Almost exactly 20 years ago, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a controversial essay for The Atlantic titled “Dan Quayle Was Right.”
There once was a popular sitcom called Murphy Brown. The title character, played by Candice Bergen, was a news anchor. The show had its moments, but it was also insufferably pleased with itself and its liberalism. At least until the arrival of the Aaron Sorkin oeuvre (The West Wing, The Newsroom), it set the standard for such things.
Murphy Brown was rich, powerful, and independent. In a 1992 episode, she got pregnant and decided to have the baby, without a husband or, as so many say today, a “partner.” On May 19, 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech titled “Reflections on Urban America.” His address was a response to the riots in Los Angeles that month, and he placed a heavy emphasis on the breakdown of the black family — sounding a bit like Barack Obama today.
Quayle succeeded in launching a public discussion. His side lost. Feminists, Hollywood bigmouths, and the usual suspects went ballistic. Murphy Brown’s producers made the execrable decision to write a show in which Quayle had attacked the “real” Murphy Brown, not a fictional character. In full martyr mode, the make-believe Murphy Brown said, “Perhaps it’s time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes.”
Quayle, of course, never said that families don’t come in all shapes and sizes. What he said was that children who are raised by married, responsible parents do better than those who aren’t. And that’s where Whitehead came in. Marshaling the still-gelling social science of the time, she put numbers behind Quayle’s assertions.
Back then, Whitehead’s essay was heretical. Today, it’s conventional wisdom. Last year, Isabel Sawhill, a widely respected liberal economist at the Brookings Institution, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post titled “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms.”
Sawhill noted that kids raised by married parents — not just parents living together, never mind single mothers — simply do better. They do better academically and are less likely to get arrested, get pregnant out of wedlock, or commit suicide. They’re also much less likely to be poor or stay poor.
None of these claims are particularly controversial among social scientists. And none of this is particularly aimed at gay marriage, pretty much the only kind of marriage liberal elites want to celebrate now.
But where Quayle was wrong — though only partially — was in putting the blame on Hollywood.
The black family was falling apart decades before Murphy Brown. And since then, the white family has been breaking down even as the majority of Hollywood fare continues to romanticize traditional marriage or does an adequate job of showing how hard single motherhood is.
I don’t know why marriage for all but the well-off and well educated continues to disintegrate; maybe it would help if elites “preached what they practiced,” to borrow a phrase from Charles Murray. Forbes writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry notes that being married correlates about as positively with a person’s wages as going to college does. But experts hammer the importance of college while ignoring marriage.
Maybe after the debate over gay marriage settles down, elites could focus on the far more pressing marriage crisis unfolding before their eyes.