Democrats Are Becoming the Real Family Values Party

For decades, Republicans have branded themselves the “Family Values Party.” They have used the phrase to defend marriage as a heterosexual institution, to oppose abortion—and to fight for abstinence-only sex education. But, in recent years, as gay marriage has gained wide acceptance and candidates accused of multiple sexual transgressions, like Roy Moore and Donald Trump, have gained prominence in the party, Republicans’ claim to the term “family values” has come under scrutiny. Democrats have begun drawing attention to the hypocrisy of the term as it is used by their counterparts, and many liberals have been making the case that it is the left, not the right, which is truly for fighting for the needs of American families.

It Takes a Village

A Vox article by Todd VanDerWerff from 2016 describes a turning point in Democrats’ embrace of family values during Michelle Obama’s high-energy speech at the Democratic National Convention that year. During the speech, Obama described Hillary Clinton’s view that the role of the presidency is about leaving the world in better shape for America’s children. In her description of Clinton’s outlook, Obama used the phrase “it takes a village,” which was a nod to Clinton’s 1996 book by the same name. As VanDerWeff points out in his article, the book was harshly critiqued by the right wing when it was published because it asserted that all people are responsible for the health and well-being of children, even if those children that are not their own. This was, and still remains, a radical view. Yet, the use of the phrase “it takes a village” by Michelle Obama elicited the rowdiest applause of the night, and signaled to VanDerWerff that “something wholly unexpected happened in the intervening two decades [since Clinton’s book came out]: The Democrats have made a credible claim for being the family values party.”

Real Family Values

It is possible that Hillary Clinton’s opponent during the 2016 primary had some hand in moving the Democratic party toward reclaiming family values as their own. Bernie Sanders took direct aim at the phrase during the primary, repeatedly asserting that his campaign stood for “real family values” which he re-defined as time families spend together to forge stronger emotional bonds. He argued that maternity leave, sick leave, and vacation time all constituted real family values because they eased stress on working families.
Clinton’s thesis about the importance of all children to society and Sanders’ notion of re-defining “real family values” to support working families are not ideologically far apart. In fact, they are views widely held in the social democracies of Scandinavia, where families are faring well on virtually every metric.

Children as Society’s Best Investment

The Scandinavian view of society’s obligation toward its citizens is brilliantly articulated in a recent book by Finnish-American author Anu Partanen entitled “The Nordic Theory of Everything.” Partanen explains that in Scandinavian countries children are recognized as having human rights from birth. She shows how maternity leave, free daycare, and healthcare were set up to ensure that the needs of children are met. But it is not out of altruism that society is arranged this way in Scandinavia, Partanen clarifies. It is rather because children are considered an investment in the country’s future, and a potential benefit to all members of society.

A New Stance for Democrats

Though rifts remain in the Democratic Party, especially between those who supported Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, it is illuminating to see the ways in which the two are aligned. The more that Democrats can articulate a clear vision of themselves as the party that supports families, the stronger the party will be. Republican assertions of being the family values party are beginning to ring hollow, and it is time for the Democrats to step in and claim their space.