Grand New Party and Family

Family stability has been a defining issue for social conservatives for essentially the entire political history of the United States.  Often - and the authors would likely agree to a point - this emphasis on family stability manifests as repression and bigotry.  Douthat and Salam attempt sincerely, and sometimes convincingly, to make the issue one of economic pragmatism rather than empty moralizing.  After admitting those fixations, however, they often find themselves overextended in their defenses of social conservatism.

Douthat and Salam write that “social conservatism, with its emphasis on stable, traditional families, is a perfectly rational response to the economic consequences of atomization.”

Their characterization of social conservatism as interested primarily in the family for the unit’s role in economic and cultural stability is undermined by the staunch opposition to same-sex marriage over decades.  While the gradual increase in rates of approval of same-sex marriage over the years following its earliest state-level legalization supports their idea, the entrenchment of the remaining opposition gives it lie.  Particularly when the opposition is fueled by the elevation of figures like Kim Davis in right-wing media.

While their tendency to argue that bigotry played next to no role in one phenomenon or another certainly does mirror the parallel tendency of liberals to attribute everything to various bigotries, it isn’t necessarily right.  A simplistic analysis isn’t any more correct when it’s offered in response to another simplistic analysis.  With all that said, however, their focus on families is interesting.

They argue that families with two parents fare better on numerous economic indicators.  It’s hard to see how they would be wrong - two incomes generally being better than one - but they apply their conclusion extraordinarily broadly.  They argue that “the percentage of fatherless households in a neighborhood closely tracks with the neighborhood’s crime rate,” apparently neglecting to note that both could be correlated due to the enormous impact of poverty and insecurity as a root cause of both.  They extend this sort of reasoning by concluding that social instability (divorce rates, single parenthood, and the like) are causes of poverty more broadly.

They offer little compelling evidence of causation on these points which is particularly problematic given their propensity to cite the stress of multiple jobs or financial difficulty as primary causes of divorce.  Their citation of financial instability as a reason to delay marriage only pages earlier makes it more problematic still.  The obvious weak spot is that it seems just as likely, if not more so, that poverty and economic instability would cause the social problems Douthat and Salam lament than be caused by them.

In addition to those links that they cite themselves in earlier chapters, poverty makes healthcare and family planning harder to come by and leads to higher rates of unwed parenthood. As Douthat and Salam, themselves, argue, children born into poverty are far more likely to stay there than in the past.  

They do state later that conservatives have a “habit of diagnosing the working class’s cultural problems and then pretending that those are the only ones there are,” and continue to note that it’s impossible to “disentangle the sociological trends that have created familial instability from the economic.”  They also note that “divorce and illegitimacy lead to economic disadvantage but the reverse is also true.”  The authors attempt to add weight to their ideas by arguing that family instability is a driver of poverty.  While it could certainly be a reinforcing factor, there are numerous aspects of poverty that destabilize families and can’t really be traced in reverse.  Noting that fact makes them more perceptive, but it’s hard to see how it does anything but weaken their argument more broadly.