Dan Quayle was right…but who cares?
Jonathan Chait has written a surprisingly thought-provoking essay extolling the virtues of marriage, and (sort of) praising Sen. Marco Rubio for proposing policies to incentivize (or, at least, not punish) it. Yet reading his column is like ending a meeting with someone you just know agrees with you — only to later find out he was just humoring you. In the end, it is utterly unsatisfying.
Chait admits that “[m]arriage may in fact be the single issue where the conservative analysis has the most power.” His conscience allows him to do this because this also affords him an opportunity to bash Ari Fleischeri’s op-ed, which similarly recommends the institution as a means of battling income inequality (albeit, in a more transparently partisan manner).
Still, before he gets around to the hopeless denouement, Chait actually makes a pretty compelling conservative case. “The rapid growth of divorce and unwed motherhood has produced a huge increase in the proportion of American children being raised by a single parent,” he concedes, even as he calls single parenthood “a vast social experiment with measurably harmful effects on children.”
And Chait goes even further, conceding that “all the premises of [Dan] Quayle’s jeremiad were largely correct and have been borne out: Single motherhood has risen and its effects have been harmful” — and acknowledging that “Hollywood really does promote social liberalism, and the promotion really does change the mind of its audience.”
At the time, Quayle was mocked mercilessly by media elites for his comments. Now, some observers are conceding he was right, even as many (like Chait) continue to dismiss efforts to change the culture which promotes unwed parenthood. “[T]he roots of the decline in marriage,” Chait argues, “lie in a cultural sea change.”
This evinces a worldview which sees the arc of history bending in one direction (toward unwed mothers), which assumes that this is a fait accompli. As such, he presents the reader with a world in which liberals are confronting the tough, pragmatic problems of trying to “accommodate the decline of marriage,” while conservatives are tilting at windmills when they try to attack the root problem.
I’m left scratching my head, thinking: “Why not use this as an opportunity to champion reforms that might actually help solve the problem?” — “Why not be all contrarian and give a full-throated endorsement of Rubio’s efforts here, arguing that liberals ought to support ending income inequality, even if it (gasp!) entails supporting culturally conservative policies?”
Chait never gets around to such heroism, instead pivoting to his attack on Fleischer’s hackery.
Talk about a defeatist attitude. Yes, the culture changed, but not in a vacuum. In some ways, the changes were positive (civil rights). In other areas, the changes were pernicious (more unwed motherhood). Regardless, the changes were aided by cultural opinion leaders and policy makers who directed and endorsed the change.
If Chait concedes that unwed parenthood contributes to income inequality — and in what he calls “the power of popular culture to change minds” — then isn’t it incumbent upon him to use his perch as an influential writer and opinion leader to change the culture? Or at least, try…