December 29, 2006

The politics of extremism

Many political scientists argue that the American people have not moved to the right since the 1970s. The last 10 years has convinced us that conservatives are winning--that conservative ideas on sex and regulation are the dominant ideas. And there is reason to believe that, given the electoral support for George Bush even after his incompetence. You might think that most Americans oppose contraception, are opposed to environmental regulation, and believe that science is undermining our society.

But the American people disagree.
Over 90% of American women will use contraception at some point in their lives (most of them, ostensibly, with the support of their male partners). A National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association study done last spring found that even 80% of anti-choice Americans support giving women access to contraception. Likewise, 70% of Americans consider themselves environmentalists; and 88% think global warming poses a serious future threat. Two-thirds of us think the government should support stem-cell research. The election showed that most of us had had about enough of the GOP's devotion to charity for the upper classes only. And now, this week, it's being reported that 95% of all Americans engage in premarital sex, and have been doing so rather robustly for several generations now.
I think that most Americans assume that the 50s television actually portrays historical trends, when that decade was actually anomalous. Every major trend reversed in the 50s for a brief time. Age of marriage went down, as did divorce rates, while fertility rose. But the trends were going the other way since the 1890s for most of them. Abortion really started to go up around 1850 and despite efforts to criminalize it (successfully at times) continued to rise. Same with pre-marital sex, which continued to rise in occurrence and acceptance from 1900 on.

And, I guess, given that change, I understand why religious conservatives feel out of control. I can see why they are pushing for a more repressed society. But I don't think it is a good take. There is plenty to dialogue about--plenty where we can agree. No one likes abortion and all of us hate the sexualization of the kids. We all want clean water, clean air, and a sustainable environment. But all of those require pragmatism, cooperation and compromise--three notions that the religious right lacks.


Tony said...


Fantastic post. A question--what would you suppose caused the reversal in the 50's and then the subsequent degradation following the decade?

Would it have anything to do with the acquistition of wealth as a primary motivating force in people's lives? The dates you reference loosely parallel the advent of industrialism and suburbanism, which literally changed the face of America at that time.

But all of those require pragmatism, cooperation and compromise--three notions that the religious right lacks. I agree wholeheartedly.

Streak said...

Tony, good question, and a complex answer. Not sure I can answer it completely, but here are a few thoughts.

First, the early dates I gave are somewhat misleading. Some of the significant changes we see in family life occur well before industrialization. Fertility rates, for example, plummet during the 19th century, and there appears to be no easy answer. The decline begins before extensive industrialization or urbanization. Most think it is the growth of women's autonomy and the growing sense that their lives were not synonymous with the family.

And we must remember that many of these changes were positive. Certainly no one likes the idea of abortion--and there were many opposed to it in the 19th century, though oddly enough, perhaps, few loud ones from the Church. But women lacked access to reliable birth control or information and often found themselves constantly pregnant. Lacking the standing to tell their husband's "no" or prevent the pregnancy, they often resorted to abortions--often through hideous and dangerous methods.

But overall, this revealed a sharp change in how women identified themselves and their role in society.

Flash forward to the 50s and you have another interesting couple of issues. One, I think, was growing concern that women's autonomy was harming the family. That led to sharp pressure to return home to the family after the war (remember Rosie the Riveter) whether she wanted to or not. And many didn't want to go. That pressure was amped by the cold war where our families were competing with some Soviet vision of family. Add to that the growth of suburbs, as you note, though the pressure initially appears to be counter what you might think. Women are pushed to the suburbs to raise children. The time devoted to raising children is extensively higher than it was in the 19th century (due to many reasons) and ironically given the new technology, women were expected to spend far more time cleaning and cooking.

And many of them hated it. Tranquilizers, virtually unknown in 1953 or 54, were widely prescribed and used primarily by women by the end of the decade. Women were not happy, and Betty Friedan captured that very well in the Feminine Mystique.

There is more going on here, but I think this comment is too long as it is. I will think more about it.

volfan007 said...

this world is truly in a mess. and, we are heading in a bad direction today. there's only one who can straighten it all out. and, one day, He will. until then, all of us who are truly christians will keep trying to lead people to that when that day happens....they will be a part of God's righteous kingdom.

btw, in the 50's people didnt lock thier doors at nite, nor did churches ever lock thier doors. we all lock our doors today. in the 60's, as a boy, we slept with our windows open every nite from spring til fall to catch a breeze. never even thought about it being unsafe.


Tony said...


I have always heard that industrialization is what changed societal structure more than anything else in America, but with several unintended consequences; my college history classes as well as seminary taught this. But are you saying that a lot of the changes are pre-industrial, so that what I have learned is essentially rewritten history, modern myths?

The 50's always seem to be regarded as some kind of Golden Age of American prosperity, short-lived and necessarily followed by the hyper-sexualization of the 60's and 70's with the rise of the porn industry (not that it really wasn't already there, just not as overt).

I'm not challenging, just thinking out loud...on the keyboard...or whatever...

Streak said...


Industrialization does change society in huge ways. No doubt about that. Closer working ties are replaced with faceless corporations--labor becomes just another commodity. All of that has consequences on our society. But what I am suggesting about family changes is that at least some of their changes occur well before those industrial trends take hold. In fact, the thing that family historians like to note is that the institution of family is always changing--and always has. In addition to that, family has never been just one thing at any one time. Puritan families were markedly different from those in Virginia, and so on.

In the 19th century there are several themes in family history, and ONE of them is industrialization. The feminist movement, notions of Republican motherhood, and moral reform movements all impacted family life. But in the back of this, and seeming to cross some class lines, was a growing sense that women were not simply "covered" by their husbands, but had individual lives of their own and could make independent choices. This was not a bad trend, in my mind, and had to occur. Not every part of it was good, of course, but in general, it moves women towards some semblence of equality.

The 50s certainly are an amazing economic boom, no doubt. But the changes in the family, again, not all are negative, are really starting before then, and return to the forefront in the 60s and 70s. (Natalie has a nice post here on domestic violence, and notes that for example, in Oklahoma marital rape was only outlawed in 1992!). The 50s sense of a "golden age" also hid a variety of sins, including sexual abuse and teenage pregnancies, etc.

I am not sure where to put the porn industry, to be honest. Is it a reflection of pure capitalism? Or is it part of the American desire to repress sexuality?

volfan007 said...

the porn industry is an example of the heart of man....evil. and, its a measure of how low our society has sunk. women selling thier bodies as you would sell a piece of meat. degrading sex to the level of animals. people using each other instead of giving. women using men for money and attention. men using women for sex.

our world is evil. the heart of man is desperately wicked. so wicked that people dont even realize how wicked it is....they dont realize just how depraved they could become.

praise the Lord for His saving grace and mercy for all those humble themselves and repent and put thier faith in Jesus.


ubub said...

I often wonder if non-responsive responses contribute to the advancement of civil discussion and mutual understanding or if they simply exacerbate real or perceived polarities. Perhaps there are different goals.

Streak said...

Oh Jebus, save us from the porn monkeys.

Da Troll said...

Monkeys? There you go again about evolution, spreading all those lies based on "science." God made monkeys, just like he made Curious George so curious.