The Strange Traditionalism of the Liberal Elite

(Photo: Anna Demianenko/Dreamstime)
Most Ivy League students and upper-middle-class progressives don’t practice the anything-goes lifestyle they endorse for others.

One of the great conceits of progressivism and a certain brand of apocalyptic conservatism alike is that each generation grows up to reject the moralism of its parents: Out goes Betty Draper; in comes Betty Friedan. Each generation is the most socially liberal generation that has ever existed. “This is the end of marriage, capitalism, and God,” a leftist at Salon celebrated last year, voicing a pretty typical sentiment among certain corners of the Left. On the right, Pat Buchanan worries that the spread of same-sex marriage means “the death of moral community” (as he titled a 2011 essay) and traditional institutions.

Young Americans are, indeed, socially very liberal. According to 2017 Pew surveys, Millennials report greater support for same-sex marriage than any other cohort in the history of public opinion polling. They also more liberal on abortion, the death penalty, and more or less whatever else you care to mention. Much of this, of course, is just the historically constant reality that people tend to become more conservative as they age: Indeed, as a cohort, Millennials are not necessarily as liberal as it is commonly supposed. High-school seniors and college freshmen are more likely to identify as conservative now than in the 1970s or 1980s. Although middle-aged Americans have grown more liberal on abortion, young Americans are as likely now to say that abortion should be “legal under any circumstances” as they were in the 1980s or the late ’70s, and less likely than in the 1990s.

But it really is true that a segment of American Millennials, particularly the well-educated and the affluent, subscribe to social beliefs far to the left of the American mainstream, current or historical. This won’t be news to anyone who has followed developments on American campuses over the past several years: social conservatives shouted down or assaulted; professors harassed and forced to leave for the most anodyne departures from consensus; student groups that accept as gospel positions on gender and sexuality that most Americans would find literally unbelievable, if not incomprehensible. Take it from a current university student: It is, at least in public spaces, treated as gospel that abortion is a right almost without limit, that hookups or polygamous relationships are morally acceptable, that one should never feel guilty for consensual sex.

Funny thing, though: We don’t practice what we preach. For starters, all the “sex positivity” notwithstanding, we don’t actually have very much sex. Millennials are more than twice as likely to have had no sexual partners in their early 20s than those born in the 1960s. In general, Millennials have about as many sexual partners as Baby Boomers and considerably less than Generation X-ers — those born in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. If anything the trend is more pronounced at top universities: Nineteen percent of Harvard students graduated the university in 2017 as virgins, the Harvard Crimson reported, and 49 percent of graduating students had two or fewer sexual partners over their four years.

Among those students who do have sex, neither hookup culture nor polyamory — relationships with multiple consenting partners — is particularly prevalent. Take Brown, which doesn’t particularly have a reputation for prudishness among top universities. In the fall of 2012, the Brown Daily Herald found that 49 percent of students were either in an exclusive relationship or were hooking up; 24.8 percent were in an exclusive monogamous relationship; another 7.8 percent were consistently hooking up with just one person. Only 12.6 percent of Brown students were regularly hooking up with multiple people. And only 0.3 percent were in an “exclusive relationship with multiple people” — the much-discussed polyamorous relationship.

One might think that lots of students want to engage in casual sex but are too socially awkward to do so. This too is wrong (although university students are in fact very awkward): Considerably more Brown students said they wanted to be in a relationship than actually were (75 percent vs. 49 percent), but the vast majority of these wanted to be in a committed monogamous relationship, and most of the rest wanted to consistently hookup with just one other person. Only 8 percent of Brown wanted either to hook up with multiple people or to pursue a polyamorous relationship. Brown isn’t exceptional here: A 2014 survey reported by the Stanford Daily found that 86 percent of students would rather be in a committed relationship than not, even though only 34 percent of students were in a relationship. It’s probably closer to the truth to say that a number of students want monogamous relationships but settle for casual sex instead.

Millennials are traditional in other ways, too: They are less likely to drink, smoke marijuana, or use cocaine than previous generations, although they are more likely to use painkillers, an artifact of the opioid epidemic. Only about half of Harvard students used marijuana by the time they graduated, and 20 percent reported drinking alcohol less than once a month. And on the economic front, for all the Marxists on campus, students at top universities are notorious for being relentlessly career-oriented. At the University of Chicago, clean-shaven economics majors in collared shirts and khakis, constantly scanning the horizon for the next consulting or finance internship, are considerably more visible than purple-haired Communists.

Beyond college, traditionalism also persists in elite circles. The marriage rate has been dropping across America — except among the affluent, who marry at about the same rate as they did in 1970 (rich men marry slightly less often, rich women marry slightly more often). College-educated white women are as likely to be married now as they were in 1950. The divorce rate has leveled off in American society writ large since the 1980s, but there has been a dramatic divergence based on education: The divorce rate for college graduates is about half that of those without a degree. America’s educated class spent decades decrying the importance of marriage and traditional familial structures to social life — and yet college graduates are the only cohort in America that acts as if it’s still the 1950s.

The most elite circles of American life are the most critical of traditional living and are, with the very notable exception of religious life, some of the most traditional in their own life choices.

The picture, on the whole, is striking. The most elite circles of American life are the most critical of traditional living and are, with the very notable exception of religious life, some of the most traditional in their own life choices. College students have by and large turned back the clock on the sexual revolution, overwhelmingly preferring stable, monogamous relationships. They don’t smoke or drink very much. They focus on building careers. When they want to have children later in life, they get married, and, once they get married, they tend to stay married.

This should lead us to a few conclusions. First, the concerns about widespread cultural collapse that have been in vogue since the late 1960s and that may perhaps be best encapsulated by Pat Buchanan’s Culture War speech, delivered at the Republican National Convention in 1992, are less pressing now. The current young generation holds more moderate, more sustainable, and even more conservative attitudes toward sex, relationships, and drugs than the generations before it. This does not mean that there are not serious challenges — in particular, there are very worrying signs of social collapse in working-class America, from the opioid crisis to the continued decline in marriage rates. But the resurgence of traditionalism among America’s young is real, and it’s something to celebrate.

Secondly, it’s clear that traditional institutions have very considerable staying power, at least among the elite. The very cohort that mocks marriage and monogamy as patriarchal and old-fashioned ends up in healthy marriages at historically high rates. It is clear to most elites, at least to judge from their personal preferences, that marriage and committed relationships offer something that casual sex, polyamory, and the bachelor life do not.

This suggests that the threats to traditional marriage are less than some conservatives have feared: There is nothing about same-sex marriage, culturally liberal attitudes, or cosmopolitanism that inevitably leads to the culture-wide erosion of monogamy or of marriage as an institution. But it also suggests that there really is something special about a certain traditional type of living, something that doesn’t allow for substitution. Upper-middle class progressives don’t need to be told this — they know it well enough. But communities struggling with divorce, unwed parents, and drug abuse could stand to benefit from this message, and it is a terrible shame that America’s elites preach the opposite.

“All happy families are alike,” said Tolstoy. For 60 years liberals pretended to wage war on this claim. But it is clear now: leftists and progressives themselves have come to see the truth of Tolstoy’s words. Hopefully they can own up to it and join the good fight.


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Max BloomMax Bloom is an editorial intern at National Review and a student of mathematics and English literature at the University of Chicago.


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