November 1, 2020
“The 2020 Presidential Election Reimagines What a Political Family Has to Look Like”
This August 25, 2020 Town and Country Magazine article by Caroline Hallemann, Senior Digital Editor, illustrates how divorced people are no longer societal failures simply because their marriages didn’t work out.
There’s no doubt this election will end up in the history books. The mere fact that ballots will be cast during a pandemic—from which more than 1,000 Americans continue to die each day—enshrines its place on the page. Of course, so does Joe Biden’s running mate; Kamala Harris is the first woman of color to accept a major party nomination for VP. If she’s elected, she will become the first woman, first Black person, and first person of Indian descent to hold the office.
But there are countless other ways this one is unprecedented. In a political landscape that was for years bullied by the phrase “family values,” the 2020 election is also historic in that it finally seems like this country getting over its hangups about divorce—and to that end, reimagining what it means to be a modern American family in politics.
Throughout American history—but in particular over the course of the 20th century—the first and second families have been held up as paragons of virtue, exemplars of the flawed notion that a nuclear family with a mother, father, and 2 or more biological children is by definition a moral one. (The Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Obamas notably all fit into the template.) For the majority of the U.S.’s 244 years, there was no room for divorce on the Presidential ballot; a failed marriage was often a disqualifying factor.
But evolving notions about relationships, monogamy, and the role marriage plays in society have slowly trickled up from the electorate to the political class, and this election cycle, they’re coming to fruition. A divorced politician (or politician’s wife) with a blended family no longer holds the insurmountable stigma it once did. That’s a good thing, if for no other reason than it indicates that stigma about divorce in general is also on the decline. The end of a marriage means a relationship didn’t work out, but it’s no longer a lifelong scarlet letter—or a sign that family has “failed” or is “broken.”
When Trump was inaugurated in 2017, he became only the second divorced President in American history. (Ronald Reagan, of course, notably being the first.) He has a minor child living with him and the First Lady and grandchildren who visit frequently.
Trump’s VP Mike Pence? Married to a divorced woman. One election cycle later, the Democratic ticket also features two blended families. No matter who wins in November, there will be a stepparent in the White House.
Yes, there have been presidential stepparents before. George Washington had no biological children of his own, but helped to raise Martha’s kids from a previous marriage. James Madison also helped his wife Dolley raise her son, whose father had died. But to have so many blended families on the ballot seems like real change.
Both Biden and Harris’s broods were front and center at the Democratic National Convention last week. Harris’s step-daughter Ella—the daughter of Harris’s husband Doug Emhoff and his first wife Kerstin Mackin—introduced her “Momala” by calling her “the World’s Greatest Stepmom,” and saying: “You’re a rock, not just for our dad, but for three generations of our big, blended family.”
And, later, in describing her mother, Harris offered a definition of family that includes not only “the family you’re born into” but also “the family you choose.”
Biden’s own family’s origin story is central to his political story. Grief over the death of his wife and young daughter, who tragically died in a car crash in 1972, has clearly shaped his life and work. For a time, he was a single father to his sons Beau and Hunter, and he says with frequency that it was his second wife Jill, a divorcée herself, who “put us back together.”
“How do you make a broken family whole?” the former second lady questioned during her convention speech. “The same way you make a nation whole,” she added. “With love and understanding—and with small acts of compassion. With bravery. With unwavering faith.”
They didn’t shy away from bringing their “unconventional” families into the spotlight. In fact, it’s a mistake to even call a blended family unconventional anymore. Per The Atlantic, citing Pew Research Center data, “fewer than half of children live in a household with a married couple who have never been divorced or remarried.” It’s normal at this point, and about time our government reflected that.