Bristol and Levi, Together Forever?

Teen mom and abstinence spokeswoman Bristol Palin has risked the disapproval of two feuding families to romantically reunite with Levi Johnston, the repentant, formerly spurned (and spurning) father-of-her-child. Ironically, the glee that this clandestine second betrothal causes among Palin detractors (her mom must be so pissed!) contrasts with the fact that once again, the pair have embraced one of the cornerstones of conservative family values: the shotgun marriage, or in this case, the really, really long rifle marriage.

It’s hard to resist the saga of the Palin clan. Rivalries, teen pregnancies, breakups and makeups, rumors of meth-dealing relatives, tabloid gut-spilling and facebook name-calling. A young couple who embrace abstinence, reject it, then embrace it again. For the liberal media elite, the pursuit of this Alaska-to-Washington soap-opera has been intense and unyielding, encompassing both scorn for the clan’s seemingly-lowbrow ways and absolute fascination with same. That attraction-repulsion far eclipses any reaction to other conservative political foes who might pose a more substantial threat at the ballot box (Tim Pawlenty… eh).

As we debate whether the young Alaskan parents’ brand-new return to affianced bliss is for real or for reality TV, whether it’s an act of rebellion or Sarah Palin herself is its scheming puppet-master, what we’re actually left once again facing is the cultural threat that the Palins and their proud way of life seem to pose. This, in my opinion, is the true reason they get under our skin. It’s not so much that Sarah Palin will be president–she probably won’t–but we’ve now learned that are millions of people who embrace the Palin method, melodrama, accidental babies and all. It’s a way of life that, like anti-choice policies and hatred of government programs, rejects reason and evidence for dogma, even when confronted with the failure of that dogma in everyday life. Hot-button political disagreements like birth control, abortion, even the nature of marriage have real life consequences for the health and wealth of families–and the Palins and their ilk don’t seem to care.

Bristol and Levi, detours aside, represent a life-path that’s far from foreign or alien to conservative Americans–in fact it’s intimately familiar. This is why, when Bristol’s pregnancy was discovered, no eruption of fury or cry of “hypocrite” from within the conservative movement materialized–it was to be expected, and even applauded for not ending at the abortion clinic. This is how the Palin way generally proceeds:

1-Grow up without sex-ed, with abstinence touted and contraception only marginally available.

2-Initiate sexual activity at a hormonally-appropriate time, without consistent or proper protection.

3-Get pregnant, but don’t consider abortion because of religious values, lack of access, or parental notification laws.

4-Attempt to do “the right thing” by getting married or engaged.

5-Nevertheless experience a higher poverty, divorce, and single parenting rate, and lower educational achievement and health index as a result.

6-Rinse, repeat.

This cheeky little rundown of mine is actually borne out by the numbers. In  Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, (Oxford University Press) the authors tease out the way our vast cultural differences translate, statistically. In an excerpt for Alternet, they write (emphasis mine):

Driven by religious teachings about sin and guilt and based in communities whose social life centers around married couples with children, the red family paradigm continues to celebrate the unity of sex, marriage, and procreation… Yet, red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages, and lower average ages at marriage and first birth.

Cahn and Carbone point out the “paradox” in the heart of so-called family values territory: family stories often include sins like divorce and out-of-wedlock births. The other side of the paradox? Rhetorically open-minded, pro-sex, love-makes-a-family blue state clans  model stable, two parent (gay or straight) homes with parents who have waited until adulthood and the arrival of financial stability, rather than the onset of sexuality in the late teen years, to begin having babies. These two factors–more than one caretaker and slightly older parents– of course, are proven by the numbers to be strong indicators of the emotional, financial, physical and education health of families. (The authors stress, and I repeat, that this is statistically-based generalization, and in no way negates the many real stories we’ve all seen of triumphant teen and successful single parents and two-parent, financially stable households that wreak havoc on their kids’ well-being.)

This paradox ultimately, is what provides the frustration for Palin-watchers–and conversely, the fad of Palin-mania and the success of shows like “16 and Pregnant,” which show the workings of the red-state family up close, uncensored, and personal.  But our way works, we think. Why do people keep choosing the other way? With our abundance of sexual freedom and contraception and abortion and gay-friendly policies, we actually have more solid family structures than you do, and yet somehow you still see us as sinful!

Carbone and Cahn believe that our ideological differences can’t be smoothed away. So they posit that more important than differences over sexuality and abortion should be the common goal of delaying marriage and childbirth. They suggest practical (and for the most part, feminist-friendly) solutions which they believe are more likely to help people on both sides of the gap than sparring does. For that reason, they support government and social programs focusing attention on contraception instead of abortion, promoting family-friendly workplaces instead of arguing over the ideal family, and expanding relationship and marriage education instead of arguing over sex vs. abstinence education.  They note that:

New efforts at marriage promotion suggest that delayed marriage, financial planning, more-effective communication, mutual respect and commitment, shared interests, and recognizing the warning signs of domestic violence (both in oneself and in potential mates) all enhance relationship stability.

Levi and Bristol have actually achieved some of the desired results here: they’re older, more financially stable thanks to their careers as celebrities and spokespeople, their shared experience as teens thrust into the spotlight is uniquely theirs, and they’ve now weathered a few life-experience storms that they wouldn’t have encountered even a few years back. Now that their red-state values have merged with media savvy and exposure to the wider world, they have a little more blue state flavor in their union. Whether or not they will buck trends and forge a successful family on either paradigm, is obviously a complete mystery–but we’ll all be watching. As Salon’s Amy Benfer writes, “their private choices will eventually be served back to us as political parable.”

For those of us on the blue side of the divide, theoretically if not geographically, the Palin family saga reminds us that we’re not just fighting an abortion war, but we’re up against an entire way of life built on a deep foundation of contradiction.

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  • bprince15

    Very good piece. Unfortunately people who would benefit from understanding this paradigm are not capable of getting their heads wrapped around it. It is well known in Bristol’s circle that this was a very planned pregnancy. The whole discussion about abstinence, birth control and abortion goes out the window as moot in the case of a planned pregnancy like this. Bristol is all too typical of the up is down, down is up red state parenting. Bristol’s red state parents did not possess their own work ethic and personal responsibility to instill in Bristol her civic duty to get an education and become self supporting before starting a family. Sarah and Todd have outright disdain for higher education and the traitorous eggheads who get degrees. Why would Bristol strive for anything beyond highschool.


    Bristol is the hero of red state girls everywhere buying pregnancy tests as we speak and hoping for a positive result. What if for example Bristol had given birth to a disabled or trisomy child? That would be a more sobering result. That would sell abtinence, birth control or abortion (take your pick) much better than say a cherubic perfect son who is the love of her life and the best thing that ever happened to her. And the source of vast wealth and fame.

  • bornin1984

    Your cheeky little rundown is not really correct. When it comes to teen pregnancy rates, there is no red/state blue state divide (, page 14). In an interview, even one of the authors admit as much. However, there is an abortion rate divide, with far more abortions coming out of blue states then red states (see the previous link). If women in blue states give birth less often then red states, it is because they obtain abortions more often then women in red states, and the birth rate and abortion rate are generally inversely correlated. Of course, if you are happy with predicating your way on more abortions then more power to you, but it really does make one wonder whether or not all the talk of reducing abortions from said blue states is just that. Talk.

  • bornin1984

    Double post.

  • arekushieru

    Yup, I don’t want to see reductions of the numbers of abortions, I want to see a reduction in unwanted pregnancies, AS I told another person.  Reductions in the number of abortions is just a byproduct. 


    Have you ever heard of Katherine Ragsdale?  Awesome woman and Episcopal faith leader, who reiterates that exact same view.

  • cmarie

    I thought it was sad when people tried to attack Sarah Palin over the fact that her daughter got pregnant but this is almost as bad.  I’m sure the parents are unhappy.  The kid is a back stabber and I really cannot imagine that the marriage will last but why the glee?  Sarah Palin at least supported her daughter when the baby’s father didn’t.  And now she has the unenviable task of watching her daughter go into a marriage with a guy who deliberatly trashed the whole family for some of the spotlight.  Doubtless, (like many grandparents) the Palins are going to end up tolerating even this loser as not to risk their relationship with their grandson.   This kind of thing happens to people of every political persuation all the time.  I wouldn’t celebrate it happening to a Democrat so why are you celebrating it happening to her?  Most Democrats of course know perfectly well that this could (and maybe has) happened to them are only going to have sympathy for her situation.   I agree with you that she’s not qualified to be president (doubtless more qualified than Obama but who isn’t?).  I think her future is in media not politics but even if she was planning to run in 2012 I don’t understand the celebration here. 

  • catseye71352

    The most deadly sin, because it allows the likes of Sarah Palin (in it for the $$$$, anyone?) to justify any sort of obscene position statement or behavior.

  • saltyc

    I agree with Arekushieru and BornIn1984, abortion cannot be discounted as a method of family planning. I certainly used it to time my first childbirth, to my family’s benefit. I disagree with the notion of contraception instead of abortion, we need both. Teen pregnancy may have an impact on future social standing, but not as much as teen birthing does.

  • cmarie

    Catseye, I’m very confused by your comment.  You seem to think that Sarah has total control over everything her daughter thinks, says and does and that if Sarah says or does one thing and Bristol says or does another then Sarah’s being hypocritical.  I’m assuming that if you have children they are still very young.  They would have to be for you to imagine parents hold that kind of control over their grown children.

    • catseye71352

      And has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with disagreements between Sarah and Bristol and EVERYTHING to do with Sarah’s behavior as opposed to her high-flown pontificating. If everybody raised kids the way Palin did, they’d get the same results; out-of-wedlock pregnancies by one child and another breaking into somebody’s cabin for a wild party.

  • crowepps

    A great deal of the “glee” is because Sarah Palin made it so clear that if OTHER mothers were as ‘spiritually advanced’ as SHE was, and if OTHER mothers used HER childraising methods, then they too could have perfect children like HERS who never did anything that Mommy disapproved of.

    Sarah Palin at least supported her daughter when the baby’s father didn’t.

    Obviously, none of us was sitting on the couch listening in when the family hashed this out, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Levi did not support the mother of his child, and a great deal of evidence that Sarah Palin thrust herself into the decision making because it would affect her political ambitions.  Certainly dragging Bristol down to the convention as a prop and putting her in the position of having her personal life become national gossip wasn’t meeting Bristol’s needs.


    One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to have on their radar is that this pregnancy began when Bristol had been jerked out of her high school and sent to live with her grandmother in Anchorage, and the (possibly inaccurate) gossip here in Alaska was that the move was not something Bristol wanted but instead an attempt by Sarah Palin to prevent the couple from seeing each other.


    Should the private lives of these children be fodder for everyone to chew over?  Probably not, but then it wasn’t the average guy or gal out there who chose to PUT them in the spotlight, was it?  It was Sarah Palin.

  • cmarie

    well, I appreciate that you at least admit to your glee. 

    “Sarah Palin made it so clear that if OTHER mothers were as ‘spiritually advanced’ as SHE was, and if OTHER mothers used HER childraising methods, then they too could have perfect children like HERS who never did anything that Mommy disapproved of.”

    And the obvious question is “link please?”

    “a great deal of evidence that Sarah Palin thrust herself into the decision making because it would affect her political ambitions.” 

    And a link to this “great deal of evidence” too please?


    Certainly dragging Bristol down to the convention as a prop and putting her in the position of having her personal life become national gossip wasn’t meeting Bristol’s needs.

    So treating her differently from every single other family member of every candidate at both conventions would have met her needs?  Should she have been locked up in an Irish laundry too Crowepps?  Its exactly your logic, your gossiping and your glee that kept those places going so long.

  • crowepps

    I’m not going to go to the trouble of digging up all the web sites for each individual sneer and giving you links, because I haven’t been that interested in Palin since she decided the governor’s mansion wasn’t good enough for her and governed from  her home in Wasilla while charging the State per diem for ‘being out of town’.  Since I live in Alaska, a lot of the gossip was pretty much inescapable, but personally I didn’t feel any glee, just disgust at what seemed a bright promise and turned out to be dross.  I think the kids should be left alone to try to sort out their own lives without having to run things past Mama Grizzley’s campaign manager.  If you want to pore over the gossip, much of it unsubstantiated and IMO rooted in bias, a lot of it can be found in the archives here:


    Since Palin jerked Bristol out of school and hid her away at grandma’s, in my opinion, knowing Bristol was pregnant and that might come out at the convention and any attention would likely be embarassing to Bristol, she should have just left Bristol at grandma’s instead of exposing her unnecesssarily to a media slavering to dissect her life and transform her unfairly into another ‘slut of the month’.  Personally, I wouldn’t have exposed ANY of my children to that unhealthy media circus.

  • cmarie

    honey, not everything a kid ever does is a direct result of the way he or she was raised and even if it was, getting pregnant or even a B and E (assuming that’s true) is hardly the worst a kid can do.  I promise once your oldest reaches about four, you’ll agree that they have minds of their own.