Family values is an oft-repeated in phrase in all presidential campaigns, but the definition has definitely changed over the past few decades. President Lyndon Johnson emphasized the importance of the nuclear family in his 1965 commencement address at Howard University. "The family is the cornerstone of our society," he told the young graduates and their families. "More than any other force it shapes the attitude, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child. And when the family collapses it is the children that are usually damaged. When it happens on a massive scale the community itself is crippled."
Just a few months before Johnson's speech, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan published "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." The Moynihan Report, as it became known, strongly influenced President Johnson's Great Society anti-poverty programs, and deeply frustrated African-American leaders. After analyzing black unemployment data, the Moynihan Report concluded that while the problems of white racism and persistent joblessness contributed to African-American men abandoning their families, the real problem, according to Moynihan, lay elsewhere:
"In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is too out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well."
In sum, the goal of the Great Society was to stabilize poor families, particularly black families, through government programs. Yet as the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s — the sexual revolution, the women's movement, and the gay rights movement — gained strength, and as American manufacturing declined and the economy sank, conservatives adopted the family values rhetoric and decided that government wasn't the answer.
The nuclear family needed protection, the new Religious Right claimed, from the movements that challenged traditional gender norms. As the economy soured, the newly-elected Reagan Administration took a hard look at the money spent on Great Society-style programs, and concluded that welfare only contributed to the so-called pathology of the poor. "In the welfare culture, the breakdown of the family, the most basic support system, has reached crisis proportions," President Reagan explained in his 1986 State of the Union Address.
Brown University historian Robert O. Self explores the rightward shift of American politics through the lens of family values in his new book, "All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s."