Democrats need to pitch to parents

June 19, 2005|By Susan Reimer

Parents have a beef with popular culture," writes sociologist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. Republicans understand that and are reaping the rewards at the polls.

Married parents of young children represent 28 percent of the electorate, and George W. Bush won that bloc by 15 percent in 2000 and by 19 percent in 2004, after Bill Clinton narrowly lost the group in 1992 and narrowly won it in 1996, she writes in a recent issue of Blueprint magazine.

That is a huge voter swing, and Whitehead makes the case that parents were attracted by the perception that only the Republicans are on their side in the culture wars.

"Republicans have been targeting married parents with a conservative populism that depicts Democrats as amoral, secularizing elitists who are anti-God, anti-America, anti-family and anti-heartland values," she writes in the magazine published by the Democratic Leadership Council.

"Astonishingly, the Democratic response has been to sit back and take it," says Whitehead, who is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

Whitehead explains that parenthood is an experience that changes behavior in predictable ways. No matter how wild or carefree our single youth, as parents we become what she calls "life-stage conservatives," more closely connected to family and community, more religious and more likely to vote.

Knowing that, Democrats should speak up and make the case that they are on the side of parents as they battle the entertainment industry for the souls of their children, she writes.

"These corporate Goliaths invest huge amounts of time and money thinking up ways to appeal directly to children, right over their parents' heads," Whitehead writes. Additionally, parents are up against an ever-changing set of technologies that are small, portable, personal and defy their oversight.

Parents are overmatched and they perceive that only Republicans understand this and support them.

Whitehead proposes that Democrats put forth their own "progressive cultural populism" to steal back the podium from Republicans, or at least give them equal time on the stage.

"Any good populist appeal begins by identifying with the worth and dignity of Americans who work hard, play by the rules, and thereby make the nation stronger and better," she writes.

Praise the important job parents are trying to do, she says, and say out loud that any corporation that tries to undermine that job is on the wrong team.

"Siding with the people against powerful interests is populism," she writes. "But what makes it progressive is the core belief that rearing children is not just a private responsibility for parents to bear alone. The public has an interest -- and the state has a role -- in supporting parents and in leveling the playing field."

Historically, Democrats cringe at anything that smacks of restrictions on the First Amendment, but that does not mean the party can not speak out for a safety zone in which parents can raise their children free from the powerful hand of the marketplace.

After all, they have done it before, Whitehead reminds. Democrats were at the forefront of the Progressive Era, when child labor was banned and education made compulsory.

President Clinton understood this, she writes, and that's why he used the bully pulpit of the State of the Union address to endorse school uniforms. There was little chance his proposal would be adopted, but by speaking out he made it clear that he understood parents' concerns about the heavy marketing of expensive shoes and clothes and the violence that sometimes accompanied competition for these prestige items.

Democrats are not only ceding this issue to the Republicans, and with it the support of the nation's 33.6 million married parents, but they put their own future at risk.

After all, Whitehead writes, parents are busy rearing the next generation of voters.

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