For a generation, conservatives have held a lock on the so-called "values" issue. But Barack Obama is slowly picking that lock, breaking into one of the GOP's last remaining electoral treasures.
The change starts with the powerful imagery of the new First Family. The Obamas seem to have it all: charming children; the supremely competent yet also consistently supportive wife, and the dynamo grandma, Marian Robinson, who serves as matriarch, moral arbiter and babysitter in chief.
The new president's focus on family reflects an increasing emphasis among African-American leaders on the importance of parental values. Many prominent black activists initially scorned Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report linking poverty among African-Americans to the decline of intact family units. But today, when roughly half of all black children live with single mothers, it is widely accepted that strong families represent the most effective way to reduce "the racial gap" in incomes.
When it came to family, the last Democratic White House residents – the highly entertaining but also obviously dysfunctional Clintons – embodied persistent conflicts among baby boomers over sex and social roles. Remember Hillary's resentful comments about "baking cookies"?
By contrast, the focused and disciplined Obamas epitomize the aspirations most Americans hold for their own personal lives: caring fathers, strong mothers and an involved extended family.
These ideals may be particularly appealing for Americans under 40, whose support has been instrumental in the president's rise to power. Younger Americans are proving to be more family-oriented, in part because close to half come from divorced homes.
Surveys reveal that people born between 1968 and 1979 place a considerably higher value on family, and a lower value on work, than their baby-boomer counterparts. Women in the former age cohort are actually having more children than their predecessors and, particularly among the college-educated, they appear to be working somewhat less.
And this family-friendly shift is likely to continue throughout the next wave of child-rearers. As Morley Winograd and Michael Hais suggest in their book, Millennial Makeover, the Millennial generation, born after 1983 and twice as numerous as Generation X, also enthusiastically embraces the notion of a strong family.
Indeed, three-fourths of 13- to 24-year-olds, according to one 2007 survey, consider time spent with family the most important factor in their own happiness, rating it even higher than time spent with friends or a significant other. More than 80% thought getting married would make them happy. Some 77% said they definitely or probably would want children, while less than 12% said they likely wouldn't.
What's more, the current state of the economy is likely to strengthen ties among family members. One-fourth of Generation X-ers, for example, still receive financial help from their parents, as do nearly one-third of Millennials. As many as 40% of Americans between ages 20 and 34 now live at least part-time with their parents, an option that will only become more commonplace in areas where home prices are particularly high and employment opportunities are sharply limited.
Yet even if family values are in ascendance, how they are expressed sharply diverges from the norms and attitudes typically associated with the Religious Right. In fact, on a host of issues – including gay rights, interracial dating and stem cell research – millennials trend more toward liberal views than earlier generations, Winograd says.
"They are more tolerant as well as more conventional," he notes. "They follow the social rules – they don't want to be rebellious. They want a basically conventional suburban family life."
Attitudes concerning religion – the other critical part of the "values" issue – reveal a similar fusion of conventionality and pragmatism. Like other Americans, Millennials are far more religiously oriented than their counterparts in other advanced countries. Fully one-fourth of Americans in their 20s and 30s, observes Princeton sociologist Robert Wurthnow, consider themselves "very spiritual," even if they rarely attend church. A 2003 UCLA study found roughly three out of four college students deem their spiritual or religious views important, but most see their (older) professors as largely indifferent to such concerns.
Yet this spiritual orientation does not imply a shift toward any retrograde "moral majority" conservatism. Upward mobility among evangelicals and fundamentalists, as well as the increased racial integration within churches, has lessened the once-glaring gaps between conservative Protestants, particularly in the South, and the rest of American society. This liberalization is particularly acute when it comes to issues like homosexuality and censorship, but also extends to the role of women and the teaching of religion in public schools.
I've observed this shift firsthand teaching at Pepperdine, a school associated with the conservative Church of Christ, and Chapman University, which has a more liberal Christian orientation. Students embracing fundamentalist or evangelical creeds usually oppose both abortion and gay marriage, but they appear remarkably tolerant and accepting of homosexuals, racial minorities and Jews – attitudes that might shock the more insulated liberal landsmen.
My more religious students also tend to be ecumenical in their views. Like the Obamas, many are seeking the right mix of spirituality and social activism. Wade Clark Roof, the author of Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion, describes such people as 'grazers.' They often meet their spiritual needs through different channels – online Bible study, meditation and even Buddhism.
Obama seems to be honing his appeal to precisely this demographic. Tapping Orange County evangelical minister Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation opens an important avenue to a new generation of spiritually oriented young people.
Warren should concern the increasingly marginal hard-right Christian conservatives, who face potent competition for the political loyalties of their younger congregants. With economic issues pushing the middle class to the left, Democratic progress among the so-called "value" voters could leave the already bedraggled Republican ranks even more seriously diminished.
Also threatened are those on the cultural left, some of whom expressed outrage about Warren's appointment. Some Democrats see it as part of a conscious strategy to subordinate their social agenda for a more mainstream, family-centered one that holds broader political appeal. "It's good for him to let the bed-wetters go," scoffs one well-connected Southern California labor organizer. "They are the ones who have made it difficult to get a majority for the really important things."
In reality, though, Obama's jettisoning of the cultural left is relatively risk-free. No matter how offended they might be, feminist, gay-rights and ultra-secularist activists are not likely to become Republicans. Even if Obama is not as perfect as they imagined, he will be far more amenable to their causes than George W. Bush.
Overall, Obama is playing an exceedingly smart game of cultural politics. Most Americans, particularly youth, no longer relate to the vintage 1950s sitcom Ozzie and Harriet, an illustration of the lifestyle embraced by conservatives. Too many women now work outside the home and have friends or relatives who practice "alternative lifestyles." Demonizing "deviants" is increasingly difficult, after all, when many if not most Americans have loved ones who are gay or otherwise outside the historical mainstream.
Yet at the same time, there is a growing rejection of the highly secularized, self-absorbed lifestyle many boomers embrace. As a result, when it comes to today's values, the role models seem to be socially hip and strong families like the Huxtables from The Cosby Show. Or perhaps, just maybe, the Obamas.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.
Image courtesy flickr user Vargas2040