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Massachusetts' Family 'Justice'









By Professor Stephen Baskerville, Ph.D.
June 27, 2004


Will Fathers Lead the New Conservative Revival?

The latest wisdom holds that the group to watch in this election is "NASCAR dads." Feminist pundit Ellen Goodman sensibly urges Democrats not to neglect men as a voting bloc. But her men are identified, strangely, by their private pastimes, not their public concerns. Feminists used to oppose stereotyping. "Soccer moms" seldom objected to the appellative; perhaps the attention was enough to soothe any ruffled dignity.

The Democrats' discovery of men is valid, but the spin is not only condescending; it is self-defeating. Howard Dean's pitch to the common man was not in itself misplaced. It was the terms he used to identify his desired supporters that were insulting. Whatever "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," "NASCAR dads," or "Joe six-pack" may have in common as political figures, few are likely to endorse a candidate who identifies them with their recreations. I may enjoy stock car racing or a beer now and then, or for that matter the opera and twelve-year-old whisky, but either way I am unlikely to allow these enjoyments to determine my voting decisions and will suspect any politician who suggests I should.

In fairness, Goodman and the Democrats do try to engage issues. Regrettably, their political stereotypes are almost as shallow as their cultural ones. "Democrats want the fathers of the kids without health insurance to desert the guy who gave tax cuts to the rich," Goodman observes.

This is an appealing theory. Possibly it is not happening because the NASCAR dads have their heads so befuddled with beer and racing that they cannot think and vote as the enlightened classes believe they should.

I suspect the more serious impediment is that the "kids without health insurance" are also likely to be kids without fathers. Given the choice, most fathers will prefer that their children have fathers, whereupon they will worry about the health insurance themselves. If the government provides the health insurance, there is less need for the fathers. They may also find it easier to provide that health insurance if the government was not taxing them (along with "the rich") to provide them (along with "the poor") with health insurance.

Goodman provides us here with only one instance of how our major political issues are becoming, as the feminists say, "gendered," why our elections are producing a widening "gender gap," and why the Democrats are rapidly becoming a party largely for unmarried women.

She also indicates why the salience of family issues (same-sex marriage, welfare reform, proposals to promote "healthy marriages") is likely to elevate into prominence not the swelling ranks of single women, as the conventional wisdom suggests, but fathers. Not NASCAR fathers; just fathers.

Natural Conservatives

The fact is that for decades the Democratic Party--and left-wing parties throughout the welfare-state democracies--have been instituting policies that make fathers redundant. Not "feel" redundant: redundant.

Yes, we heard a lot about the importance of fathers during the Clinton years ("deadbeat dads," "batterers," "pedophiles"). But what we are hearing now is less about fathers and more from fathers.

What perspective do fathers bring to the current political agenda? Mostly a conservative one. As those on the receiving end of feminist and media vilification, extortionate judicial activism, avaricious lawyers, and the anti-family tendencies of the welfare and divorce machinery, fathers and their loved ones have become natural conservatives. They also provide a pool of millions of voters, many of whom are ethnic minorities who have not traditionally identified with conservatism and who could decisively tip the political balance.

But ideology may be less important than moral authority. In fact, fathers may challenge conservatives to recall their own principles and take the moral high ground in preference to stop-gap solutions and short-term political advantage.

Some conservatives do perceive a "whiney," mildly hedonistic quality to men's grievances. "The last thing we need in America is yet another victim group, this one made up of seriously aggrieved males," writes columnist John Leo (who nevertheless feels concerned enough to warn of the dangers of male-bashing). Complaints about unfair divorce settlements (while often justified) often do not sit well among social conservatives who dislike divorce in the first place.

But fathers are different than men generally, a difference stemming from the demands and the perspective of parenthood.

For example, some conservatives are tempted to alleviate the welfare conundrum by tapping fathers for more child support. While this may bring short-term gains (but in fact seldom does), it will result in long-term increases in fatherless children, since child support subsidizes single-parent homes. Welfare should not be a machine for creating fatherless children, even when their material needs are met.

Likewise, the administration's plan to address this problem with a $1.5-billion program of marriage therapy has been criticized from the left (dishonestly) for encouraging "abusive" marriages.

The more telling case against it is that it creates a government-approved marriage curriculum allowing psychotherapists to define (and redefine) marriage with a government imprimatur. Rather than grasp the nettle--which is easy divorce laws that encourage and even reward single motherhood--welfare officials are trying to create the appearance of action by spending money on unproven and possibly counterproductive programs. Thus far, the recipients of most marriage money have been child support agencies, again subsidizing divorce and fatherless children.

The return of masculinity has been a favorite theme of conservative writers of late. But masculinity is not enough. Fathers bring something more to the table than courage, audacity, and physical strength. They offer the hope of returning to a politics constructed, from the "grassroots," on civic responsibility rather than political ideology.

Unlike political professionals, fathers are not activists but citizens: political amateurs--literally, those who "love." Activists may profess a love of humanity, but this love is proven only by devotion to an abstract and all-encompassing "cause" which inevitably subordinates actual human affections to an ideological solidarity, to which only the zealous few may devote their lives.

Citizens are moved to public service by traditional allegiances whose strength is tested and renewed in the daily trials of life, endured by all of us: love for family, cooperation with neighbors, loyalty to country, and faith in God.

It is an ideal that, in a very short space of time, has been all but lost in modern politics. And it is very likely that no one can restore it, except possibly the fathers.

This article first appeared in the Human Events 3-2-04. Printed with Permission.

� 2004 Stephen Baskerville Ph.D. - All Rights Reserved

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Stephen Baskerville holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and teaches political science at Howard University in Washington, DC. In January 2004 he became President of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children.

He has appeared on national radio and television programs, including The O�Reilly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews, Court TV with Fred Graham and Katherine Crier, Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg, Endangered Liberties with Paul Weyrich, Legal Notebook with Tom Jipping, the Armstrong Williams Show, Take Action America, and others. He is a regular radio commentator for the Free Congress Foundation.

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The fact is that for decades the Democratic Party--and left-wing parties throughout the welfare-state democracies--have been instituting policies that make fathers redundant. Not "feel" redundant: redundant.