Edging Closer to the Truth

by W.F. Price on January 29, 2014

Ross Douthat, the NY Times’ token youngish conservative, came out today with an op-ed provocatively titled “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare.” This is a theme I’ve been hitting on a lot recently because I think it’s an overlooked but nonetheless very important component of politics in the US. Douthat, in his usual roundabout, overly-sensitive and borderline deferential way (I wouldn’t count on that kind of kid glove treatment from the other side), argues that the values espoused by upper class elites are toxic to the middle and working classes.

In his piece, he addresses an argument made by Randy Waldman, who called efforts to resurrect traditional marriage a “cargo cult” (you see, Mr. Douthat, these are not very nice people), and points out that while socially liberal norms may work fine for those with plenty of money and connections, they have had disastrous consequences for the rest of us.

What people contemplating marrying down clearly should fear more than in the Eisenhower-era past are interpersonal problems — a spouse who comes from a broken home, who doesn’t have positive models of marriage and parenting in her past, who carries a cloud of suspicion into wedlock because his own parents’ marriage fell apart. Economic redistribution can help mitigate those problems (which is why I favor it, to a point), by creating a firmer material foundation for families. But the problems themseves just aren’t exclusively material: They have a cultural element, and reflect a cultural change, that can’t simply be ignored.

This is where I look at Waldman’s critique of how elite self-interest has contributed to marriage’s decline and see a case study in what liberals are inclined to leave out of this story, and what implications they are unwilling to draw from their own premises. Because if the heart of your social analysis, the core of your conclusion, is the idea that the homogamous new elite’s social behavior is essentially (if perhaps unknowingly) self-interested — that the pursuit of meritocratic success has led the mass upper class to “walk away without a care … from people who in other circumstances, even in the not so distant past, would have been our friends and coworkers, lovers and spouses” — then perhaps you need to apply the same cold-eyed perspective to that elite’s cultural assumptions and attitudes as well, and to the blend of laws and norms those attitudes incline its members to support.

By which I mean … is it just a coincidence that this self-interested elite holds the nearly-uniformly liberal views on social issues that it does? Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart?

Obviously, they do not have the greater good at heart. Their clear hatred for the majority bears this out. As a resident of a deep blue city filled with people with elite pretensions, the viciousness toward anyone not on board with the socially-liberal, politically correct message is right out in the open. Unabashed, naked hostility toward dissenting points of view and advocacy for traditional values is what passes for progressivism in Seattle. No “live and let live” here… But I’ll let Douthat make his point.

if we’re inclined, with Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. Waldman, for instance, makes the (completely valid) point that just telling a single mother to go get married to whomever she happens to be dating isn’t likely to lead to happy outcomes for anyone involved. But is that really just because of wage stagnation and the truncation of the potential-mates bell curve? Or could it also be that the decision to marry only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs?

If it’s the latter — and if you’re not an economic or genetic determinist, I really think it has to be — then it’s worth recognizing that much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path. No longer would the law make any significant effort to enforce marriage vows. No longer would an unplanned pregnancy impose clear obligations on the father. No longer would the culture industry uphold the “marriage-then-childbearing” script as normative, or endorse any moral script around sexuality save the rule of consenting adults.

And following our hermeneutic of anti-elite suspicion, let’s ask: If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send.

That can mean a religious community: In those red states with high divorce rates that liberals like to cite, frequent churchgoers are an exception to the pattern, or course Mormon Utah is the high marriage-rate (and, not surprisingly, high social mobility) exception to every post-1970s trend.

Or, more importantly for our purposes, it can mean a community low in explicit moralism but high in social capital and social pressure, where the incentives not to date or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time are sharpened by the immense rewards for not making personal mistakes, where divorce and single parenthood are regarded as major threats to the all-important intergenerational transfer of success, where young people are inculcated with the kind of self-control required to dabble in libertinism but not take major risks, and where the influence of a libertine culture is counteracted by the dense network of adult authority figures whose examples matter more than what you watch and read and consume. A place where the norms and rules and script don’t have to be made explicit to carry immense weight. A place where everyone understands the basic secret of success.

A place like, well, the modern meritocracy.

Ah, there’s that word “meritocracy” again. Am I still the only one who fails to see the merit in these people’s values and lifestyle?

Now do I actually think there’s some kind of elite-liberal cultural conspiracy to keep the masses in their social place? No, of course not – there’s nothing so conscious and cynical at work. But then again, neither do I think there’s a meritocratic conspiracy to withdraw into walkable-urban enclaves and leave the rest of society to fragment and decay. Yet that withdrawal and its consequences are still important facts for understanding the decline of marriage, just as Waldman says. An approach to life doesn’t have to be calculated to be effectively self-interested, and in the context of a stratified country that self-interest is well worth pointing out.

And the same is true of an approach to politics and culture. Again, I’m not alleging cynicism: Social liberals are entirely sincere in their belief that even self-censorship is unnecessary censorship (or, perhaps, that the internet has rendered cultural standards obsolete); in their conviction that laws banning abortion or restricting divorce are too punitive, illiberal and inherent sexist to be just; in their abiding sense that economic paternalism is morally acceptable but social-moral-sexual paternalism is not. But it is still the case that when we legalized abortion and instituted unilateral divorce, we helped usher in a sexual-marital-parental culture that seems to work roughly as well for people with lots of social capital as it did sixty years ago, while working pretty badly for the poor and lower middle class. It is still a reality of contemporary life that when anyone can get a divorce for any reason, the lower classes seem to get far more of the divorces, and that when anyone can get an abortion for any reason, the poor end up having more abortions and more children out of wedlock both. And it is still a fact that if you tallied up winners and losers from the sexual revolution, the obvious winners would tend to cluster at one end of 1975’s income distribution, the obvious losers at the other.

This post’s title is a provocation, of course: What I’m describing isn’t literally a class war. But it really does have winners. And they’re the ones most likely to insist, with great passion and conviction, that we can’t possibly learn anything from the social rules and laws and norms that held sway in America’s more equal and more mobile past.

Here’s where Douthat constructs something of a strawman on behalf of social liberals. He’s saying, essentially, that there’s no conspiracy at work, and that they do in fact sincerely hold the beliefs they profess even if they don’t act on them. Well, this may be true, but you don’t need a conspiracy to explain a collective effort to do harm. There’s a much simpler explanation: malice.

These meritocrats just don’t like us. That’s why they use terms like “cargo cult” to explain our values. That’s why they instinctively take positions that are the exact opposite of ours. When they push policies that harm their lessers, it’s because it makes them feel good to see us brought low. Maybe some people think this is a far-fetched explanation, but who can deny that hostility toward outgroups is a fundamentally human characteristic?

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