In politics, we often don’t realize which battles we should be fighting until they’re already lost. To some extent, conservatives have experienced this with respect to public institutions. As the sort of people who shy away from government, and in particular from tangled government bureaucracies, conservatives mostly allowed liberals to have their way with the public institutions such as schools. Now we are belatedly realizing the extent to which this has put us at a disadvantage. I think we’re regaining some ground here, but it’s hard not to lament conservative negligence in allowing things to deteriorate so far.
Looking back 20 years from now, I fear we will be saying the same about marriage. Of course, there are many conservatives who care enormously about marriage, just as there always have been a goodly number who cared about education. Here on Ricochet, though, many seem to feel that the marriage battles are a waste of our time, or at any rate not the best use of it. I sort of understand this perspective. For a conservative, interfering in the private affairs of others is poor form, and a person’s marriage certainly seems to qualify as one of his “private affairs." Aren’t liberals the ones who always want to talk about love and sex? As in the education case, the topic is distasteful to us, so we’re inclined to let it be. As in the education case, this is a huge mistake.
Marriage is absolutely critical to the survival of conservatism. Here’s what you small-government libertarian-types need to realize: marriage is one of the strongest bulwarks we have against governmental interference in our lives. Its decline is one of the biggest factors fueling the growth and overreach of the nanny state.
We can draw many parallels, in fact, between marriage and employment. Holding a job is, in many ways, difficult and unpleasant; given a choice on any given day, most of us would prefer not to go to work. Nevertheless, it turns out that working is good for people, not only because it provides income, but also because it gives them useful activity and purpose, and staves off numerous vices. When government incentivizes unemployment through benefits and entitlement programs, we see whole classes of people spiral into moral decline. Once, poorer Americans worked hard and were to a great extent disciplined, responsible, and self-reliant. Absent the work, they fell into irresponsible life patterns, and many have reached the point where adults behave more like petulant children who are regrettably too old to be spanked. In such a society, actual children have very little chance of maturing into responsible citizens or members of the workforce. The cycle continues.
Marriage likewise involves a good bit of unpleasantness, particularly once the children arrive. It necessitates self-sacrifice and a pretty good share of drudgery. By the time we have established ourselves in adult life, most of us have developed routines and habits that ensure our comfort. Family life will intrude on those routines, and may well upset the apple cart entirely. If “calling it quits” is seen as a real option, most everyone will contemplate it at some time or another. But for all its hardships, marriage is a mainstay of civilized life, which enables humans to discipline themselves, shoulder their responsibilities, and ultimately live freer and more fulfilled lives. Where marriage fails, society fails. Just as government has become the de facto breadwinner for millions of Americans, so government has become the de facto parent. It doesn’t play either role very well.
In many parts of America (particularly the poorer parts), it has become socially acceptable to call it quits. Among working class Americans, it is now common for women to have children out of wedlock, or for romantic couples to move in together and procreate without making any firm commitment to maintain a conjugal relationship. Absent the commitment, the relationship rarely endures, and these fragmented pieces of families usually end up looking to government to supply the extra supports that they have failed to secure for themselves. The children of such unions are far less likely to grow into responsible citizens, and far less likely to make successful marriages of their own. And the cycle continues.
Marriage is the bond that frees us. We need it to be a functional society; without it, government will intrude ever further into our lives. We need, furthermore, for marriage to be understood as a fundamentally self-sacrificing relationship that fulfills one’s own interests only secondarily. Only on those terms can the bond be reliably strong enough to weather the many challenges and trials that couples are likely to encounter in the course of a normal life. The companionate ideal of marriage (wherein the primary focus is on love and intimacy and warm feelings of togetherness) is perpetually prone to collapse whenever those goods are not being attained. Every married person finds his or her spouse challenging at times, and most couples go through periods where they don’t feel particularly close or unified in purpose. For the good of our children and society as a whole, we need a bond strong enough to pull us through those times.
Married people tend to vote Republican. Unmarrieds (particularly women) tend to vote for the Democrats, and their offspring are also more likely to grow into Democratic voters. It’s not a fluff issue. So, in our haste to “adapt” our message, let’s not lose sight of one of conservatism’s most critical cornerstones.