The new politics of no-fault divorce


IT ARRIVED in the mail impressively stamped in raised blue ink: business cards etched with the seal of National Republican Senatorial Committee, my name, and the words "National Campaign Adviser" underneath.

The accompanying letter, from NRSC chairman Sen. Al D'Amato, R-N.Y., explained: "When discussing the 1996 campaign with voters in your community, please don't hesitate to use your cards to identify your status as a national campaign adviser to the NRSC."

What did I do to deserve this?

Well, last year, my best friend's brother ran for Congress and, in a fit of improvidential generosity, I did something I had never done before and plan never to do again: I gave money to a political campaign. My candidate didn't win, but I can't say it was a total loss. My name has wended its way through the vast bowels of the modern direct-mail machine, (quite by accident, I assure you) landing on several lists of GOP fat cats.

You get a lot of interesting mail that way: Christmas cards with senators' kids on them, urgent mailgrams predicting the ultimate defeat of evil pols, and now this.

It seems that Al and Newt and Bob are counting on me to stand in for them with all those voters in my town they can't meet face to face.

"Most important, these business cards prove that when you speak about the national agenda, you're speaking for Sen. Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich and the entire Republican leadership in Congress."

I know what they think. They think that in exchange for these pretty cards with the fancy title, I'm going to send them money.

Sorry Al, Bob, Newt. No can do. But to show you I'm grateful for the confidence you've reposed in me, I will now, in my official capacity as a National Campaign Adviser, dispense some free advice:

If you want to know what the American people think about family values, take a look at the current issue of the American Enterprise, which has gathered some fascinating information on how our attitudes have shifted from the early '70s.

The polling data suggest a surprising possibility: Now would be a politic time for you to consider tackling what has (amid all the thundering GOP denunciations of illegitimacy) heretofore been a sacred cow: No-fault divorce.

By nearly a 2-to-1 margin (47 percent to 26 percent), Americans now say divorce should be more difficult, rather than easier, to obtain. This represents a substantial hardening of anti-divorce sentiment since 1974, when Americans favored tougher divorce by only a narrow 42-percent-to-32-percent margin.

Interestingly, this new wave of anti-divorce sentiment appears to have swept over all age groups. Among young adults, who are the first generation raised in the no-fault divorce era, the sea-change in opinion is particularly striking. In 1974, by a margin of 48 percent to 33 percent, young Americans (aged 18 to 29) urged easier divorce. By 1994, opinions of these children of divorce had undergone a 180-degree turn, with 42 percent of young adults favoring more difficult divorce and only 31 percent arguing for easier divorce. Indeed, in a 1995 poll, young adults -- influenced perhaps by their own first-hand experience of the pain divorce gives children -- were also more hostile than any other age group to divorce as a solution when "a marriage is not working out."

When you crunch the numbers, you find that pluralities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents all favor getting tough on divorce (with the Republicans leaning most strongly in that direction). Protestants and Catholics also agree, as do both men and women. In fact, contrary to what feminists will tell you, women are even more opposed to easy divorce than men.

Anti-divorce sentiment is also uniformly strong among high school graduates and those with some college. Only among college grads do divorce advocates outnumber those who oppose easy divorce laws -- clear proof that Dan

Quayle's dread cultural elite is alive and well.

African-Americans are one of the few exceptions to this nearly universal hardening in attitudes to divorce. In fact, on this issue, black and white opinions are nearly polar opposites, with more blacks, unlike whites, agreeing not only that divorce should be easier to obtain, but that "one parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together."

But among almost every other group of Americans, more experience with divorce has not produced, as it normally does, more acceptance of it, but rather an extraordinary widespread revulsion.

The divorce generation is rebelling. For the first time, Americans are looking for innovative leaders with solutions to the collapse of marriage. Al, Bob, Newt, take note.

Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist.

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