Resurgent Parenthood: Organic Domestic Ideals and the Southern Family Roots of Conservative Ascendancy, 1980–2005


Accounts that focus on the “southernization” of the Republican Party and the subsequent conservative ascendance in American party politics emphasize the role of race and civil rights issues, or battles over sex and gender, but none analyze the significance of family in shaping this partisan rightward shift. Meanwhile, literatures in fields other than party politics have engaged family more centrally, highlighting the rising salience of parents to legal and political development. This article connects and contributes to these literatures by analyzing the impact of parenthood and family on political party development. I demonstrate the increasing salience of “parents” as a political ideal in late twentieth-century policy discourse, reveal an overarching organic family frame in which it was used, and trace this frame to Southern domestic ideals and to the growing importance of the South to the Republican Party. In so doing I provide a “family-centered” account of the late twentieth-century conservative ascendancy and suggest the centrality of family – and parenthood – in defining it.

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  1. 1.

    For example, see Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of the Southern Republicans (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003); Joseph E. Lowndes, From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Origins of Modern Conservatism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009); Dan T. Carter, From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race and the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963–1994 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

  2. 2.

    See, for example, Robert Self, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012); Christina Wolbrecht, The Politics of Women’s Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001); Kira Sanbonmatsu, Democrats, Republicans and the Politics of Women’s Place (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003); Jo Freeman, A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002); Catherine E. Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

  3. 3.

    See, for example, in history, Self, All in the Family (see previous note); J. Brooks Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of the Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right (Atlanta: Georgia University Press, 2011); Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking, 2005); Natasha Zaretsky, Direction Home: the American Family and the Fear of National Decline, 1968–1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). For a notable exception in political science, see Patricia Strach, All in the Family: The Private Roots of American Public Policy, (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007). For a comprehensive review of recent work on family in political theory and American politics, see Brian Duff, “Family and Citizenship in Political Theory and Political Science,” Journal of Family Theory & Review 6 (2014): 45–59.

  4. 4.

    June Carbone, From Partners to Parents: The Second Revolution in Family Law (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), xiii.

  5. 5.

    Stu Marvel, “The Evolution of Plural Parentage: Applying Vulnerability Theory to Polygamy and Same-Sex Marriage,” Emory Law Journal, 64 (2015): 2048–88, at 2054; and Yvonne Zylan, States of Passion: Law, Identity and the Social Construction of Desire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 24–50.

  6. 6.

    Laurel Elder and Steven Greene, The Politics of Parenthood: Causes and Consequences of the Politicization and Polarization of the American Family (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012); Robert Urbatsch, Families’ Values: How Parents, Siblings, and Children Affect Political Attitudes (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 21–42.

  7. 7.

    Jill S. Greenlee, The Political Consequences of Motherhood (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014); Cynthia Stavrianos, The Political Uses of Motherhood in America (New York: Routledge, 2015); Kristin A. Goss, The Paradox of Gender Equality: How American Women’s Groups Gained and Lost Their Public Voice (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013).

  8. 8.

    Greenlee, Political Consequences of Motherhood, 11, 72 (see previous note).

  9. 9.

    I located family-related hearings from 1980 to 2006 from the Congressional Universe database by using family and domestic relations keywords comparable to those used in party platforms and bills, yielding 554 family-related hearings. I manually examined hearing transcripts to identify real-life family narratives. Each case when a member of Congress interacted with a family narrative through questions or comments and raised a policy issue was coded as one case in the data set. By so doing I compiled a data set of 1102 such family cases or anecdotes that members of Congress had referred to. I coded each case for characteristics of the family: region and city of residence, family size, income, population density of city/town of residence, addictions of family members, civic participation, receipt or not of welfare services, religious identification, working and marital status of parents; I also coded the characteristics of the congressperson, namely: party, committee name, state, and region. In this way, I am able to empirically connect idealized family characteristics to members of Congress and, in the aggregate, to their parties. For more on this methodology, details of findings in this and other historical periods, and my argument about the development of family as an evolving political ideal across the Progressive, Post World War II, and late-twentieth century periods, see Gwendoline Alphonso, Polarized Families, Polarized Politics: Sectional Families, Political Parties & the Emergence of Culture Wars in America, 1900–2005 (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming).

  10. 10.

    Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), 203.

  11. 11.

    Ibid., 203.

  12. 12.

    Ron Lesthaeghe and Lisa Niedert, “The Second Demographic Transition in the United States: Exception or Textbook Example?Population and Development Review 32 (December 2006): 669–98; see also Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, Red v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 34–35.

  13. 13.

    I analyzed Republican and Democratic platforms from 1900 to 2012, yielding 58 primary documents consisting of 17,489 paragraphs in all. Using the platform paragraph as my unit of analysis, each was coded as a “family paragraph” if it addressed the family (as a unit, or parents, children, and spouses as members of a family) through a coherent and discernable policy issue. I defined paragraphs as being delimited by a hard return; thus, they were as short as one to two sentences or as long as many sentences. I excluded planks that addressed women or children as individuals and not in their familial capacity, relation, or role. For more details on the evolution of family as a policy issue in party platforms and bill sponsorship, see Alphonso, Polarized Families, Chapter 1 (see note 9 above).

  14. 14.

    I identified family-related bills by examining each year’s Congressional Record Index and searching under index headings that corresponded to family keywords found in concurrent platform paragraphs. This yielded 538 bills for the Progressive era (1899–1920), 457 for the Postwar period (1945–1954) and 1028 bills for the late twentieth century period (1989–2004). For instance, both parties’ platforms discussed the family in the early twentieth century in pledges on veterans’ pensions and homestead policies. I consulted “pensions” and “public lands” headings in the Congressional Record Indexes for the relevant periods.The period since 1980 is unlike the others insofar as “the family” is now a separate heading in the annual Congressional Record Index listings. In each era, I defined family narrowly and included only those bills whose titles invoked a family relation (spouse, parents, dependents) or an aspect of family life (such as marriage, pregnancy, or family property). For instance, bills whose titles and synopses referred to “women” or “children” only generally and without mention of their family role or context were excluded. It bears noting that the increase in family-related bills in the late twentieth century Congresses could correlate to institutional developments in Congress, such as the increase in the number of subcommittees following legislative reforms in the 1970s. See, for instance, Nelson Polsby, How Congress Evolves: Social Bases of Institutional Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). However, the analysis of institutional dynamics is outside the scope of the study. Instead, my objective is to describe the increased policy attention to family and to analyze its partisan dynamics in terms of discourse, ideology, and politics. Increased attention to family is corroborated by platform data, which shows that the parties increased three-fold the percentage of their platforms devoted to family and family policy issues after 1968, compared with the platforms in the 1900–1968 period.

  15. 15.

    N=1028 family-related bills. Through a method of close induction and content analysis of bill titles, I identified that these five categories were the most important ones and then coded each bill as falling primarily in one or the other category.

  16. 16.

    See, for example, Linda L. Lane, “The Parental Rights Movement,” University of Colorado Law Review 69 (1998): 825–50, at 825. Feminist political theorists who highlight equality rightly critique the assumption of family autonomy in liberal theory and emphasize the privatization aspects of family in conservative political discourse, See, for example, Martha A. Fineman, The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency (New York: New Press, 2005); Maxine Eichner, The Supportive State: Families, Government, and America’s Political Ideals (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Linda McClain in this symposium, “The Family, the State, and American Political Development as a Big Tent: Asking Basic Questions about Basic Institutions,” Polity 48 (2016): 224–42.

  17. 17.

    Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, “A Public Role in the Private Family: The Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act and the Politics of Child Protection and Education,” Ohio State Law Journal 57 (1996): 393–430, at 395.

  18. 18.

    Ibid., 395.

  19. 19.

    Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Private Sector Initiatives: Examination of the Private Sector Initiatives to Promote the Health and Wellbeing of American Families, 98th Cong., 2nd sess., 1983, 1; on the importance of preserving family integrity and autonomy in social policy also see, Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Work Ethic: Materialism and the American Family, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., 1982, 7.

  20. 20.

     Republican Party Platforms: “Republican Party Platform of 1992,” in Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, at, accessed August 15, 2015.

  21. 21.


  22. 22.

    Allan C. Carlson, “The Family and the Constitution,” The Family in America 3 (1989): 1–8, at 8.

  23. 23.

    Don Browning, “When Theory Meets Practice: Communitarian Ethics and the Family,” in Marriage in America: A Communitarian Perspective, ed. Martin King Whyte (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 293–300, at 294. For communitarians, rights and responsibilities are “basic moral values” that “should be balanced with one another…at all times and all places.” Individual-centered rights thus needed to be counterbalanced against society-centered responsibilities. See Amitai Etizioni’s seminal works The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society (New York: Basic Books, 1996) and The Spirit of Community: Rights on Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda (New York: Crown, 1993).

  24. 24.

    Peter Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household: Families, Sex, and the Law in the Nineteenth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

  25. 25.

    On nineteenth-century differences in Northern and Southern family ideals and/or the distinctiveness of Southern family ideals, see Rebecca Edwards, Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 12–38; Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household, 82, 84, 117–19 (see previous note); Laura F. Edwards, The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 169–86; and Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996). On regional family ideals in contemporary politics/policy, see Cahn and Carbone, Red v. Blue Families (see note 12 above); and Nicole Mellow, The State of Disunion: Regional Sources of Modern American Partisanship (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 179.

  26. 26.

    Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household, xii (see note 24 above). Also, Rebecca Edwards contrasts similar sectional family ideals in her assemblage of the “maternal family ideal” of Republican Protestant Yankees in the nineteenth century, as differentiated from a southern-based Democratic family ideology centered on “domestic male authority,” in Angels in the Machinery, 23 (see previous note).

  27. 27.

    Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household, 23 (see note 24 above).

  28. 28.

    Ibid., 25

  29. 29.

    Edwards, The People and the Peace, 169–201 (see note 25 above). For work extending Edwards’s argument to antebellum race determination and patriarchal authority in Louisiana, see Gwendoline Alphonso, “Public & Private Order: Law, Race, Morality and the Antebellum Courts of Louisiana, 1830–1860,” Journal of Southern Legal History 23 (2015): 117–60. See also Ariela Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America (Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008) on the importance of juries, social customs, and norms in the determination of race-based patriarchal authority within the household.

  30. 30.

    Edwards, People and their Peace, 112–13 (see note 25 above).

  31. 31.

    Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Subcommittee on Family and Human Services, Broken Families: Oversight on the Breakdown of the Traditional Family Unit, Focusing on the Effects of Divorce, Separation, and Conflict within Marriage on Children and on Women and Men, 98th Cong., 1st sess., 1983, 3.

  32. 32.

    Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Subcommittee on Children and Families, Encouraging Responsible Fatherhood: Examining Initiatives to Encourage Responsible Fatherhood, 104th Congress, 2nd sess., 1996, 2.

  33. 33.

    Black and Black highlight the transformation of Southern representatives most clearly, starting with presidential voting during the Goldwater campaign in 1964 and then in congressional voting and partisan identification almost a generation later, beginning in the 1980s and surging in the 1990s in their Rise of Southern Republicans, 11–20 (see note 1 above).

  34. 34.

    House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Improving American Education: Roles for Parents, 98th Cong., 2nd sess., 1984, 8; see also witnesses’ remarks on how exactly parents fulfill social role obligations – through “shared governance,” learning “new parenting skills,” and so on 10, 41. In this way, Republican members of Congress (and the antebellum Southern domestic ideal) differed from late twentieth-century academic communitarians. Legislators approached parental authority more instrumentally, as a mechanism to enhance the overall social order, whereas communitarian proponents were more deontological, approaching the restoration of parental authority as an intrinsic moral goal. On the deontology of communitarian philosophy, see Don Browning, “When Theory Meets Practice,” 294–95 (see note 23 above).

  35. 35.

    See, as examples of increasing testimony highlighting parents’ stewardship and decision-making role: Statement of Elizabeth McGee, National Child Labor Committee, House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Teen Parents and Their Children, 98th Cong., 1st sess., 1983, 81; Statement of Elaine M. Amerson, House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Parents, the Missing Link in Education Reform, 100th Cong., 1st sess., 1987, 15, 17; Statement of Gen. John A. Wickham, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Paternal Absence and Fathers’ Roles, 98th Cong., 1st sess., 1983, 18.

  36. 36.

    Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) Chair, House Committee on Economic and Education Opportunities, Parents, Schools and Values, 1, 41

  37. 37.

    House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Infancy to Adolescence: Opportunities For Success, 100th Cong., 1st sess., 1987, 110–11.

  38. 38.

    Reverend George W. Hall, Truro Episcopal Church, witness, Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Broken Families, 270 (see note 31 above). See also these examples of other hearings on parents and entertainment censorship: Senate Committee on the Judiciary and Committee on Governmental Affairs, Joint Hearings, Rating Video Games: A Parent’s Guide to Games, 103rd Cong., 1st sess., 1993, 1994; Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, Rating Entertainment Ratings: How Well Are They Working for Parents and What Can Be Done to Improve them? 107th Cong., 1st sess., 2001; and Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Why the Government Should Care About Pornography: The State Interest in Protecting Children and Families, 109th Cong., 1st sess., 2005.

  39. 39.

    After 1865, the end of bondage, the lynchpin of the antebellum Southern domestic order, necessitated an enhanced “state paternalism” in which the state intervened far more extensively into Southern households, such as through the development of external standards of parental evaluation in child custody and protection cases. However, here too, state intervention grew significantly only in those families, particularly those of the indigent, where parents were deemed to have failed in some way; See Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household, 157–65 (see note 24 above).

  40. 40.

    The regulatory aspect of the emergent conservative parent ideal resembles the enduring “obligation” side of the “rights” coin, as Priscilla Yamin has highlighted in the case of the political construction of marriage in the United States. See her American Marriage: A Political Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

  41. 41.

    Edwards, People and their Peace, 95 (see note 25 above).

  42. 42.

    Bardaglio, Reconstructing the Household, 79–80, 176–213 (see note 24 above).

  43. 43.

    Elizabeth A. McGee, House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Teen Parents and Their Children, 81 (see note 35 above).

  44. 44.

    Denton, Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Broken Families, 107 (see note 31 above).

  45. 45.

    Senate Committee on Finance, Subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy, Building Assets for Low-Income Families, 109th Cong., 1st Sess., 2005, 5–6.

  46. 46.

    As Senator Santorum asserted, “families where assets are owned, children do better in school, voting participation increases, and family stability improves,” Ibid.,157.

  47. 47.

    See Gwendoline Alphonso, “Hearth and Soul: Economic and Cultural Conceptions of the Family in the Progressive Era, 1900–1920,” Studies in American Political Development 24 (2010): 206–32, at 213–19.

  48. 48.

    See for instance, Charles Ballard, President National Institute for Responsible Fatherhood, in Responsible Fatherhood, 38–39 (see note 32 above). For other examples of Republican preferences for traditional gender roles in family, with the wife as primary caregiver, see Dan Coats (R-Ind.), House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, Absence, 2 (see note 35 above); Jeremiah Denton (R-Ala.), Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Broken Families, 108–09,126–27 (see note 31 above), on how gender role reversals result in psychosexual and gender disturbances; and personal anecdote by Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), House Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Parents, Schools and Values, 104th Cong., 1st sess., 1995, 30.

  49. 49.

    Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Encouraging Responsible Fatherhood, 39 (see note 42 above).

  50. 50.

    Alphonso, Polarized Families, Polarized Politics, Chapter 3 (see note 9 above).

  51. 51.

    See, for instance, House Subcommittee No. 2 of the Committee on the Judiciary, Making Abandonment of Dependents a Federal Crime, 81st Cong. 1st and 2nd sess., 1949, 1950; and generally, William J. Brockelbank and Felix Infausto, Interstate Enforcement of Family Support (The Runaway Pappy Act), (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1971).

  52. 52.

    For interpretations stressing the convergence of the South with other regions see, for example, Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston, The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006); Sean P. Cunningham, American Politics in the Postwar Sunbelt: Conservative Growth in a Battleground Region (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). For accounts emphasizing its continued distinctiveness as a region, see all the references in note 1 above and also Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  53. 53.

    Ann Markusen, Regions: The Economics and Politics of Territory (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987); J.S. Hurlbert, “The Southern Region: A Test of the Hypothesis of Cultural Distinctiveness,” Sociological Quarterly 30 (1989): 245–66.

  54. 54.

    Alan Abramowitz, “Ideological Realignment and the Nationalization of Southern Politics,” in Perspectives on the American South: An Annual Review of Society, Politics and Culture, vol. 1, ed. Merle Black and John Shelton Reed (New York: Gordon & Breach, 1981), 83–106.

  55. 55.

    Cahn and Carbone, Red Fs v. Blue Families, 19–32 (see note 12 above).

  56. 56.

    Ibid., 119 (emphasis added).

  57. 57.

    John Shelton Reed, “The South: What is it? Where is it?” in The South for New Southerners, ed. Paul D. Escott and David R. Goldfield (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 18–41; also see Dewey W. Grantham, The South in Modern America: A Region at Odds (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), 313; Earl Black and Merle Black, Politics and Society in the South (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987), 219–29.

  58. 58.

    See note 9 above for case selection and methodology.

  59. 59.

    The coding of regions aggregates Census Divisions: where North=Census Divisions of New England, Middle Atlantic and East North Central; South=all of Census Region of South, that is Divisions of South Atlantic, East and West South Central; West=Mountain and West North Central Divisions; and Pacific=Pacific Division; see: , accessed January 16, 2016. For a similar aggregation also analyzing the significance of region to partisan development, albeit without the inclusion of Hawaii, Alaska, or the District of Columbia, see Mellow, The State of Disunion, 26–27 (see note 25 above).

  60. 60.

    The Pearson’s Chi-Square Statistic of “Region of Family Residence” with “Party of Active Member of Congress” is 13.8, p=.003.

  61. 61.

    Senate Subcommittee on Family and Human Services of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, Forum for Families: Quality of American Family Life, 98th Cong., 1st sess., 1983 (emphasis added).

  62. 62.

    Clifton P Flynn, “Regional Differences in Attitudes Towards Corporal Punishment,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 56 (1994): 314–24.

  63. 63.

    See, for example, Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families of the Committee on Education and Workforce, School Safety, Discipline, and IDEA, 106th Cong., 1st sess., 1999, 4, as well as many family stories, including testimony by Christopher Lyle in House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families of the Committee on Education and Workforce, School Violence: Views of Students and The Community, 106th Cong., 1st sess., 1999.

  64. 64.

    See, for example, Rogers M. Smith, Political Peoplehood: The Roles of Values, Interests, and Identities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015): also, Victoria Hattam and Joseph Lowndes, “The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Language, Culture, and Political Change,” in Formative Acts: American Politics in the Making, ed. Stephen Skowronek and Matthew Glassman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 199–219.

  65. 65.

    See, for example, Mark D. Brewer and Jeffrey M. Stonecash, Dynamics of American Political Parties (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

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I am indebted to Carol Nackenoff for invaluable guidance and comments on a previous version of this manuscript and to Eileen McDonagh, Julie Novkov, Priscilla Yamin and Alison Gash for their irreplaceable support. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for Polity for their excellent feedback and suggestions.

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Alphonso, G. Resurgent Parenthood: Organic Domestic Ideals and the Southern Family Roots of Conservative Ascendancy, 1980–2005. Polity 48, 205–223 (2016).

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  • family politics
  • American political development
  • history of political parties
  • conservatism
  • U.S. South