vision of law and policy in America.
This most recent conference was premised on an understanding that the term “family values” has taken on a traditionalist connotation, popularly considered a reference to a certain social conservative ideology. But progressives also have values relevant to ensuring successful families. The function of families, from giving care to dependents to providing a fulfilling home life are all functions progressives have an interest in advancing.
With this in mind, among the conference’s stated goals were to push back against “progressive shyness” with respect to speaking about family values. But the conference was about more than just terminology or progressive rhetoric. Instead, the assembly aimed to encourage serious thought and conversation over how Americans can structure their laws and policies to protect their progressive family values.
A large classroom of the Yale Law School held the majority of the conference’s program, rimmed on all sides with portraiture of storied alumni and faculty. Professor Alexander Bickel, who famously questioned the democratic credentials of judicial review (the “countermajoritarian difficulty” he called it), patiently peered over his legal progeny, dressed in a smartly tailored suit of simple brush lines.
Under Bickel’s watchful eyes, the classroom sat 75 or so participants, including mostly students from Yale with a representative from Columbia and four of us from NYU Law. In addition were scores of faculty, community members and our well-credentialed panelists.
The formal program included three panels. The first asked for a general survey of “What are progressive family values?” The second outlined the challenges on the ground for families and asked “What’s not working for families?” The third synthesized the two into a discussion on how to advocate for progressive family values, in the courts, through politics and in every day life.
Most, if not all of the panelists spent their entire day in the room, contributing to the discussion. It was quite an experience to witness legends like Reva Siegel and George Lakoff discuss at length the challenges facing American families today. As a late edition to the final panel, Priscilla J. Smith, who recently litigated Gonzales v. Carhart, provided attendees with her grim reactions to the week-old decision, and glowered over the future of American choice jurisprudence.
Throughout the conference, several important themes reappeared in the discussion.
Among them was a persistent question of “what is a ‘family?’” Conservative rhetoric limits that term to a nuclear married heterosexual child-rearing unit, to the exclusion of all others. But even conservatives recognize that family includes care for aging dependents and other sorts of non-nuclear arrangements. Suggested definitions for family were varied, but included necessarily vague descriptions as “things that provide the goods that families provide”. Those goods included a veritable host, from childrearing, to economic safety nets, to more indefinite and psychic values of fulfillment and intimacy in the home – the sweet mysteries of life.
Themes also included repeated clarification that progressive family values should not be cabined as a concern only of women, and that the function of families were not limited to childrearing. These reservations were usually given immediately before speakers began presentations on the function of childrearing by families, or on gender inequalities affecting women and families. Several speakers commented, sometimes with humor, that their clarifications were indications that even dedicated smart progressives found themselves caught in a persistent feminization of family concerns. But others offered solutions, suggesting for example that progressive men bear some of the burden in their workplaces, to volunteer their voices to ask their employers about pro-family policies.
Among the most compelling themes of the conference were economic. Families often operate as economic units, and caregiving is expensive, whether in rearing children or in supporting adult dependents. And the costs compound. Dependents require expense and attention and the caregivers forfeit economically productive activity to care for others, leaving themselves dependent for their own financial support.
Many panelists identified interdependentness as linking much of these economic concerns. The conservative view of family emphasizes self-reliance and autonomy. Encouraging work and self-reliance are important goals shared by progressives. But where health or other uncontrollable factors are at issue, no amount of personal responsibility can guarantee protection from catastrophic economic loss for ones self or for their family.
Especially poignant were figures from panelist Jacob S. Hacker’s book “The Great Shift,” which explains that half of the nearly one million bankruptcies in the United States each year are the result of families’ unexpected medical or financial crisis. Placing the burden of risk on families, the conservative free market approach, undermines families stability and success. Many argued that to ensure that families thrive, society must recognize limitations of the market model and find ways for society to share in the risks that families now bear.
There were some themes at the conference that kept below the surface, and were generally unspoken. Strikingly, perhaps never mentioned by the panelists was the question of how to structure law and policy to protect families of same sex couples. It was perhaps a foregone conclusion that none of the panelists or participants believed that same sex couples couldn’t, or shouldn’t be considered equally under normative and policy views of family. But the meta-questions of what constituted a family, and what policies and legal framework would protect and advance the interests of families, didn’t require stratification by divides of heterosexual and homosexual coupling. The interests of opposite-sex and same-sex couples were considered largely aligned, even if current legal structures do not provide them the same recognition. Although some exceptions to this presumed alignment were discussed, specifically the prevalence of gender inequality within families.
At the close of the formal presentation of the conference, attendees shifted to the Law School’s bright and formal dining hall. Appetizers and drinks were shared for an hour before attendees sat with panelists over dinner to discuss the presentations made earlier in the day.
Among the NYU delegation, I sat with George Lakoff and enjoyed discussion not only on progressive family values, but the quality of rhetoric by the Democratic presidential candidates. We also shared some ideas on favorite restaurants in our home state of California. The ACS makes significant efforts at structuring its events so that students interact with progressive practitioners and academics, fulfilling its commitment to building a network of the likeminded. I’ve been to several ACS conferences, on several topics, and this effort at movement-building is a consistent character of their events.
Attendees surely understood the conference was not the end of the endeavor. We have a long way to go to construct a cohesive and persuasive vision of progressive family values. Family values aren’t the domain of conservatives, and progressives have every right to develop and advance our views of family. We have a responsibility to promote those views, not just to advance our politics, but to protect our families.
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