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New 'mommy wars': a fight against pop culture's excess

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 2005


Forget about the "mommy wars," in which stay-at-home mothers were supposedly locking horns with their working sisters, at least in popular perception.

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What's really happening with American mothers of all stripes - from full-time homemakers to full-fledged workaholics, all income levels, all racial backgrounds - is worry about popular culture, and what feels like a tsunami of forces threatening parents' ability to impart positive values to their children, according to a new survey of more than 2,000 mothers. Moms report a cultural onslaught that goes far beyond Hollywood movies and TV, and into the world of the Internet, electronic games, and advertising.

"We heard mothers talking about the kind of hypersexuality that's out there, about violence and disrespect, about body image, all the things that are not exactly news, but cutting across a huge and diverse sample of mothers," says Martha Farrell Erickson of the University of Minnesota, lead researcher on the study, released by the Institute for American Values in New York. "What they would really like to see is mothers and fathers joining forces more effectively to take on some of these issues."

Politics did not come up naturally in these mothers' group conversations; they see the solutions more through the avenue of personal and community action, rather than dumping these problems on the doorstep of government. But there is a stark political fact that strategists from both parties are keenly aware of, and which could telegraph a major theme in the next presidential race: the "married parent gap."

The 'moral values' question

In the 2004 race, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry by a whopping 19 percentage points - 59 percent to 40 percent - among married voters with children under age 18. Among married mothers of minors, the difference was somewhat smaller, 14 points (56 percent to 42 percent). But it is a gap that Republicans are working hard to keep, and Democrats to erase. It wasn't too long ago that Democrats were winning the married parent vote: In 1996, Bill Clinton narrowly won that demographic.

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, an expert on social and cultural issues and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, points to the famous "moral values" question on the 2004 exit poll as a telling indicator of what married parents are feeling. Among those voters, 27 percent chose "moral values" as their top voting concern, compared with 20 percent of the electorate at large. And it is not that married parents identify overwhelmingly as religious conservatives, Ms. Whitehead notes. In the exit poll, 45 percent self-identified as moderates and 16 percent as liberals.

The problem for Democrats is not a lack of policy prescriptions, say party activists, but rather a strong cultural message, repeated over and over. "It's vital for parents to hear [from Democrats] that we know you want to be able to teach your kids good values, and very often you don't think we're on your side," says Whitehead.

If conservatives have cornered the market on the use of the word "values" - another point that Democrats plan to fight - they also say their electoral success with parents goes strongly to the issue of security, especially post-9/11. "A lot of winning the parent vote had to do with the war on terror," says Carrie Lukas, director of policy for the conservative Independent Women's Forum.

Word from the Tennessee trenches