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.
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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.

Working-class, conservative America needs this kind of evolution if it’s going to rebuild its families. But how can we liberals help spread high-investment, gender-equal parenting to working-class, conservative America? We need the help of conservative intellectuals and religious leaders, because working-class, conservative America listens to those people, directly or indirectly. We need to make common cause with conservatives like W. Bradford Wilcox, who care more about strengthening families than enforcing traditional gender roles. But to make common cause with such conservatives, we will need to agree that stable, two-parent families (including cohabiting and gay couples, of course) are important and desirable.

To many liberals, that will feel like a concession on our part—after all, we spent a long time saying that people should be allowed to have any kind of family structure they want. And they should! But what is socially acceptable is not always what is optimal, and we can’t let society just abandon the working class to family structures that hurt them economically.

We also need to reach out to conservatives on the issue of work. Many conservatives—like Kevin Williamson, Michael Strain, James Pethokoukis, and Ron Unz—have woken up to the fact that in a purely laissez-faire economy, lots of people get left behind in ways that are ultimately unhealthy to the nation. Whereas liberals tend to care more about income levels, conservatives worry that unemployment and low wages are eroding American values of industriousness and hard work. In order to reach out to conservatives and unite to help the working class, we liberals shouldn’t worry too much about our differing goals; we should focus on achieving our common ends. That means looking into policies like wage subsidies that boost incomes while rewarding hard work. It also means framing the minimum wage in terms of rewarding work, rather than simply fighting poverty.

Finally, we need to refrain from demonizing Christianity, and religion in general. Yes, conservatives have done negative things—discriminating against gays and women, suppressing the teaching of science—in the name of Christianity. But Christianity has also been a force for good in American society; it provided the moral force behind much of the Progressive movement a century ago, fighting for immigrants’ rights and humane treatment of prisoners. In the same way, Christianity can be a positive force in America today. It can fight for the rights of immigrants, for environmental protection, and for other liberal causes. And religion can be used to promote stable families, engaged communities, and work ethic—things conservatives value that are also good for the poor—while dropping any emphasis on traditional gender roles or anti-gay discrimination.

So I’d like to call on liberals to suppress any desire for vengeance in the wake of our Culture War victory. The harder task—rebuilding—has just begun, and we need the whole country on board.

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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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