Thursday, May 7, 2015
Sex, Drugs and Poverty in Red and Blue America - Note for a Lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."
MAY 6, 2015, New York Times
THOMAS B. EDSALL
In the fall of 1969, Merle Haggard topped the Billboard country charts for four
weeks with “Okie from Muskogee,” the song that quickly became the anthem
of red America, even before we called it that.
“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, we don’t take our trips on LSD,
we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street, we like livin’ right and
bein’ free,” Haggard declared. “We don’t make a party out of lovin’, we like
holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo.”
Times have changed.
Today Muskogee, Okla., a city of 38,863, has nine drug treatment centers
and a court specifically devoted to drug offenders. A search for
“methamphetamine arrest” on the website of the Muskogee Phoenix, the local
newspaper, produces 316 hits.
In 2013 just under twothirds of the births in the city of Muskogee, 62.6
percent, were to unwed mothers, including 48.3 percent of the births to white
mothers. The teenage birthrate in Oklahoma was 47.3 per 1,000; in Muskogee,
it’s 59.2, almost twice the national rate, which is 29.7.
Muskogee County voted decisively for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and for
Republican presidential candidates in the last three elections. In 2012,
Romney beat Obama 57.4 to 42.6.
Why am I talking about Muskogee? Two reasons.
The first is that the Baltimore riots have become a vehicle for
conservatives to point to the city as an emblem of the failure of liberalism and
the Democratic Party. The current state of affairs in Muskogee suggests that
the left does not deserve exclusive credit for social disorder.
The second reason is that worsening conditions in workingclass white
Republican communities indicate that the conservative moral agenda has not
decisively won the battle for the hearts of America’s youth.
But let’s get back to the conservative reaction to Baltimore.
John Nolte, who writes for Breitbart.com, Tweeted at 9:26 p.m. on
Monday, April 27, “Baltimore is what happens when you replace the twoparent
family with a welfare check & unionrun public schools.” An hour later,
Laura Ingraham, a talkshow host, followed suit: “No fathers, no male role
models, no discipline, no jobs, no values = no sense of right and wrong.”
Baltimore “is a Great Society city that bought fully into the biggovernment
vision of the 1960s, and the bitter fruit has been corruption,
violence and despair,” according to Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review.
“This is a failure exclusively of Democrats.”
Never one to miss an opportunity to critique the opposition, the editorial
page of The Wall Street Journal declaimed:
“Let’s not forget who has run Baltimore and Maryland for nearly all of the
last 40 years. The men and women in charge have been Democrats, and their
governing ideas are ‘progressive.’ This model, with its reliance on government
and public unions, has dominated urban America as oncevibrant cities such
as Baltimore became shells of their former selves.”
Many regular folks share these views. “The cause of disproportionate
crime and poverty rates among blacks in Baltimore and the U.S. is the
continued degradation of the nuclear family,” Thomas Neale of Baltimore
wrote in a letter to the editor of the local Sunpapers.
Insofar as conservatives identify the erosion of the traditional family as a
cause of civic disorder, the erosion is not limited to minority communities in
Democratic cities. These trends are increasingly characteristic of white
communities in red states.
Take the statistics in the first chart, which was produced from data
collected and analyzed by Child Trends, an organization that conducts
research on the quality of children’s lives. It shows that for the last few decades
the outofwedlock birthrate among AfricanAmericans — exceptionally high
at more than 70 percent — has risen less rapidly than the white rate. Among
AfricanAmericans, the outofwedlock birthrate has gone from 57.3 percent in
1980 to 71.4 percent in 2013, an increase of 25 percent; the white rate over the
same time period has gone up 205 percent, from 9.6 percent to 29.3 percent.
The highest rates of white teenage pregnancy in the 30 states with
available data are in red states. While the national white teenage pregnancy
rate in 2010 was 38 per 1,000, white rates were at least 10 points higher in
nine states: Oklahoma (59), West Virginia (64), Arkansas (63), South Carolina
(51), Alabama (49), Mississippi (55), Tennessee (51), Kentucky (59) and
Louisiana (51). Each of these states cast decisive majorities for Romney in
The high pregnancy and birthrates among white teenagers in states where
the Christian right and Tea Party forces are strong reflect the inability of
ideological doctrines stressing social conservatism to halt the gradual shift
away from traditional family structures.
In fact, the map in the second chart shows that the Southern Baptist
Convention, one of the most socially conservative denominations in America,
is dominant in every one of the nine states with the highest white teenage
pregnancy rates, with the sole exception of West Virginia.
Conservative religions have proved powerless to halt unwed motherhood,
cohabitation and other trends that defy traditional morality — in part because
these trends reflect the limited authority of the old order in the face of a global
phenomenon known among researchers as the “second demographic
Regions as diverse as Europe, Japan, South America, Canada and the
United States are undergoing a profound shift in fertility, reproductive
attitudes and behavior. The changes include rejection of premarital virginity,
social acceptance of single parenting, and the replacement of values stressing
family obligation with values stressing personal autonomy.
I recently interviewed Ron Lesthaeghe, an eminent demographer and
professor emeritus at the Free University of Brussels, who was in Washington
last month for meetings at the National Academy of Sciences.
Lesthaeghe describes the current transition as follows: “Marriage gives
way to cohabitation. In the 1960s, it’s income and education, it’s an educated
elite that opens the door. But you can see that once the phenomenon is
legitimized, it becomes an open story for everybody who thinks it’s
The result, he said, is that “the moral control that calls for people to get
married and not to live in sin ends in society as a whole, that moral control
weakens and ends. There is no moral stigma, it becomes destigmatized.”
The destigmatization of oncedisapprovedof behavior can be seen in the
rapid growth of cohabiting couples, which, according to the census, went from
3.8 million in 2004 to 7.9 million in 2014.
Both Baltimore and Muskogee are experiencing the consequences of this
rapid demographic change.
In Muskogee County and in Baltimore, the percentage of households
composed of married couples with children dropped from 2000 to 2010 for
both whites and blacks.
The violent crime rate in both cities has fallen over the past decade, just as
it has nationwide, although the 22.3 percent drop in Baltimore is four times as
large as the 5.6 percent decline in Muskogee.
Over time, Lesthaeghe foresees a convergence in the marital and
reproductive behavior of whites and blacks — and of red and blue states —
with low marriage rates, dipping fertility, and rising cohabitation rates for
Polarization between red and blue America has intensified as the
convergence has drawn nearer, a development that is reflected most visibly in
trends in the white South.
In the short term, Republicans, in complete control of 24 states, are
conducting a full scale assault on liberalizing cultural trends. Their focus is on
the enactment of legislation restricting abortions, including placing limits on
access to the procedure and the imposition of tough regulations on abortion
providers. A dozen states have enacted constitutional amendments banning
samesex marriage, and 19 states have enacted religious freedom laws that
civil rights advocates contend allow businesses to discriminate against gays.
While right wing commentators are demonizing the social and cultural
values of the distressed citizens of Baltimore and their political leaders, they
are oblivious to the vulnerability of their traditional moral agenda during a
time of inexorable demographic change.
The problems of majority black Baltimore are extreme, but many of the
trends found there are as extreme or more so in majority white Muskogee.
The Baltimore poverty rate is 23.8 percent, 8.4 points above the national
rate, but below Muskogee’s 27.7 percent. The median household income in
Baltimore is $41,385, $11,661 below the $53,046 national level, but $7,712
above Muskogee’s $33,664.
If conservatives place responsibility on liberal Democrats, feminism and
the abandonment of traditional family values for Baltimore’s decay, what role
did the 249 churches in and around Muskogee play in that city’s troubles?
The fact is that the poor and working classes of both races were not well
equipped to adjust to changes in behavior driven by the sexual revolution and
the second demographic transition – a collection of forces that are inexorably
changing the family, marriage patterns and child rearing worldwide
Those who seek to exploit the transformation of reproductive norms for
shortterm political gain are tearing at the social fabric. The right willfully
ignores the benefits, and the left willfully ignores the costs, of what is, for
better or worse, a world of radically diminished moral constraint. It may be
asking too much of the political process to resolve conflicts like these.