Dear Conservatives: Ozzie and Harriet Are Dead

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the longest-running live-action situation comedy in television history, debuted on radio in 1944 and ended its TV run in 1966. Such longevity in the entertainment business is remarkable and a testament to the creative genius of Ozzie Nelson, a former band leader who married singer Harriet Snyder in 1935. The couple decided to appear as a team so that their separate careers wouldn't keep them apart. This led to the radio incarnation of their show and, finally, their successful TV run.

As with all the 1950s and early 1960s family-themed sitcoms, the shows featured a strong, loving father; a doting, submissive mother; and usually one or more precocious children whose everyday problems became the plots for most of the episodes. They all lived in neat suburban houses, with comfortable but not ostentatious furnishings. The children were well-fed, always wore clean clothes, were respectful of their elders and authority figures, and rarely misbehaved.

The key to Ozzie and Harriet's popularity, as well as that of series like Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and Make Room for Daddy, was simple: TV was portraying the ideal family, in an ideal setting, with ideal characters, living mostly idyllic lives. Those shows are skewered by modern-day critics, who scoff at the portrayal of the family in such a positive, unrealistic light. But the fact is, many millions of Americans saw themselves being portrayed by those TV families and they embraced the values that were illuminated by the characters every week.

But we all know it wasn't really like that. Daddy may have had an affair with his secretary and sometimes beat his kids. Mom may have been a closet alcoholic and a psychologically abusive witch. The teenage girl occasionally had sex and got pregnant. And the teenage boy might have struggled to suppress his attraction to the same sex while failing algebra and getting in trouble with the law for going joyriding in a neighbor's car.

The problems of the "traditional families" in the 1950s weren't really much different than problems faced by families today. Except that the families today don't look much like the Nelson family. It's just a pity many conservatives apparently don't see that, or refuse to accept it.

The essence of America is change. It is the source of our greatest strength as a society -- our ability to right wrongs, adapt to new situations, and reinvent ourselves. We can alter the course of history if we work hard enough and believe strongly enough.

What we can't do is turn back the clock. But for some on the right, this simple, physical law is ignored, and the political and social ramifications of this inability to deal with the massive structural changes in our society are threatening to make conservatism irrelevant and the Republican Party a memory.

Pew Research recently released a rather startling survey which showed that 4 in 10 American households with children now feature women as the primary breadwinners. The internals of the poll are fascinating: 37% of those women are married and make more money than their husbands. But 63% are single mothers. Perhaps it's not surprising that most of the married women are white and most of the single women are black and Hispanic -- a sad commentary on the effects of poverty on the family.

Pew offers a logical explanation:

The growth of both groups of mothers is tied to women’s increasing presence in the workplace. Women make up almost of half (47%) of the U.S. labor force today, and the employment rate of married mothers with children has increased from 37% in 1968 to 65% in 2011.

Erick Erickson, appearing on Fox News along with Juan Williams and Lou Dobbs, showed why Josh Barro was right when he wrote, "Erick Erickson Shows Everything That’s Wrong With The GOP":

I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.

Erickson saved himself from complete ignominy by using the word "typically" to describe sex roles in the animal kingdom. That may be true. But there are enough examples of females being dominant -- especially among primates -- to question his scientific acumen.

And, of course, humans are a little different than the rest of the animal kingdom. As rational, self-aware, thinking apes, we have the ability to rise above purely instinctive behavior and make choices based on the notion that, while there are many differences between men and women, we are possessed with equal levels of intelligence, ambition, and innate ability.

But Erickson's beef is not with nature (one can never be sure, but one hopes he accepts the above premise), it is with the choices that women make and how those choices are affecting the family. They are not the choices that Harriet Nelson would have made, nor many women from the 1950s. But is Erickson saying that the choices women make today are illegitimate if they don't conform to an ancient and outmoded idea of the "traditional family"?

For single mothers, there is no choice. More than 8.5 million women are forced to work outside the home to support their children. Almost 30% of single mothers live in poverty. With absent fathers, who are likely to contribute little in the way of child support or alimony, support structures for single mothers are nearly non-existent. What choice does Erickson want these women to make? Find a man and marry him? If only it were that simple.