David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, has written a thoughtful short essay for the New York Times on why he has devoted considerable effort to defeating efforts to legalize same-sex civil marriage and why he has decided to embrace a new strategy. He notes that he had hoped that our national conversation about same-sex marriage would evolve into a broader conversation about the centrality of marriage and child-rearing, yet he sees no sign of that happening. So he concludes on the following note:
Instead of fighting gay marriage, 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. For example, once we accept gay marriage, might we also agree that marrying before having children is a vital cultural value that all of us should do more to embrace? Can we agree that, for all lovers who want their love to last, marriage is preferable to cohabitation? Can we discuss whether both gays and straight people should think twice before denying children born through artificial reproductive technology the right to know and be known by their biological parents?
Will this strategy work? I don’t know. But I hope to find out.
Blankenhorn’s current position closely parallels my own. It is worth noting, however, that Blankenhorn’s new strategy actually represents a harder road than opposition to the legalization of same-sex civil marriage. Opponents of same-sex civil marriage will from time to time achieve concrete political victories. Those who want to reestablish the cultural centrality of marriage, in contrast, won’t have concrete victories to celebrate. Rather, they will have to navigate a fragmented cultural landscape in which it is crucially important to understand the difference between simple contagions and complex contagions, an idea a very good friend explained to me relatively recently.
The following is the abstract of a paper by Damon Centola and Michael Macy:
The strength of weak ties is that they tend to be long—they connect socially distant locations, allowing information to diffuse rapidly. The authors test whether this “strength of weak ties” generalizes from simple to complex contagions. Complex contagions require social afﬁrmation from multiple sources. Examples include the spread of high-risk social movements, avant garde fashions, and unproven technologies. Results show that as adoption thresholds increase, long ties can impede diffusion. Complex contagions depend primarily on the width of the bridges across a network, not just their length. Wide bridges are a characteristic feature of many spatial networks, which may account in part for the widely observed tendency for social movements to diffuse spatially.
Crudely, it is interesting to think about “wide bridges” in the context of the diffusion of various social practices. In the United States, divorce levels have decreased among college-educated women since 1980, as Kay Hymowitz has observed. Yet this hasn’t translated to non-college-educated women, in part, presumably, because we don’t (to overgeneralize) have “wide bridges” in U.S. society between the college-educated and the non-college-educated.
This has important implications for cultural conservatives. Family disruption in the United States is increasingly pervasive, yet it remains concentrated in groups that tend not to see elite non-black and non-Latino conservatives as culturally credible. That is part why the message Blankenhorn is articulating isn’t resonating with the constituencies for whom it is (arguably) most relevant. There are, of course, many cultural conservatives in the communities most heavily impacted by family disruption, but it’s not clear that these individuals have the kind of cultural and spiritual authority they’d need to make a significant difference, partly because social uplift is seen as primarily state-driven and not community-driven. That is, I don’t turn to the pastor or deacon to weather a family crisis. I turn to the state for transfers or for other forms of care, as alternative social networks are too weak by comparison or too overburdened. So why would the pastor or deacon hold sway? I should stress that this is a serious oversimplication, but I do think it helps explain the larger landscape.