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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — Between now and the 2016 election, we need to have a searching national debate over family values.

It will not be about whether we as a country are for them. We are. What’s required is a grounded and candid discussion about what those words actually mean.

Note that I did not follow the convention of putting quotation marks around family values. That punctuation is appropriate only when the phrase is defined in a narrow, partisan way, aimed at claiming that some large number of Americans don’t believe in family responsibility or love.

I will be haunted for a long time by last Saturday’s funeral for Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, who died of cancer at the age of 46. I suspect anyone who watched or listened to the eulogies feels this way, and I hope especially that staunch social conservatives give some of their attention to hearing the tributes. Beau Biden’s sister, Ashley, and his brother, Hunter, spoke with a power and an authenticity about love, devotion, and connection that said more about how irreplaceable family solidarity is than a thousand speeches or sermons.

And President Obama captured rather precisely what family is about when he described what he called “the Biden family rule.” Its components: “If you have to ask for help, it’s too late. It meant you were never alone; you don’t even have to ask, because someone is always there for you when you need them.”

I certainly don’t pretend that social conservatives who experience these eulogies will suddenly convert to liberalism or be transformed into supporters of Obama or Joe Biden. What the Biden funeral brought home is that the feelings and convictions that very nearly all of us — left, right, center, and apolitical — have about the bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters, truly transcend our day-to-day arguments. We so often wage political war around the family that we forget how broadly shared our reverence for it is.

This helps explain the paradox of the gay marriage issue: Our opinions on it have changed in large part because of ties of family and friendship. A Pew survey released this week found that now 57 percent of Americans favor allowing same-sex marriage, while 39 percent oppose it. Just five years ago, only 42 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage, while 48 percent opposed it.

The key to this long-term shift is deeply personal. The number of Americans who know that someone they care about is gay or lesbian has skyrocketed over the decades, and risen a lot even in recent years. Pew found that the proportion of Americans who know someone who is homosexual has gone to 88 percent, from 61 percent in 1993. Among those who know many people who are gay or lesbian, 73 percent support same-sex marriage. Among those who know no gays or lesbians, 59 percent are opposed.

These numbers underscore again that so many of the issues related to family are more complicated (and less about ideology) than the angry, direct-mail style of discourse we are accustomed to on these matters would suggest.

Yet you don’t have to be right wing to worry that the family in the United States faces severe stresses and challenges. It would be genuinely useful if the 2016 campaign focused on practical measures that would help parents do their jobs.

Discussions of how policies on taxes, child care, family leave, wages, and criminal justice affect the family’s well-being (and specific proposals in each area) would be so much more constructive than polemics that cast one part of our population as immoral enemies of family life and the other as narrow-minded bigots. A politics of recrimination does a profound disservice to how much all of us care about family.

In 2007, after a Democratic presidential debate, I was approached in the spin room by Beau Biden, then Delaware’s attorney general. He wanted to talk about how well his dad performed, and his father had, indeed, done very well that night on the stage. But Beau Biden was most animated (and spoke at much greater length) when he turned to describing what an extraordinary father Joe Biden had been.

This fact about a politician certainly didn’t require anyone to vote for him. But it always helped explain to me why I feel as I do about Joe Biden and also why our discussions of family life need to recognize that love and commitment go way beyond politics. Family is too precious to let it divide us.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Melvin E via Flickr