Magazine | November 19, 2015, Issue

Family: The Crucial Institution

(Rubberball/Mike Kemp/Getty)

Married white Christians were the demographic core of the country when National Review was founded, and still are the demographic core of the conservative movement it midwifed. The difference in verb tenses between the two halves of that sentence is a problem for that movement, and points to one for the country.

The last 60 years have witnessed a “great sorting” of parties and voters in the United States, a sorting this magazine has promoted. Partisan divisions have come more closely to coincide with ideological ones. Americans got “a choice, not an echo,” as conservatives promised during one of NR’s early campaigns. As part of this process, married white Christians have grown much more likely to vote Republican. A bit more than 40 percent of them backed Dwight Eisenhower’s party, according to political scientist Alan Abramowitz, while more than 60 percent backed George W. Bush’s. They have also shrunk as a share of the electorate, going roughly from 80 to 40 percent over that period. Among voters under 30, they went from almost 80 to below 20 percent.

Conservatives will not succeed in the future unless they perform better among the nonwhite, the non-Christian, and the non-married. They will have to do better among non-Christians absent an upsurge in Christian belief. Even if immigration were to stop, they would have to do better among people whose ancestors mostly came from outside Europe.

Making inroads among non-Christians and nonwhites is a formidable challenge that conservatives have barely begun to tackle. But it is the decline of marriage — the decrease in the percentage of adults who are married, and in the percentage of children being raised by parents who are married to each other — that may prove the most problematic for conservatism.

Childbearing out of wedlock and divorce have risen; people marry later in life, and fewer people ever marry. Marriage has declined for many reasons: the economic emancipation of women, the longer schooling encouraged by modern economies, the invention of the birth-control pill, the spread of liberal individualism, and more besides. We would not want to reverse all of these developments, even if we could.

But the weakening of marriage has come at a heavy cost. Children generally do better when they are raised by parents who are married to each other: better academically, economically, and behaviorally. They do worse in other environments. Even children in what we used to call “intact” families fare worse in communities where such families are rare. And we have some reason to think that the decline of marriage has decreased happiness for adults, too, and especially for women. Americans with relatively low incomes and levels of schooling, in particular, have experienced the downside of these trends. Among them the decline of marriage has been especially pronounced.

There has been a cost, as well, to conservative political fortunes. Unmarried adults are less likely than married ones to embrace either economic or social conservatism, because both their finances and their personal lives are less stable. Mothers who do not have the support of a husband are more likely to need the support of the state — and, even if they do not need it immediately, to value their ability to rely on it if their circumstances turn worse. Republicans have often been described as the “daddy party,” offering voters order and judgment rather than care and validation. But what happens to the daddy party when fatherhood stops being as much a lived reality?

If this is right, then the future of conservatism is tied up with the future of marriage. Republicans might be able to do well in an America with an even weaker marriage culture than we now have. But they will have to be less conservative Republicans, taking part in running a larger government at the behest of a less secure populace.

The America in which NR developed “fusionism” — the combination of libertarian economics and traditionalist morals that would characterize modern conservatism — had a level of marital stability that was unusual in our history and looks almost mythical now. The country had gone through a great deal of centralization and homogenization as a result of the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War. Big government, big business, big labor, and big media never loomed as large in American life as they did in the 1950s, and never would again. It was the magazine’s libertarianism that stood athwart the age.

The government still needs reining in. It needs it more, since it is larger than it was 60 years ago: more meddlesome, unwieldy, and ineffective. But conformity in lifestyles is not our era’s problem, and the romance of collectivism is dead. The decline of the family is what most needs resisting in our time.

There is no ready-made program, no five-point plan, for bringing about a cultural change that would lead more people to raise children within healthy marriages. But conservatives could stand to spend a little less time thinking about the conditions necessary for businesses to flourish, as important as that is, and a little more time about those for families. If we put our minds to it, we would probably find that there are a lot of free-market reforms — in housing, in higher education, in taxes, in health care — that would make it more affordable to start and raise a family.

The decentralization of American life has been largely a good thing for the country in general and conservatism in particular. But we should not consider the family just another large institution in retreat. Families are the crucial small institutions we need to make our way through our large, complex, and endlessly various society, and we need them to be strong.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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