by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone. New York: NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. 304pp. Hardcover: $29.95/£19.99. ISBN: 9780195372175.

Reviewed by Jenny Holsman, Department of Political Science, Arizona State University. Email: jholsman [at]


Fifty years ago, American family structures were remarkably uniform. The rich married at roughly the same rate as the poor and middle class. Divorce rates were relatively low for those with a high school or college education. Out-of-wedlock births were rare in almost every region and community. Yet, since the 1980s, there has been a divisive political polarization within the family and moral value realm. Globalization, changing gender roles, technology, educational differences, decrease in religious participation, and economic restructuring are revolutionizing the role of sexual relationships today. Naomi Cahn and June Carbone argue that these societal changes have resulted in a contemporary culture war in America in RED FAMILIES v. BLUE FAMILIES: LEGAL POLARIZATION AND THE CREATION OF CULTURE.

Using legal analysis, social science statistics, quantitative and qualitative data, the authors get to the core of the fundamental differences in family concepts in America. As the authors describe, everyone has identified “family values,” but the red-blue split occurs in determining what is best for American families. With clarity, Cahn and Carbone articulate why the United States has become red-blue polarized economically, geographically, religiously, culturally and politically.

The book is divided into three main parts. First, “Family Maps” sets the context for the book by providing critical data for the authors’ argument. Second, “The Legal Map” shows how and why family law has evolved differently throughout the country, through both political efforts and legal outcomes. Finally, the “Map to the Future” provides policy advice and a prescription for individuals, voters, and lawmakers, by identifying policy solutions that will lead to healthier family structures.

With precision, Cahn and Carbone first detail the surprising reality about divorce, abortion, custody, marriage, sexual behavior, and sexual education in the United States today. As they outline in the first two chapters, the moral demography and sexual history of the country have changed dramatically over time, resulting in a polarization of a sexual culture within the country. As the authors next describe, blue states are comprised of highly educated, middle class families in urban areas. As a result of a new value system, it is argued that the blue regions of the country have created a new family culture poised for the post-industrial economy. Specifically, the culture in blue states encourages egalitarian gender roles and acceptance of gay and lesbian couples, women’s workforce participation, and delaying marriage and childbearing until both parents are financially and emotionally ready.

In comparison, the “red” regions of the country have rejected the value system found in blue states today. Red families are described as “poor Appalachian whites with relatively high teen pregnancy rates, Utah Mormons with higher educational attainment and lower teen birthrates but younger average ages at marriage, mountain families in Wyoming and Montana with strong libertarian traditions, and suburban and rural Midwestern families from Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas” (p.11). In red states, teen childbirth is an alleged deterrent to non-marital sexuality, marriage is sacred and only found between men and women, and divorce is considered a sin. Despite these “family values,” however, the evidence presented shows that red states experience higher rates of teen pregnancy and divorce. Cahn and Carbone depict in RED FAMILIES v. BLUE FAMILIES that a culturally conservative “red America” is stuck trying to sustain an outdated social value model. Thus, by insisting on abstinence before marriage, Cahn and Carbone argue, social conservatives guarantee their children will get pregnant early and often, leading to shotgun marriages, teen childbirth and high divorce rates.

The second and third chapters of the “Family Maps” section provide a historical context about why and how the regional polarization occurred. The final chapter in the section addresses the critical intersection of culture, politics and religion. The authors show that the polarization of political and religious values has exacerbated regional differences and helped to set the stage for a politicized cultural conflict.

The second part of the book uses a legal perspective to illustrate the correlation between cultural divisions and resulting legal rules. The “Legal Map” section points out the significant differences in laws regarding sexuality between red and blue states. Cahn and Carbone articulate the differing laws but also show how the new family regime (as embraced by the blue states) translates into very different legal decisions. For example, red cultural beliefs influence legal regulations by controlling sexuality, while blue beliefs promote equality. The authors delve into five hot button areas that have resulted in red-blue distinctions, including abortion, contraception, abstinence-only education, marriage laws (including marriage promotion and same sex marriage), and the role of nonmarital cohabitation in custody decisions. This section clearly articulates differences between gender, socio-economic class, decision-makers, religion and community culture.

The final section of the book presents a “Map to the Future” by addressing looming policy issues and making recommendations that seek to bridge the gap between the current ideological divide. The book tackles the policy issues of marriage, work-life balance, and children oriented issues. Recommendations about strong leadership, alteration of existing laws (FMLA for example), and education, result in prescriptive suggestions for advancing dialogue on culturally charged issues.

As a result of their research, the authors conclude with four critical findings. First, policies regarding marriage should be decentralized, allowing each part of the country to “redefine family aspirations in regional terms based on shared values” (p.208). Second, we must stop fighting over family planning and focus on programs that will succeed for diverse groups. Third, comprehensive health care must include family needs. Fourth, the relationship between work, family and education should be reconsidered, with a focus on keeping families healthy.

RED FAMILIES v. BLUE FAMILIES is filled with ideas about the political construction of families and presents the issues in an interdisciplinary way, while also providing empirical evidence. The book offers a powerful and fresh look at family formation by exploring the relationship between age, class and racial divides among red and blue families. The authors also present information about cutting edge neuroscience research regarding brain development and how it relates to family formation and marital stability. Cahn and Carbone also explore teen sexual behavior in red and blue states, and argue that contraception, not abortion, is key to the promotion of marriage and family values. Although the red and blue paradigms are not absolute, Cahn and Carbone demonstrate that red and blue states have different ideas about moral values and different concepts of regulations for reproduction, contraception, and sexuality.

RED FAMILES v. BLUE FAMILIES also addresses the issue of who should serve in the role of umpire over controversial constitutional issues. Cahn and Carbone argue that legal scholars overemphasize the role of federal courts in politically divisive constitutional family issues and instead propose a concept of progressive federalism, a flexible model that allows individual states to develop different concepts of “family values.”

RED FAMILIES v. BLUE FAMILES will be an insightful companion to any intellectual debate about the political, legal and cultural divide in our country today. The book will serve as a practical guide for proponents of a federalist system of family law. The book is both fascinating to read and fast paced, leaving you hooked from beginning to end. Whatever your position on the issues presented in the book, you will walk away well informed about the political and legal divisions that have resulted in a culture divide in our country today, will be well versed in critical issues bubbling at the top of the family law agenda, popular culture, federalism and law and science issues that are the forefront today.

Although some may walk away from the book feeling that Cahn and Carbone present their data with a blue slant, most readers will appreciate the information presented as comparative, with an eye toward starting a conversation about potential policy alternatives within the family law realm. Further, despite this potential bias, all readers will appreciate the authors’ understanding of the traditional goals found in red families and the attempt to present information in an unbiased way. Regardless, every reader will walk away impressed by the expansive range of evidence the authors use to support their findings – that a political, legal and cultural divide exists within the United States today.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Jenny Holsman.