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.

But it's those married women who have chosen to pursue a career that allows them to be the primary source of income for the family that are really eating at Erickson and other conservatives. “Having mom as primary breadwinner is bad for kids and bad for marriage," said Erickson. Oh really? And on what scientific basis is that statement made? The "traditional family," where the dad works and the mom stays at home all day to take care of the kids, is nearly non-existent. Only 14% of families fit that template today. The overwhelming majority of women work outside of the home -- not exactly what Harriet Nelson had in mind, but that's America. Women make up 47% of the workforce and nearly a quarter of them have more education and training than their husbands. A growing number of fathers -- 3.5% -- are "stay-at-home dads" and make themselves responsible for child rearing while their better educated, more successful wives go off to work.

There's much more. When Erickson claims that female breadwinners are bad for children and their marriage, what kind of family is he imagining where the kids are better off and the marriage has a better chance of success? One can have little doubt that Erickson would reply that the "traditional family" is what he has in mind.

But what is a "traditional" family? A few facts on what the family unit looks like in America today:

* Single parents account for 27 percent of family households with children under 18.

* More than two million fathers are the primary caregivers of children under 18, a 62 percent increase since 1990.

* One in two children will live in a single-parent family at some point in childhood.

* One in three children is born to unmarried parents.

* Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.

* More than one million children have parents who separate or divorce each year.

*More than half of Americans today have been, are or will be in one or more stepfamily situations.

If there is such a thing as a "traditional family" today, it is a blended family -- parents and children the result of more than one union that will probably result in divorce and remarriage, further blending the already blended grouping. But there are other kinds of family units that would certainly fall under the rubric "non-traditional":

* Estimates show that approximately 2 million American children under the age of 18 are being raised by their lesbian and gay parents

* The number of unmarried partner households has increased by 72 percent in the last decade from three million in 1990 to more than five million in 2000. These figures include both same-sex and different-sex couples.

* One-third of lesbian households and one-fifth of gay male households have children.

Studies still show that the optimum situation for children is to have a married, different-sex couple as parents. A child's chances of success in education, in employment, and in building their own stable, monogamous relationship as an adult increases dramatically if they live in such an environment.

But truly, how many children can live under "optimum" conditions? Do we tell everyone else they can't have kids? There are a million reasons why families break up, and it is a certainty that women being primary breadwinners isn't one of them. Blame the ease of divorce compared to 50 years ago. Blame a culture that devalues monogamy. Blame fathers who beat their wives, mothers who constantly bitch about money, or couples who simply drift apart. But there is no basis to blame female breadwinners except an outdated notion of women and the family.

That conservatives consider themselves guardians of the traditional family, and family values is a good and noble thing. But the guardians of tradition, to be effective, must recognize the times in which they live and adjust to the changing realities of the culture and society. It's no use trying to recapture the Ozzie and Harriet version of the family, or any notion that women will eschew the opportunities that the 21st century is presenting to them because they may end up making more money than their husbands. That kind of thinking has gone the way of the Studebaker and Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Conservatives should concentrate on channeling the changes we are seeing in the family unit into productive outlets that help parents nurture children and empower families to achieve security. Building non-governmental support systems in the community is a good start. This means affordable day care, after-school activities, and perhaps educational opportunities for the parents.Voting for politicians who even vaguely understand the value of a well-ordered free market couldn't hurt either. A strong economic base is a prerequisite for strong families.

In other words, conservatives must work to strengthen the voluntary community. Not by lecturing women about how much money they make and hectoring them about how seeking their idea of a fulfilling life is selfish and even unseemly, but by welcoming everyone, of every race and, yes, sexual orientation into the circle.

Otherwise, conservatives and their political party will find themselves on the outside looking in.