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  • "Following the 'success sequence' is the single most reliable bulwark against poverty. It’s also...how most affluent elites live their lives." Tweet This
  • "The nuclear family works better because it does the important work of civilizing children to vital cultural and civic norms that the larger society depends on." Tweet This

In Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, the New York Times best-selling author argues that the breakdown of Western civilization can be traced, at least in part, to the breakdown of the family. “People learn virtue first and most importantly from family, and then from the myriad institutions [the] family introduces them to: churches, schools, associations, etc.,” writes Goldberg, a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “When that ecosystem breaks down, people still seek meaning and belonging. And it is breaking down. Its corruption comes from reasons too numerous and complex to detail here, but they include family breakdown, mass immigration, the war on assimilation, and the rise of virtual communities pretending to replace real ones.”

IFS senior fellow W. Bradford Wilcox recently spoke with Goldberg about some of the issues he raises in the book related to marriage and families, particularly in Chapter 12 “The Family’s Losing War Against Barbarism.” 

Brad Wilcox: Briefly explain how you define “The Miracle” in the West and the role that it has played in constituting our present-day civilization.

Jonah Goldberg: The “Miracle” in my telling is a historically unprecedented, sudden, and largely accidental explosion in prosperity and well-being that emerges once and only once in all of human history. Until roughly 300 years ago, the average human being, everywhere on earth, lived on no more than $3 per day. For 250,000 years, poverty, disease, authoritarianism, tribalism, violence, slavery and an early death were the hallmarks of human existence. Then it all began to change—and is still changing—for the better. That is what I mean by the Miracle.

However, to the consternation of some otherwise friendly reviewers on the Right, I do not use the word “Miracle” to suggest divine providence (though I have no objection to those who do credit the Almighty for our good fortune). Part of the aim of my book is to deal with the basic assumptions of secular people for whom the appeal to divine authority is a logical fallacy. Nor is the Miracle synonymous with the Enlightenment. Firstly, because there were many enlightenments and not all of them produced prosperity and liberal democracy. Socialism is every bit as much a product of the French Enlightenment as liberal democratic capitalism is a product of the Scottish and English enlightenments. Nationalism has its roots, at least somewhat, in the German enlightenment. Also, the Miracle is a better term because it allows for the fact that liberal democratic capitalism doesn’t merely rely on abstract ideas, but (disproportionately English) habits, customs, institutions that are vast storehouses of embedded knowledge that contribute not merely to a doctrine of liberty, but a culture of liberty.

Beyond simply being miraculous, I use the term, "the Miracle," to convey the fact that we really don’t have a firm grasp—never mind a consensus—of how we got it. When a great gift is given to you—and all of humanity—and you can’t reliably explain where it came from, the word Miracle seems fairly apt.

Brad Wilcox: Across human history, across the world, and across our own society, we see many different family arrangements. Are they all equally conducive to fostering the virtues, values, and institutions associated with Western civilization? 

Jonah Goldberg: Part of my argument is that many of the things we take for granted—capitalism, democracy, individual rights, etc.—are actually unnatural. If they were the natural offshoots of human nature, they would have appeared far earlier in the evolutionary record. That means in order to maintain these human inventions, we need to maintain them. That effort begins with understanding why we should be grateful for them. When you take things for granted, you don’t put in the effort required to pass them on to the next generation.

Anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, as a general rule there is no better way to organize familial arrangements than through the nuclear family. And monogamy is an essential part of the equation.

The family is a big and complicated part of my story. On the one hand, families are natural. We are powerfully wired to protect, support, and defend the family, particularly our own children. But the nuclear family as we traditionally understand it is only natural-ish. What I mean is monogamous marriage is consistent with nature, but it’s not the only form of family formation that is consistent with nature. As I discuss at length in the book, polygamy is a near constant in human nature and exists today around the globe. What I argue is that the traditional nuclear family is better, empirically, than other forms of family formation. This is a general proposition, not an absolute rule. For instance, it’s better to have two loving parents than one, but that doesn’t mean every single-parent household is worse than any two-parent household.

But the nuclear family is a remarkably powerful and important institution at the heart of the Miracle. I didn’t include this in my book, but I very much like Joe Henrich’s argument that liberal democracy began in England in the 6th century because Christian missionaries imposed Pope Gregory’s prohibition on cousin marriage. This short-circuited the tribalism that holds back so many countries and made it possible for the English to create scalable institutions outside kinship structures. Democracy has a hard time taking root in nations where large networks of tribal allegiances take precedence. That’s still true today as you look at various societies struggling to break out of ancient tribal traditions.

The nuclear family works better because it does the important work of civilizing children to vital cultural and civic norms that the larger society depends on. The Max Weber thesis about the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has its flaws, but it is nonetheless undoubtedly true that we are imprinted with the ethics that are essential to a functioning democracy and market inside the family. When that fails, the rest of society struggles to clean up the messes family breakdown creates.

Brad Wilcox: Does monogamous marriage still matter in the 21st century? If so, how?

Jonah Goldberg: Of course. One of the core premises of my book—and conservatism generally—is that human nature has no history. As Hannah Arendt said, every generation in Western Civilization is invaded by barbarians—we call them “children.” Society doesn’t civilize the barbarians. Schools don’t either. That’s what families do. Other mediating institutions certainly do important work and they can fix some of the problems that come from an unstable home life, but all you have to do is talk to any teacher or social worker to appreciate that everything starts in the home.

Again, anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, as a general rule there is no better way to organize familial arrangements than through the nuclear family. And monogamy is an essential part of the equation. Sure, rich libertines can afford a high tolerance for infidelity and still produce healthy kids. But as a general rule, this is not a scalable idea. Societies work on trust. Trust begins within the family. When parents model behavior that shows spouses can’t trust each other on the most basic covenant that binds the institution, that ripples throughout the society. 

Moreover, the bourgeois norms that hold the family together are also the best habits of the heart for success in a modern society. The economic premium that comes with marriage is often greater, and certainly comparable, to the advantage one gets from going to college.

Brad Wilcox: Today, a lot of people think that an “institutional” model of marriage that stresses childrearing, mutual economic and social support, and a strong normative commitment to permanence has given way to a “soulmate” model of marriage that stresses shared interests, activities, and emotions. Do you agree?

Jonah Goldberg: I do. As I discuss in my book, we live in a deeply romantic era (in the ideological sense). We elevate feelings and “self-realization” over reason and self-discipline. All institutions are supposed to let “me be the best me I can be.” This is at war with the entire point of the family, which is about subordinating individual needs and wants to the greater good of the whole. I despise hearing parents say they don’t want to tell their kids not to do drugs or have pre-marital sex because that would make them hypocrites since they did that kind of thing when they were young. Hypocrisy is the great sin in romantic thought. Personal authenticity is the noblest cause. But the whole point of good parenting is to give your kids the benefit of what you’ve learned in life.

The irony in all of this is that as families break down and faith in all manner of institutions erodes, Americans increasingly yearn for more “meaning” in our lives (which is why we’ve seen a resurgence in socialism, nationalism, identity politics, and populism: people are craving the sense of solidarity and belonging they don’t get at home or in their own communities). Everyone talks about the need to dedicate ourselves to causes “greater than ourselves.” That is precisely what the family is.

Brad Wilcox: In the last half-century, the United States has witnessed the rise of a “marriage divide,” where individuals in the upper middle class get and stay married but marriage is more fragile for everybody else. Why do you think we are divided by marriage today? And does this divide matter for American democracy?

Jonah Goldberg: This fact points to what I’ve been saying all along. The traditional nuclear family works. It works in inculcating values, dividing labor, delaying gratification, etc. But we do not like talking about that in America because it sounds so judgmental, and it’s not particularly romantic (in either sense of the word). As our AEI colleague Charles Murray often says, the great indictment of elites in America is that they refuse to preach what they practice. Following the “success sequence”—finish school, get married, then have kids—is the single most reliable bulwark against poverty. It’s also at the heart of how most affluent elites live their lives. As sociologist Andrew Cherlin has said, “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged.”