The culture wars seem to be grinding toward a close. So what comes next? Are there ways that elements of the old left and right can hash together new alliances to deal with the circumstances we face now?
Noah Smith from the Noahpinion economics blog published an article in The Atlantic proposing what he described as a liberal “Marshall Plan” to reach out to defeated social conservatives. Its an interesting opening, encouraging the left to forego “the temptation to pillage the lands of the conquered enemy” and instead look to forge common ground in the quest to support the struggling working class.
The reason we need to reach out to conservatives is simple—there are a lot of them, and they are our countrymen. America is not going to be healthy unless conservative America is healthy. And America is not going to be a fully effective nation-state until conservative America feels completely included in the new liberal America that is now emerging.
It’s time to reach out to conservatives on the issue of family stability. It’s becoming clear that traditional family gender roles—the idea that the man should be able to be the sole breadwinner—are not sustainable in the modern economic environment. This is probably one reason behind the breakdown of two-parent families among the working class, as documented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. But liberals—the same kale-munching, bottle-recycling goofballs that National Review and David Brooks have spent decades lampooning—have found a better way. The better way is what Richard Reeves, in a landmark article in The Atlantic, calls “High Investment Parenting.” When families focus on the kids, instead of on maintaining traditional gender roles, it turns out to be a lot easier to keep the family together.
That’s great, but there are a couple of problems with this approach. For starters, I think it’s more than a little arrogant to conclude that the culture wars led to a decisive liberal victory. As I’ve stated elsewhere:
A social conservative from the ‘70’s, plopped down into our age, might be thrilled by what they found as most of the greatest fears of their era have faded. Divorce rates have not only leveled off, but declined. Children are treated with near-reverence, buckled up, cherished, and sheltered from negative influences. New York’s Times Square in our time is a ’70′s conservative’s wildest fantasy made real.
Substance abuse, crime, and smoking not only halted their rise, they have declined significantly. Public disapproval of adultery has strengthened. Abortion is in steady, long-term decline. Teen sexual activity and pregnancy are in dropping.
Our visitor from the ‘70’s would be treated to one particularly mind-boggling phenomenon. Homosexuals, once mistakenly derided as lust-driven deviants, are pressing for the right to settle down in stable families and raise children. The Village People now have entirely different plans for the YMCA – signing their kids up for soccer and gymnastics.
The only thing social conservatives lost in the culture wars was the opportunity to leverage government to impose their religiously inspired sexual repression on everyone else. The rest of what “family values” actually mean remains not only intact, but more vital than ever.
The fact that the “victory” Smith points to is based on same sex couples earning the right to get married says a lot about the direction taken by the sexual revolution since the eighties. For a vast majority of people who can still afford it, a “traditional” family remains not just desirable, but the standard. The problem is not that people have rejected family life. The problem is that in a highly dynamic, intensely market-dominated world, it has become extremely expensive to engage in any activity that does not produce an immediate profit. Traditional motherhood and fatherhood have become a radically expensive undertaking. If people on the left really want to engage constructively in a post-culture war detente with conservatives, it might be helpful first to acknowledge that the conflict ended with a new paradigm that was vastly different, and better, than what either side envisioned a generation ago.
In general though, this is a promising approach. If both liberals and conservatives recognized the desirability of stable families and the key role that economic stability plays in supporting them, we might have a basis on which to collaborate. That would require a bit more humility than Smith shows in this piece, but it’s a start.