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  • Ross Douthat weighs in on family structure, pop culture, the media, marriage promotion, and more. Tweet This
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Category: Marriage, Parents

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat talks with the Institute for Family Studies about the two-parent family, pop culture, marriage promotion, the sexual revolution, and more.

IFS: Study after study shows that kids do best, on average, when they live with their married biological parents, and many reporters, pundits, and politicians who are otherwise unsympathetic to conservative ideas seem to be more willing to admit this (even if they remain skeptical of policies aimed at encouraging marriage or involved fatherhood). Do you think the battle of ideas over the two-parent married family has been won? Are we right to believe there’s a pretty broad consensus view here, despite sharp disagreements on what to do about it?

Ross Douthat: If you had asked me this question five years ago I would have said that this argument had been settled; now I’m not so sure. In part, the debate over same-sex marriage has changed the landscape, since a lot of supporters of SSM have become invested (for understandable reasons) in the idea that married same-sex parenting will produce the same outcomes as married biological parenting—or maybe better outcomes! If they’re right, then the “biological” part of the equation you describe no longer obtains, and the story cultural conservatives have been telling, which seemed close to becoming a consensus just a little while ago, will have to be revised. And if SSM supporters are wrong, and same-sex parenting is associated with somewhat worse outcomes for children—well, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of data to prove it, and there will be tremendous elite cultural resistance even then. So wherever the evidence ultimately takes us, same-sex marriage has probably made consensus on a familial ideal somewhat harder to achieve, and created ripple effects that will be spreading out for years.

I also think you can see some other forms of backlash against the “Dan Quayle Was Right” consensus that kinda-sorta emerged in the late Clinton and Bush years. For instance, some of the most eloquent African-American writers in my generation—I’m thinking in particular of a figure like Ta-Nehisi Coates—have sharply criticized President Obama for talking (in fairly modest ways) about family breakdown in the black community, on the grounds that those issues are mostly a blame-the-victim distraction from the real problem, which is still just white supremacy.

Coates and others may not be technically disagreeing with the “on average, two married biological parents” premise, but they’re sharply downplaying its relevance for policy and exhortation alike. And at the same time, there are ways in which the sheer scale of the transformation of family life—the fact that we’re up to forty percent of births out of wedlock overall, whereas when Barbara Dafoe Whitehead was writing it was only thirty percent, and the fact that public opinion is becoming steadily more permissive on these issues—may be inclining at least some liberals to regard the “two married parents” model as more antiquated and less relevant to public policy debates than they might have a decade ago.

Maybe these shifts fall more into your category of “sharp disagreements on what to do about it,” rather than a disagreement about the underlying reality itself. But I think that at a certain point, a strong difference about a truth’s implications becomes an effective disagreement about a truth itself. And that’s where I think we may be headed—or headed once again.

IFS: The liberal writer Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine a couple years ago that “You don’t have to be an especially devoted consumer of film or television (I’m not) to detect a pervasive, if not total, liberalism.” He went on to argue that conservatives were right to claim that Hollywood, and popular culture more generally, dramatically influenced people’s views on everything from racism to gay marriage, and has even shaped their real-life behavior. You’ve referred to that piece before and you often write about TV shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Girls.” How do you think pop culture impacts our debates and decisions related to marriage and family life today? Are there popular TV shows, books, or movies that propose a more traditional vision—say, by affirming that building a good marriage is a real and rewarding possibility? Or are conservatives stuck with minor, poorly produced works that preach to the choir?

Douthat: I loved and largely agreed with Chait’s essay, but I would resist the idea that popular culture never offers a more conservative vision of human flourishing, never advances traditional ideas. Liberals have a pretty strong monopoly on the more explicit forms of agitprop, yes. (Though not a complete one: Go re-watch “Forrest Gump.”) But the entertainment industry includes lots of talented people whose first loyalty is to an artistic vision rather than to an ideology. And because reality has a well-known conservative bias, any serious artist who sets out to capture the world in full is going to end up illustrating or illuminating aspects of what I would consider a more traditional vision of human nature and human affairs.

And this can hold true even when the artist in question is militantly ideological! Nobody doubts that David Simon is a card-carrying left-winger, for instance, or that Lena Dunham’s politics are pink right down to the underwear she so reliably doffs. But both “The Wire” and “Girls” admit of conservative, even deeply reactionary readings, because their primary loyalty—at least in their best episodes and seasons—is to truthful portraits of a given world. And while I think there would be more such portraits, more such truthfulness, if Hollywood were less ideologically monolithic, I wouldn’t want to deny that sometimes they show up, especially when the work in question is particularly well-executed, particularly rich.

That said, in terms of culture-shaping the best of pop culture probably matters less than the worldviews embedded in the average sitcom, the average glossy magazine, the average reality TV show. And looking at the area of life we’re talking about here, sex and marriage and family, certain patterns become apparent. For instance, I think Hollywood does affirm, quite often, that “a good marriage is a real and rewarding possibility”—maybe not as often as it did in the Dick Van Dyke fifties or Huxtable eighties, but probably more often than it glamorizes unrepentant adultery or cheerful homewrecking. (Or abortion, which is treated with soft disapproval more often than with approbation.) It also often affirms the idea that having a baby as a teenager is usually a pretty unwise proposition: Whether or not they’ve materially affected the teen birthrate, shows like “16 and Pregnant” are at least attempts to propagandize on behalf of our culture’s anti-teen pregnancy consensus.

Popular culture both exerts a powerful pro-promiscuity pull and contributes to the "scriptlessness" of contemporary romantic life.

But in the zone in between being sixteen and being a married sitcom dad with kids, pop culture’s vision of the good life is extremely libertine, in the sense that premarital sex is consistently treated as a kind of low-consequence playground—whether in the hot tubs of “Jersey Shore” and “The Real World,” or the haute-bourgeoise sexual carousels on shows like “Friends” and “Sex in the City,” or in the tabloids or the pop music charts or wherever—in which there’s no good reason to put a limit on how often and how casually you couple.

And because of this vision, I think popular culture both exerts a powerful pro-promiscuity pull—because it holds up as normal or aspirational wildly exaggerated visions of how much sex a typical collegian or twentysomething “should” be having—and also contributes to what I sometimes call the “scriptlessness” of contemporary romantic life: The absence of any clear cultural narrative, whether practical or moral or both, to help guide the many, many people who mostly just want to get from “casually dating” to “happily married” successfully, without sleeping with as many people as, say, a Ted Mosby did on “How I Met Your Mother” along the way, and without suffering the negative consequences that often follow from that kind of promiscuity in real life.

Lee Siegel, in an essay on “Sex and the City” many years ago, commented that “as the series rolled along, you became aware of a damning artifice, an un-mimetic quality startling in a series that was supposed to be a candid look at urban life: none of these women is hurt by sex.” I’m not sure it was quite as true by the end of the show (“Sex” at least flirted with realism in its concluding seasons), but as a diagnosis of pop culture’s overall attitude toward what unmarried consenting adults do between the sheets, it’s pretty accurate. Our society wants to believe that it has carved out a large zone of premarital sexual experimentation in which moral judgment is inappropriate and any unpleasant complications can be pretty easily avoided, and Hollywood wants to believe this most of all.

And to the extent that skeptics of today’s sexual culture should be pining for something else from popular entertainment, I think it would be stronger, clearer counterpoints to this belief: More of an acknowledgment that the “Friends” model of premarital sexuality doesn’t work out particularly well for an awful lot of Americans, and more portrayals of people (not necessarily religious or right-wing; just careful, responsible, morally serious) who choose or seek a different way.

IFS: It seems fair to say that those who report and opine on family issues in major media outlets hail, by and large, from stable, well-off families, and they themselves are highly educated, got married in their late twenties or thirties, and have few or no children. How do you think their background and current family life shape how they write about marriage and family issues today?

Douthat: Well … I think it’s fair to say that journalists tend to come from affluent backgrounds, that post-sexual revolution family life tends to be more stable for the affluent than for the working class and poor, and that permissive sexual norms tend to work out better for the affluent, for all sorts of reasons, than for people further down the socioeconomic ladder. So what that leaves you with, at the very least, is a media elite that’s strongly inclined to believe—based on their own personal experiences—that existing arrangements work pretty well, and which has a kind of unacknowledged class interest in the way that things have shaken out since the 1970s.

At the same time, though, I don’t necessarily see a lot of serene contentment in the way my fellow elite-media types write about these issues. Even if you confine your reading on sex and marriage and childrearing and fertility exclusively to liberal-leaning magazines pitched to the mass upper class—I’m thinking of The New Republic, or The Atlantic, or New York Magazine—there’s an immense amount of anxiety around contemporary patterns of dating and mating and breeding, a constant ambient sense that All Is Not Necessarily Right. This anxiety doesn’t usually unsettle the writers enough to make them consider cultural conservatism as a potential alternative to the socially-liberal consensus, but it’s a palpable feeling nonetheless. So I think the journalistic class is invested in the status quo, but I don’t think they’re exactly in love with it.

There’s an immense amount of anxiety around contemporary patterns of dating and mating and breeding.

I’m also not sure it’s right to suggest that most or many journalists writing about these issues “have few or no children.” A lot of them (us!) do have kids -- sometimes even in above-average numbers! To the extent that there’s any association between journalism and childlessness, I wonder if it hasn’t been created by the recent, internet-driven youth movement in punditry, which has elevated a lot of folks (myself included, of course) to prominent writing perches at an age when they are less likely—especially given upper-class patterns of delayed marriage—to be married with kids. In which case it might be technically true that somewhat fewer prominent journalists (and maybe especially liberal journalists, since reactionaries tend to reproduce a little earlier) have kids or multiple kids than in the recent past, but it also might be a temporary phenomenon.

(This also loops back to my answer to your first question, because I suppose it’s possible that some of the leftward turn I detect on family-related issues is just a consequence of reading liberal writers in my peer group who haven’t yet had kids, but who probably will eventually, and whose views may turn somewhat more conservative when they do.)

IFS: President Obama has said (in The Audacity of Hope) “preliminary research shows that marriage education workshops can make a real difference in helping married couples stay together and in encouraging unmarried couples who are living together to form a more lasting bond. Expanding access to such services to low-income couples, perhaps in concert with job training and placement, medical coverage, and other services already available, should be something everybody can agree on” (emphasis ours). Are family-friendly policies a potential area for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground? Or do you think they’re too closely associated with conservatives for them to gain much backing among liberals?

Douthat: Where marriage promotion is concerned, I don’t think it’s the association with conservatives that’s the problem so much as the fact that the same preliminary research also suggests that lots of these workshops and counseling projects don’t actually work that well, which makes them vulnerable to critiques from the right as well as the left. That is, limited-government conservatives can say—with some reason—that they’re just another government program that doesn’t pass the cost-benefit test, even as liberals can say—again, with some reason—that we’re better off just redistributing the money directly on the poor.

I still think such programs still deserve interest and support, especially from state governments, but I’m not sure I’d want to run a much bigger version of the Bush administration’s Healthy Marriages Initiative at this point, given the relatively disappointing results the first time around. And in terms of possible bipartisan agreement, I actually see more promise in policies that are a little blunter, and that just try to improve the economic foundation underneath parents and couples—and would-be parents and would-be couples—rather than trying to go in and fix relationships directly. I have in mind ideas like a larger child tax credit, a payroll tax cut, a wage subsidy or EITC expansion aimed at the working-class men who don’t yet have kids … none of which are explicitly marriage-promoting, but all of which have promise to improve incentives in that sphere, and all of which involve asking the bureaucracy to do something simpler and more straightforward than playing relationship counselor.

IFS: As you doubtless know, people who criticize contemporary sexual norms, like the hook-up culture that famously reigns on college campuses, are often accused of wanting to “turn back the clock,” sending working women back to the kitchen, and so forth. You’ve argued instead that the solution to today’s sexual and relationship discontents “has to be something that partakes of some traditional ideas that we’ve discarded, but blends them with newer ideas and attitudes in a synthesis that’s not just a throwback, but an actual alternative to our various contemporary discontents.” But in the post where you wrote that, you didn’t describe the solution concretely. Could you elaborate on a good blend or synthesis of traditional and contemporary norms would look like? Is there any country, state, area, group that has achieved some version of it?

Douthat: If I had a clear solution, or a definite model in mind, I would have described it! But as you suggest, our cultural debates tend to assume that there are clear either-ors and clear binaries—that whether you like it or not everything that’s changed since the 1970s is a package deal, that you can’t have female empowerment and gender equality without the full array of socially-liberal policies and assumptions, that you have to choose between high abortion and low marriage rates (in blue states) or high divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates (in red states) and those are the only models available, that contraception and abortion are as intertwined in law and culture as both Planned Parenthood and some of my traditionalist Catholic friends would insist, that culturally-conservative regions and societies will necessarily lag their culturally-liberal competitors in development and human capital or that culturally liberal societies will necessarily go off a demographic cliff etc. etc.

And I don’t really buy this. Yes, some these binaries fit the facts in certain ways, and there’s a lot of value in the kind of “red family”/”blue family” analysis that folks like Naomi Cahn and June Carbone have done and that more socially conservative writers have engaged with. But if you look around the Western world, from places like Mormon Utah (religious and fecund, with high rates of social mobility and a strong socioeconomic foundation), to countries in Europe (Ireland, most notably) that restrict abortion much more than the U.S. without seeming to significantly limit female opportunity or undercut female health, to areas like the high plains (Nebraska, the Dakotas, etc.) that have low out-of-wedlock birth rates and low abortion rates and solid-enough economic indicators, you can see plenty of regions and countries and cultures that don’t fit into a simple “either/or” story about sex and culture and development and modern life. (Likewise, the fact that certain socially-liberal Northern European countries have pushed their birthrates back up, even as birthrates keep falling elsewhere on the continent, should give conservatives pause about a too-simple, cultural-liberalism-leads-to-demographic-suicide equation.)

If you look around the Western world, you can see plenty of places that don’t fit into a simple “either/or” story about sex and culture and development and modern life.

To be clear, I’m not holding up Utah or Ireland or Fargo as a model for the norms and laws and attitudes we should be seeking. It’s more that the mere existence of such outliers offers evidence that alternative models are possible, that we don’t have to choose, absolutely and permanently, between “turning back the clock” and a permanent libertinism, between Mississippi and San Francisco, between the world of campus hook-up culture and the world of “Father Knows Best.”

In the past, I’ve made an analogy between the sexual and industrial revolutions, with the point being that it’s possible to mitigate the worst effects of a sweeping period of social change while preserving the good things that came in with it. In the end, for instance, the Gradgrinds and Social Darwinists were wrong: The Western world did not need children working long shifts in factories in order to sustain the benefits of industrialization. And in the same way I don’t think our world needs millions of abortions and out-of-wedlock births and broken homes in order to sustain the very real advancements—in female opportunity and professional and political dignity, especially—that we’ve seen since the 1970s. But proving that point is the work of generations, and a better synthesis, if one exists, still lies well ahead of us.