Maybe it’s because everyone’s sick of fighting over gay marriage. Maybe it’s because our rightblogger friends’ tactic of Adam-and-Steving the issue hasn’t helped their increasingly hopeless cause, even within the Republican Party. In any case, some of the brethren are working a new angle.
Well, not totally new. There has long been a body of conservative thought about how it’s actually straight marriage that needs fixing, and in these dark days for the anti-gay cause, that kind of thinking is catching on with rightbloggers. The basic premise: Straights better marry fast and early, because something something values.
Conservatives have been concerned with declining marriage rates for ages–usually on goddamn-hippies, too-much-sex grounds. Some of them have called for laws to be changed to redress the balance. They’ve denounced no-fault divorce, for example, on the grounds that marriages are a pure social good even when they’re miserably unhappy. “No-fault divorce laws were a mistake that encouraged marital irresponsibility,” wrote some guy who’s president of one of the hundreds of rightwing organizations that have “Marriage” in the title. “No Fault Divorce Was the Bullet to the Brain of Marriage,” cried Mark Shea.
At World magazine, Alisa Harris told the heartbreaking story of a couple that got divorced, thereby transferring misery from the wife to the husband, which Harris seemed to find unfair; “It’s just too easy [to divorce],” the husband told Harris. “She could literally change her life overnight.” We can see how conservatives would find this frustrating.
Conservatives have even been willing to let the evil federal government intervene to encourage marriage, at least when they’re in charge, as with George W. Bush’s $1.5 billion “promotion of marriage” program in 2004, an expenditure which, so far as we remember, none of the currently budget-conscious Republicans complained about at the time.
Some of the brethren have defended such programs on the grounds that they’re cost-effective–because marriage by itself makes people rich. In 2002 small-government conservative Rich Lowry of National Review criticized a welfare bill that would “pay–and reward–single moms for being single moms”; if we stopped paying them, Lowry reasoned, they might get married, and that would be super: “If [unwed fathers] were to marry the mothers of their children, 75 percent of the mothers would be lifted out of poverty,” he claimed. “In roughly two-thirds of the cases, the mothers would be lifted out of poverty without even having to work themselves.” Lifted out of poverty without working? They should bottle this “marriage” stuff!
This idea has persisted, even, we might say, metastasized; when Katie Roiphe postulated in 2012 on a future world without marriage, at National Review Heather Mac Donald snarled that “actually, we know already” what such a world would be like–“It’s called the ghetto.” So, just as marriage can make everyone rich, lack of marriage can make everyone poor. It’s that powerful!
In recent years, the idea that marriage makes you rich has become an important part of the marriage-mania schtick–as has a pretense, calculated to draw in more soft-hearted auditors, of concern for the poor.
Take Charles Murray. He’s the author of The Bell Curve, a book beloved of rightbloggers because it implies black people are intellectually inferior to white people. This may be why, when Murray considered the fate of America’s under-married working class in his 2012 book Coming Apart, he said he had deliberately left black people out of his projections “as a way of clarifying how broad and deep the cultural divisions in the U.S. have become,” he said. Yeah, we get it, buddy.
Murray noticed that wealthier Americans were still getting married before having kids, while poorer Americans were not. But unlike you and us, Murray dismissed the idea that this had anything to do with the drastically reduced economic opportunities for blue-collar workers these days; rather, he thought it was because poor people didn’t know that marriage and hard work are good for you — because richer Americans had stopped telling them so, out of a “condescending ‘nonjudgmentalism.'”
Murray suggested “the new upper class must start preaching what it practices,” i.e. wealthier Americans should go out among the poor and prosletyze for “marriage and the work ethic,” i.e., nag them about it, which if effective would then make everybody rich, or at least the white people.
Murray seems to have been inspired by W. Bradford Wilcox, director of something called the National Marriage Project, who said in 2010 that “family breakdown inhibits the accumulation of assets”–that is, unwed parenthood leads to poverty, not the other way around.
Wilcox at least had a more entertaining, if no more believable, reason for the downtick in marriage than Murray: he said the lower classes had fallen victim to a sentimental idea about marriage–a “soul mate” model rather than a more rugged “‘institutional’ model” (why, it even sounds like something used in factories!). “More and more Americans think that marriage is about an intense and fulfilling couple-focused relationship,” complained Wilcox, which is ridiculous–it’s about pooping out kids and working till you have a stroke. But the poor insist on a soul mate thing they can’t afford, said Wilcox, and since the “emotional and sexual intensity of the couple relationship waxes and wanes,” they naturally wind up unmarried with squalling brats in a trailer, unlike those who never expected to quote-unquote love their partners.
Like Murray, Wilcox believed in nagging–“highly educated Americans,” he said, “need to put their privilege in service of the public good by doing a better job of extending their marriage mindset to the rest of America.” He didn’t say how it would work, but we like to think he sent troupes of pro-marriage troubadours to wander the hinterlands, singing songs of conjugal wealth transference.
Flash forward to 2013: As they found themselves in a post-gay-marriage-acceptance landscape, some rightbloggers who don’t normally go on about straight marriage have been taking up the subject–and from their writings we get the distinct sense that they don’t mind switching targets as long as they still get to hector somebody about their personal lives.
Reihan Salam, one of the young rightbloggers promoted by the praise of David Brooks and others, took a Wilcoxian view: Degenerate moderns, he complained, had abandoned a “conjugal view of marriage, in which procreation and lifelong marital fidelity are central,” and adopted one whereby “children, once at the center of marriage, have now become negotiable, and what used to be negotiable — love, companionship, sex–has moved to the center.”
So, said Salam, maybe conservatives should forget about gay marriage and get to work on straight marriage. His buddy David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute of Buzzword Buzzword–who Salam said has “emerged as one of the leading critics of same-sex civil marriages,” so you know he’s hardcore–had in a recent op-ed “called for a kind of truce. ‘Instead of fighting gay marriage,’ he wrote, ‘I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.'” Gays and straights, scolding together! Unfortunately, Salam reported, “Many of Blankenhorn’s erstwhile allies saw his op-ed as a capitulation, and as a result the Institute for American Values lost several members of its board.” Maybe we should build him a statue.
At The Umlaut, Eli Dourado offered a Murrayesque explanation for why the poor weren’t getting married: “A marriage is like a job–financially lucrative, but inconvenient at times,” he said, “so it could make sense that those who are especially averse to inconvenience would forgo both jobs and marriages and end up poor.” Those marriage-shirking poors! Maybe this calls for a government marriage-training program? Doubtful–in Dourado’s view, government intervention has only made the situation worse: “Welfare policy has reduced the opportunity cost of childbearing out of wedlock for the poor,” he wrote; “consequently, it makes sense that the poor are doing more of it.” Maybe if we made them sing hymns first…
Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, who normally focuses on how everything is Obama’s fault, also caught marriage fever, telling readers of USA Today that “marriage inequality is one of the biggest things making people less equal, accounting for as much as 40% of the difference in incomes.” (Lest you question his sincerity, Reynolds added, “I’ve been supporting gay marriage for a long time–much, much longer than Barack Obama.” Ah, good for him, he got it in there!)
Reynolds agreed with the usual rightwing reasons for marriage fatigue (“When you subsidize something, you get more of it, and we’re subsidizing unmarried mothers”) but also offered some novelties of his own: “Where marriage and kids were once seen as the beginning of life as an adult,” he said, “they’re now seen as something closer to exile from adult life …” His proof point: “Suburban parents often drive SUVs instead of minivans because minivans, though more practical, are associated with low-prestige activities like parenting, while SUVs are associated with higher-prestige activities like whitewater kayaking.” Also, the dads on TV are “bumbling doofuses.” Reynolds is a professor of law.
At The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle began by telling her readers, “College improves your earning prospects. So does marriage. Education makes you more likely to live longer. So does marriage.” Instead of telling us whether and why two married high-school graduates would have as good a chance of getting rich as two unmarried Ph.D.s, McArdle told us that the reason “Economists Urge College, But Not Marriage” is that they’re jealous: “All economists are, definitionally, very good at college,” she wrote. “Not all economists are good at marriage. Saying that more people should go to college will make 0% of your colleagues feel bad. Saying that more people should get married and stay married will make a significant fraction of your colleagues feel bad. And in general, most people have an aversion to topics which are likely to trigger a personal grudge in a coworker.”
We expected McArdle’s follow-up to be about the role of petty personal vendettas in her failure to receive the Nobel Prize for Economics, but instead she talked about Susan Paton, some rich lady who told students at her alma mater that they should find a husband before they graduate. McArdle did not find a husband in college, she admitted, nor for many years thereafter, and yet was still very happy; nonetheless she advised readers, “you should err on the side of marrying early.” (She didn’t explain why late marriage should work for her but not others; maybe in her view late marriage is like possession of a Thermomix, something that should be reserved for the elite.)
At The New York Times Ross Douthat has been busy with a series in which he expostulates on the grave harm done to straight marriage by hippies. In one of these he described two Wilcoxian models: “a more institutional and procreation-oriented model, which remained (and still remains) influential, especially among more religious Americans, and the more purely libertine, entirely deinstitutionalized approach to sex and relationships that gave us so many wonderful trends in the 1970s.”
This latter, hippie-tainted model, which Douthat and other obsessives call “the soulmate/capstone model… has thus far only really been stabilizing for the upper and upper middle classes,” while for the poors this “combination of sudden sexual freedom and economic stagnation … more or less demolished traditional family structures in a generation, helping to create the underclass as we know it today.” But mostly sudden sexual freedom!
Some of you may be asking yourselves: why then didn’t the sexual revolution make everyone unmarried, therefore poor? Why have the college-educated — who after all were indoctrinated into perversion by their Marxist professors — continued to marry, despite their purely libertine, entirely deinstitutionalized approach to sex?
Because, Douthat suggested, “the rewards for following a careful ‘education, job, marriage, kids’ trajectory are so obvious that college-educated American understand the marriage-procreation connection intuitively, as a kind of gnostic wisdom that doesn’t need to be spelled out.” Gnosis! It sings, and most of his crowd will be too baffled to question it.
Thus gnostically inoculated, Douthat continued, the sexed-up liberals “don’t see why their values”–not the marriage-friendly values they apparently live by, but some other set of export-only values–“shouldn’t be preached and modeled and embodied in sitcoms and movies, reality shows and glossy magazines,” which bamboozle the poor into baby-mommahood. (“Politicians, consultants, talking heads” also spread the capstonery by a means Douthat never makes clear, though we think he means they fail take this stuff as seriously as Douthat.)
“Social conservatives who feel they are defending traditional marriage by opposing homosexual marriage need to ask themselves some serious questions,” wrote Gayle Kesselman at American Thinker. “Namely, can the institution of traditional marriage be salvaged without the wholesale repeal of no-fault divorce laws which swept through our states beginning in 1970?”
Eventually these ideas floated down and were seized by the hagfish of the right blogosphere. “Marriage cannot be merely about ‘love,'” said Warner Todd Huston–why, consider that “polyamorists, polygamists, homosexuals, even pedophiles claim that their relationships are all about ‘love.'”
True, Huston just used this as a trope in yet another anti-gay-marriage rant — “Men marrying, staying monogamous, and protecting their family stabilizes society and gives women the capability to be more than just a constantly sought after sex object,” he wrote, to a chorus of “who asked you?”–but that’s okay: Insensitive as he is, he has felt the fresh wind blowing, and moves to it by instinct. As we put this gay marriage thing behind us, expect tons more straight-marriage lectures–and, when that gets old, maybe related lectures, such as whether cunnilingus, for example, inhibits or promotes the accumulation of assets. Then, when that gets old, whether anilingus inhibits or promotes blah blah. Then …