Can Liberals and Conservatives Come Together to Support Families?

It'll require a bit of compromise from both sides, but Americans of the left and right need to prioritize policies that strengthen two-parent households.

The Culture War is over, and the liberals have won. With the legalization and broad acceptance of gay marriage, the last great bastion of government-supported traditionalism in Western society has been swept away. Elsewhere, the armies of traditionalism are collapsing on almost every front. America is becoming less religious with stunning speed. Interracial marriage, once banned, is now the norm. Marijuana is slowly being legalized for recreational use. Women are close to achieving economic equality with men, and female breadwinners are becoming the norm. Casual sex is almost universally tolerated as a permissible recreational activity.

Any time you win a great victory after years or decades of bitter struggle, there is the temptation to pillage the lands of the conquered enemy. This is always a mistake. The punitive Treaty of Versailles nearly guaranteed that World War I would have a sequel. Certainly, the temptation is there for American liberals to indulge in the same kind of score-settling. After all, conservatives are the ones who for decades struggled to keep women in the kitchen, gays in the closet, and marijuana users in prison. Conservative intellectuals writing in the National Review and elsewhere gleefully turned America’s ideological divide into a sort of video game, temporarily making word “liberal” into an epithet, ridiculing every aspect of liberals’ lifestyle, and portraying every facet of American society as a Manichean struggle to the death between two implacably opposed armies. Far more than liberals, conservatives are responsible for the polarization that has dangerously divided American society. Of course many of us liberals feel an urge for revenge, deep down in our reptilian brains.

But the instinct for revenge is always a bad one, and when we suppress it, good things happen. Most Americans in 1948 would have probably said that West Germany did not deserve to get billions in American investment in the form of the Marshall Plan. But we did it anyway, hopefully for humanitarian reasons, but probably because there was an overriding imperative—the Cold War—that made it necessary. And lo and behold, the result was better than after Versailles. While keeping in mind that an actual war is not the same thing as a Culture War (and no, I’m not comparing American conservatives to Hitler!), realize that there is now an equally overriding reason for us liberals to reach out and lend a hand to our fallen Culture War opponents. That imperative is the health and cohesiveness of American society.

American culture is facing a whole battery of new challenges. The decline of stable families among the working class has fed inequality and immobility. Economic pressures—technology and globalization—are pushing the classes apart at the same time. And the economy is still sluggish in the wake of the Great Recession.

The reason we need to reach out to conservatives is simple—there are a lot of them, and they are our countrymen. America is not going to be healthy unless conservative America is healthy. And America is not going to be a fully effective nation-state until conservative America feels completely included in the new liberal America that is now emerging.

It’s time to reach out to conservatives on the issue of family stability. It’s becoming clear that traditional family gender roles—the idea that the man should be able to be the sole breadwinner—are not sustainable in the modern economic environment. This is probably one reason behind the breakdown of two-parent families among the working class, as documented by Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart. But liberals—the same kale-munching, bottle-recycling goofballs that National Review and David Brooks have spent decades lampooning—have found a better way. The better way is what Richard Reeves, in a landmark article in The Atlantic, calls “High Investment Parenting.” When families focus on the kids, instead of on maintaining traditional gender roles, it turns out to be a lot easier to keep the family together.

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Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. He writes regularly at Noahpinion.

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