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Family Values, Economics, and the Red State / Blue State Divide on Constitutional Interpretation

by Professor Will Huhn on October 2, 2011

in Constitutional Law,Right to Privacy,Wilson Huhn

Differences over the interpretation of the Constitution often reflect underlying economic differences.  In particular, differences in income and education affect attitudes about marriage, divorce, contraception, abortion, women's rights, and same-sex marriage.

In their groundbreaking book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, Naomi Cahn and Julie Carbone explain the country's divide over social issues by reference to economics – that entire sets of values emerge from and are reinforced by different economic models of family life.

For example, it is well-known that teen parentage and divorce is far more common in red states than blue states.  This would seem to be inconsistent with conservative rhetoric in support of "family values."  There are in fact far fewer teen mothers and divorces in the liberal northeast than in any other section of the country.  This would seem to conflict with the fact that liberals support an interpretation of the Constitution that recognizes that people have a "right to privacy" under the Constitution that includes freedom of choice with respect to sexuality, marriage, and divorce. 

But the contradiction disappears when we take economics into account.  As Cahn and Carbone point out, there are in fact two widely divergent models of family life and economic advancement in the United States.  One model – the liberal model – promotes education and encourages its youth to defer marriage and parenthood in favor of entering a profession and pursuing a higher-income career.  To facilitate these economic goals, women are granted control over their reproductive choices through contraception and abortion.  The other model – the conservative model – emphasizes marriage and parenthood and puts less of a premium on obtaining an education or establishing economic security. 

Young people in blue states defer marriage and parenthood in favor of obtaining an education.  Teenagers in blue states have access to contraception and abortion.  As a consequence, there are fewer births to teen-age mothers and fewer divorces.  Young people in red states are more likely to marry and have children and are more likely to divorce.  There are high correlations between divorce and age at first marriage as well as divorce and income levels.  The younger a person is at the time of a first marriage and the lower that person's income, the higher the likelihood of divorce.

Conservatives are more likely to preach abstinence to young people because they do not allow young women free access to contraception.  They are more likely to sound the alarm about threats to the institution of marriage because divorce is more common in red states.  Liberals support contraception and abortion because these rights are necessary to the model of economic advancement that prevails in the blue states.

I sincerely doubt that people in blue states have less sex than people in red states.  I imagine that teenagers are just as likely to engage in sexual relations whether they live in Connecticut or Arkansas.  Nor do young people vary much in their desire to live with a mate.  However, young couples in blue states are more likely to live together rather than enter into marriage than young couples in red states, and are less likely to have children at a young age.

Blue states and red states could theoretically leave each other alone, but both cultures exist in all states and there is a constant conflict between them.  Conservatives oppose contraception and abortion; if they were successful in limiting access to these practices it would interfere with the economic advancement of blue families.  Liberals wish to make contraception and abortion freely available to young people.  This would lead young people to defer marriage and childbearing, thus interfering with the preferred family model prevalent in the red states.  So the dispute rages.

These economic differences also affect views on women's rights.  The leading gender discrimination case to have been decided by the Supreme Court is the VMI case – United States v. Virginia.  It is based upon the proposition that under the Constitution women have an equal right to an education.  The Virginia law prohibiting women from attending VMI stood as one of the last legal barriers to gender equality in higher education, and in 1996 the Supreme Court, speaking through Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, struck down that barrier over the strong objections of dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia.  Ginsburg stressed opportunity; Scalia emphasized tradition.

How does same-sex marriage fit into all of this?  Both liberals and conservatives regard the family as the basic unit of society and a principal source of happiness in one's life.  The differences arise from a desire in blue states for their young people to gain more education and earn more income before entering into marriage and having children.  Same-sex marriage is not a threat to a culture that defers marriage and child-rearing until the partners have established themselves economically.  It is understood that young people have the right to make choices and that there are many paths to happiness.  In red states, by contrast, choices are more limited.  It is more difficult for young women to gain access to contraception and abortion, and as a consequence marriage and childbearing are prized more highly than gaining an education and establishing a career, at least relative to blue states.  The links among sexuality, childbearing, and marriage in red states leave less room for same-sex marriage. 

People tend to justify their preferred models of family life – which are essentially economic choices  – with philosophical, legal, or religious arguments.  That does not make the conflict between conservative and liberal interpretations of the Constitution any less compelling.  But Cahn and Carbone's book should encourage all of us to primarily consider the practical effects of constitutional interpretation upon people's everyday lives. 

Here are links to sources supporting these conclusions:

Dino Grandoni, Red States Lead the Nation in Divorce, The Atlantic Wire, August 26, 2011

D'Vera Cohn, Family Meals, Cohabitation, and Divorce, Pew Research Center, April 8, 2011

Ross Douthat, Red Family, Blue Family, New York Times, May 9, 2010

Red Families versus Blue Families, NPR, May 9, 2010

 Pew Research Center, Marriage and Divorce: A 50-State Tour, October 15, 2009

D'Vera Cohn, Pew Research Center, The States of Marriage and Divorce: Lots of Exâs Live in Texas, October 15, 2009 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Vital Statistics System, Marriages and Divorces – with links to tables on marriage, divorce, and cohabitation by state

CDC, Marriage and Divorce Rates by State (1990-2002)

Professor Huhn has taught Constitutional Law at the University of Akron for over a quarter century. You may access his websites on Constitutional Law and Health Care Financing Reform for additional materials and information about those subjects. Drafts of his scholarly work are available from his author page at ssrn:



The Reverend October 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

Interesting….but I'm not buying it.

It is not a difference in economic models, primarily, which dictates the differences in social issues.

It's religious beliefs.

Those who rail against contraception, abortion, same sex marriage, etc….do so, not because of different economic models in blue and red state families…..but because of religious doctrine.

larry d. October 2, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Everyone's entitled to his or her own bigotries, Reverend. Marxist authoritarian statism is a big tent.

NEFryy October 5, 2011 at 4:26 pm

I suspect that religious structure may be a prerequisite to the building of a robust civilization. The former hunter-gatherers who build the state bring with them certain evolved traits which helped them survive in the jungle but which nibble away at the fabric of urban life. That amount of testosterone and adrenalin that were useful in the wild must be contained in close quarters and this control can be because we are God fearing or because we fear the state. Religion imposed a variety of constraints upon our ancestors that helped to control population growth and competition for mates. Some of the vestiges are indeed counterproductive in a world of seven billion souls, but even so, I think I would rather live and work among say a Jehovah's Witnesses or than among atheists.

By the way I'm glad to see you dropped the dyslexia test as a prerequisite for commenting here.

NEFryy October 5, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Would not Marx have said argued that moral issues rxpoused by any religion are based on economic factors?

larry d. October 5, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Probably. Just like Freud would argue they'd be based on sexual or death drive issues. That kind of binary manifest/latent model of thought was fairly useful back in the late 19th century.

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