How Republicans Lost and Democrats Can Retake ‘Family Values’

Once upon a time, Republicans offered parables to support their worldview and animate their pitch for power. Their first tale was about bootstraps and pulling; their second about what family ought to be. Each provided a clear role for the author and audience, the politician and the populace.

But today’s GOP doesn’t have a credible narrator for either of these storylines. This leaves up for grabs a twist on the family narrative Republicans once claimed. And it’s this very frame that has Democrats winning on marque issues like marriage equality, paid parental leave and, increasingly, immigration.

The old Republican tale of Rugged Individualism taught that concerted effort and “personal responsibility” yield due rewards. Despite its unpromising origins with Herbert Hoover, the story endured: Paul Ryan voiced it in his “hammock” warnings about the safety net and Newt Gingrich applied it to propose poor kids clean their schools. Rugged Individual yielded rhetorical offspring like “job creators” and “makers and takers.”

At the same time, conservatives recognized that the idea of work alone making the man was insufficient. And so they ushered in “Family Values.”

While it centered on opposition to abortion and the “gay agenda,” Family Values provided an origin story and desired solutions for economic issues as well. Poverty was due to incorrect family structure. This brought concerns about out-of-wedlock birth and marriage promotion as panacea front and center.

Family Values didn’t just fit on top of the old story. It came to eclipse it. Mapping usage of the phrases “Horatio Alger,” “bootstraps” and “rugged individual(ism)” against “family values” in printed texts from 1950 to 2008 shows that when the former phrases became less popular the latter reached its zenith.

Use of key political terms from 1950–2008

Now it wasn’t merely your efforts that produced or inhibited success, it also rested upon your (heterosexual, never divorced, carefully reproducing) family.

Both Rugged Individual and Family Values served Republicans well. They provided roles for government to promote certain behaviors while curtailing or outlawing others. And they made it not just logical but laudable to blame people for the struggles that blockade them.

But today Republicans lack a lead narrator. As a trust fund, mistress flaunting, two-time divorcee, Donald Trump isn’t a natural fit to carry either tale. Further, he doesn’t just insult the party establishment. He does something far more damaging: Trump refuses to tell its tales.

Instead, the stump Trump relies on is about jobs shipped overseas and brown people being scary. Then, in the next chapter, he alone fixes everything.

Blame the “other” and the Administration that enables them is a reactive stance. The anger it foments is powerful and motivating; it’s also ephemeral and limiting. As research shows, anger impairs our thinking. It has people focus so intently on the source of their ire, they’re little able to evaluate potential solutions or reflect on the veracity of the perceived irritant. And this is clearly effective with a portion of voters. But my own message testing indicates that anger dismantles; it doesn’t create. Contrast this with the “Hope” of Obama or the “Morning in America” of Reagan. Admittedly light on content, each helped their respective protagonists beat out far more seasoned rivals.

In contrast, Trump’s story is reactive. It says Trump Government Inc. will save you — provided he’s CEO of America. He will (make Mexicans) build a wall, bar refugees, deport residents and end outsourcing. That’s a long to do list for him without any items post election for us.

While Trump may have abandoned the story of what families need and value, Americans haven’t. Recent policy victories and public opinion research proves family is still a winning story, just not the Republican version. When progressives pivoted from a campaign about individuals’ right to marry to one about “love makes a family,” they helped make marriage equality national law. When they ceased apologizing for immigrants trying to get by and started talking about keeping families together, they got White House action and an immigration bill through the Senate.

A series of online dial tests I’ve helped conduct shows that the anemic language of “workers’ rights” and the transactional talk of “better wages and working conditions” fall flat. Instead, messages about every person making enough to put dinner on the table for their family and be home in time to eat it beat standard conservative narratives by at least ten points with over seventy percent of voters.

Republicans have painted themselves into a corner. For their claims to hold, America has to seem like a place where any of us really can succeed with hard work and the “right” family. But the traditional nuclear family is now an aberration. Less than half of U.S. children live in a home with a mom and dad in their first marriage. And a recent poll showed 57 percent of us disagree that if you work hard you’ll get ahead.

Americans across the political aisle recognize that the Republican foundational stories aren’t parables. They’re just lies. Trump capitalizes on this growing awareness, playing upon people’s existential and economic insecurities and then promising to resolve them. And that’s an excellent opening for a reality television star. But it does not a political ideology make. Republicans are a party with no story left to tell.