“Americans may be nearing a tipping point of fear,” says David Briggs, a writer quoted recently in the Huffington Post. In his article titled “A Nation Divided By Fear” he said that, if you are like most Americans, according to a Chapman University study, you believe there has been a marked increase in child abductions, mass shootings, gang violence, school shootings, and pedophilia. In truth, from available statistics, there are fewer such crimes in each category; in some cases there have been dramatic declines. A recent study conducted by FHSS political science researchers Chris Karpowitz and Jeremy Pope shows that, likewise, many Americans fear the gradual dissolution of the institution of marriage, but the reality is that, in practice, it is still held in high regard by liberals and conservatives alike.
The American Family study was paid for and published in the Deseret News National in the fall of 2015. “What’s unique about this survey,” said Dr. Karpowitz, “is that we asked respondents broader questions about what they think about marriage and families, about their political attitudes in family-related areas, and how they rate the stability and structure of their own families.”
“One of the survey’s more surprising findings is that, although liberals and conservatives have markedly different ideological attitudes about family and marriage, their lived family experiences are almost exactly the same,” the Deseret News said. “It also found that while most Americans say their own marriages and families are strong, they rate the strength of marriages and families generally much lower.”
Jeremy C. Pope, co-author of the study, associate professor of political science at BYU, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy (CSED) said: “[This] should make everyone who cares about the family and family policy sit up and take notice—whether they are on the political left, the right or in the center. Knowing how the public views marriage and family is an important step in diagnosing problems and identifying potential solutions where everyone can agree.”
Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director of CSED and also a political science associate professor at BYU, said that part of what they found in the survey was that conservatives and liberals were “talking past each other.” In general, says Professor Karpowitz, liberals care about economic stresses mostly and have paid less attention, comparatively speaking, to family structure and cultural issues. The opposite is true for conservatives; they care about the structural and cultural issues, but they are less focused on the economic challenges. Both Pope and Karpowitz feel their findings will show that both of those things play an important role.
This speaks to the value of the survey to a larger audience. Professor Karpowitz continued: “I do think that the work we have done so far and the work that we still plan to do is contributing to a larger discussion in the United States about the role of families and how to make families stronger. The other thing that we’ve been telling everyone is that there are some things that conservatives and liberals agree about a lot.”
Indeed, if coverage of the survey is any indication, people are beginning to take notice of these findings. It has so far been covered in the Washington Post (in an opinion piece, an article on the benefit of religion for families and kids, and a piece on slowing marriage rates), the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, KSL News, The Guardian, Christian Today, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. With a combined readership in the millions, Pope and Karpowitz’s study is providing plenty of food for thought, if not discussion.
Perhaps it’s possible then that, in a day of such divisiveness and fear, common ground on the subject of family is possible, if not in practice, at least in discourse. Since we as a members of the same society all have an interest in the successful functioning of that society, one would hope.