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The Image of the American Family in the Presidential Election

Yukari Kawahara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Have you ever heard the expression, family values? This term, while unfamiliar to people in Japan, has become one of the major issues in the U.S. presidential election.

When I arrived at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in early September, a heated discussion about the national conventions of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party was being displayed on a big screen in the airport. In fact, the close election race, said to be split fifty-fifty between the two parties, has drawn the attention of not only political commentators in the media, but also a large number of American citizens, and I saw many cars displaying bumper stickers for either Obama or Romney throughout the city.

At first glance, it would seem that the candidates' economic policies for rebuilding the stagnant economy would be the point at issue in this presidential election. The frenzy of the crowds at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, however, indicates that there are other factors drawing this kind of response from the American people. Family values is a keyword that has emerged in interviews that I conducted. While the way it is defined differs from person to person, this keyword appears to be an important factor in winning over undecided voters in this close presidential election.

Both Obama and Romney emphasized a message of family values throughout each of the national conventions, said to have been watched by around 20 million Americans. It was the speeches by the wives of both candidates-a phenomenon not found in Japanese election campaigns-that swayed undecided voters during the conventions. Surrounded by her children and grandchildren, Ann Romney, the wife of the Republican candidate, gave a speech about how she was proud of having raised five children as a stay-at-home mother while battling an illness, drawing loud applause from the audience. Mitt Romney also presented himself as a strong husband and father, stressing that he was the kind of person who could take the helm of the country. Family values is a term that was originally emphasized in the early 1990s at party conventions for the Republican Party, which was calling for a return to traditional family-centered values. Romney has adopted this party line, promoting a so-called conservative image of the family.

Meanwhile, a different image of the family was presented at the Democratic National Convention. First Lady Michelle Obama took the stage on the first day of the convention to urge Americans to support Obama. In her speech, she repeatedly emphasized how devoted her husband is to his family and stressed how she has put supporting her husband before pursuing her own career. The appearance of their 14-year-old and 11-year-old daughters on the stage also played an important role in communicating the image of Obama's family. In contrast to the Republican Party, Barack Obama has declared his support for same-sex marriage and proposed a liberal view of the family. However, what people saw at the national convention were thoroughly middle-class family values, which could be said to symbolize the American Dream.

The candidates' respective views on the family are reflected not only in these images, but in specific policies as well. In particular, the debate over the pros and cons of abortion between the pro-choice camp (those who support a woman's right to choose abortion) and the pro-life camp (those who oppose abortion out of respect for human life) will be a major deciding issue in the presidential election. This may come as no surprise for a deeply religious country like the U.S. What makes this issue so significant, however, is its role in providing a place for Americans to discuss family values. Furthermore, the issue of abortion is closely related to issues surrounding people's private lives and, in particular, women's reproductive health and the right to life of unborn children.

Why have family values become such an influential factor in the course of American politics? Simply put, it is because, as people often say, families and the bond between parents and children are one of the most important aspects of life for Americans. The concept of the family was originally based on a contrast between the public and private spheres, with the family symbolically conceptualized as a space for affection and intimacy diametrically opposed to the competitive, business-like public sphere. In reality, however, the image of the family represented as an ideal model rings hollow, and signs of family crisis in America, such as the high divorce rate and the frequent occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse, are repeatedly discussed in ominous tones. When these kinds of discussions increase, there is an imperative need, at the opposite extreme, to reproduce the image of the family as a place of love and emotional bonding. Thus, when politicians offer people an image of the ideal family, large numbers of citizens erupt with enthusiasm and are drawn to the constructed ideal image in complex ways. The other side of the coin, however, cannot be ignored; there will always be people who fall short of the ideal family image generated by politicians. These people will be troubled by the discrepancy between ideal and reality and become confused, perpetuating the vicious cycle.

An examination of the way family values are politically exploited in U.S. presidential elections seems to reveal the relationship between politics and the family in the U.S., as well as Americans' conception of the family. A comparison of the situation in the U.S. with that in Japan, considering why such discussions are comparatively rare in Japanese election races and public discourse, may provide further food for thought.

Yukari Kawahara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

[Profile]
Graduated from the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law, Keio University. Received a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale University. Currently works as a professor on the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. Specializes in cultural anthropology and gender studies. Her publications include The Family Revisited (author, editor). Was a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Yale University in 2007.