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Was Trump and Clinton’s Campaign Silence Regarding Family Fragmentation Golden?

Understood, presidential campaigns are about winning.  They are not about candidates offending large numbers of core supporters and others by pursuing a keenly contentious social issue such as family fragmentation.  Then, again, political leaders are not eager to talk about family fragmentation (the new term of art for family breakdown) almost anytime.

But if they don’t want to deal with it, and if religious leaders are not much more eager, what professional group or other collection of Americans has shown any interest in seriously addressing the overwhelming social disaster of our time?

Scholars?  Only at the risk of career dismemberment by student hordes claiming to have been micro-aggressed.  Meaning, the only professors willing to step up are extra-brave and almost certainly tenured.  Or if they work for a think tank, not a college or university.

Might movie-makers, television creators, and entertainers?  Maybe if Jimmy Stewart were still alive, otherwise not.

I can’t think of any group either.

But excessive cynicism aside, was it good for the country that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton said anything about huge non-marital birth and divorce rates?  That was the question I asked 30 men and women from across Minnesota and the nation to wrestle with in a symposium just published by Center of the American Experiment.

Roughly speaking, participants were evenly split between those who argued, on the one hand, that it was a good idea the two nominees were mum, or that it was at least an understandable approach on their respective parts; and, on the other hand, those who contended that avoiding the matter wasn’t salutary at all.  As one might expect, there was no division about whether Trump or Clinton, but especially the former, was personally positioned to hold forth on marital fidelity without snickers drowning them out.

Despite his rare quietude, several writers contended that Trump did talk about fragmentation, albeit indirectly.  A headmaster at a Catholic school, for instance, noted that Trump’s silence on the matter “didn’t feel like silence to many.”  Rather, key was “his stated commitment to a trio of objectives: school choice, job opportunities for working Americans, and law and order.”  All of them, he said, support families “and family structure itself.”  The president to be “didn’t need to preach about ‘family issues’ on the stump.  In large numbers, people felt they understood what he was saying even when, mirabile dictu, he wasn’t saying anything.”

“In the past,” a think tanker argued, “Republican candidates have tended to dwell on family values in isolation, often at the expense of real economic pain.  Trump took the opposite approach by focusing on economic pain first, and it struck a nerve.  Whether intentional or not, Trump took the best tactical position to win an election.”

Recognizing that family fragmentation is “very difficult for politicians to address,” even “treacherous,” an Episcopal priest served as a bridge between opposing stands.  After listing some of the more unattractive things Trump said both before and after his nomination, as well as noting that Clinton campaigned with performers having a “penchant for using the N-word and the F-bomb,” he finished: “I am thoroughly unfamiliar with this America.  Yet as a person of faith, I know where to turn.  I turn to God and to my neighbors and ask how we can work together to heal our nation.”

The head of a network of charter schools, in writing that the two candidates should have dealt explicitly with out-of-wedlock births and divorce, spoke critically about how both Clinton and Trump “decided to capitalize on America’s growing culture of victimhood where individuals are rewarded for belonging to some wronged identity group.  Why bother to speak of root causes like family destruction when they could attract voters either by finding scapegoats to distract from personal responsibility or by reaffirming personal powerlessness by citing forces beyond the oppressed locus of control?”

And a tenured but inherently brave professor of family social science allowed that he didn’t “have the prescription for the needed cultural change.” Yet he nonetheless knew “we have to being with honest conversation that involves public officials and other leaders.  For starters that conversation could address how men and women in working-class (and other communities) are relating to each other inside and outside committed relationships and marriage.  If good working-class jobs,” he concluded, “are a basic building block of the materialist solution to family fragmentation, then healthy, respectful, and loving relationships between men and women is where the cultural solution begins.”

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment in Golden Valley, Minnesota. “Was Trump and Clinton’s Campaign Silence Regarding Family Fragmentation Golden?” can be found at www.americanexperiment.org.

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