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22 May 2024

What the left and right get wrong about the politics of family

Marriage, children and what constitutes the good life have become America’s most divisive culture war.

By Sohrab Ahmari

American culture is stuck in a ditch – on that much, left and right agree. But the resulting clash between the two sides has failed to sharpen the intelligence of either – or to bring about a new and productive consensus. The swords wielded by eager culture warriors function rather more like shovels, deepening the ditch.

The recent controversy created by the American footballer Harrison Butker illustrates the dynamic. On 11 May, the 28-year-old star place-kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs delivered the commencement address at Benedictine College, a small Catholic institution in Kansas. Among other things, Butker warned female graduates against the “diabolical lie” that their careers are more important than their vocation as wives and mothers. He also extolled the traditional Latin mass, while denouncing family planning – the Vatican-approved alternative to artificial contraception used by many devout families – calling it “Catholic birth control” and saying there was “nothing natural” about it.

Cue the predictable outrage from the establishment. The National Football League distanced itself from Butker. He also received a drubbing on The View, the women’s daytime talk show, including for his “cult-like” devotion to the Latin mass, which one of the co-hosts described as an “extremist” practice, akin to “religions in the Middle East and Asia”. The untold multitudes of pre-Vatican II Catholics who knew only the Old Rite couldn’t be reached for comment.

Cue, too, the cultural right’s reflexive denunciations of Butker’s critics. “New political litmus test: do you regard this man with respect or disgust?” asked one conservative activist on the X app. Is anyone permitted a mixed assessment? Not on today’s American right. The career-first feminists assailing Butker, according to shock jock Breanna Morello, “are all miserable, because they can’t attract a man’s loyalty and commitment.”

Tune out the loudest loudmouths, however, and an even more depressing reality asserts itself: each of the two sides holds a half-truth that could complete the other’s analysis, so to speak, and thus open the way to meaningful reforms. Yet they refuse to exchange truths – indeed, they are structurally incapable of doing so – lending politics a terribly ouroboric quality.

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Conservatives speak to the yearnings of ordinary people for family and stability, but they ignore the political-economic reasons why these common aspirations remain unfulfilled for many. Progressives, meanwhile, have the more realistic understanding of how systemic forces overdetermine the shapes of our lives, but they have lost sight of ordinary people’s vision of the good life.

Put another way: the right has the correct diagnosis but the wrong prescriptions; the left has many useful prescriptions, but too often blinkers itself to what the patient prefers or how she might wish to feel better.

While Butker expressed himself with all the subtlety you would expect from a professional athlete with “trad Cath” tendencies, he reflected the sentiments of broad segments of US society on issues such as family formation and fertility. As the New York Times noted in 2018, American women reported a desired fertility rate of 2.7 children in 2018 but were only able to achieve 1.8 – the largest such gap in four decades. Anyone who suggests modern American women are anti-marriage hasn’t spent enough time on TikTok, where one of the most popular genres involves women venting about the scarcity of marriageable men. There is also evidence of the single-earner household making a comeback since the pandemic.

For most conservatives, however, if Americans aren’t living the virtuous lives they should be, it’s because they aren’t striving heroically enough as individuals or because they’ve been misled by evil ideas. In reality, if women are prioritising their career and education, it’s partly in response to powerful economic imperatives.

In 2024, the national median income needed to live comfortably alone was just under $90,000. Yet wages for the bottom half of earners have been stagnant for the better part of two generations, and the median single full-time worker earns about $60,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Getting hitched reduces some expenses by combining them, but it also adds many more, if the marital bed proves fruitful. And that’s assuming a wedding is in the offing at all. Increasingly, it isn’t, not least because a fifth to a quarter of working-age men between 25 and 54 have dropped out of the labour force – a crisis that, as Charles Murray demonstrated more than a decade ago, is especially pronounced in working-class communities.

Corporate feminism merely gives a lean-in ideological gloss to what women are already compelled to do by the market. Yet instead of challenging these neoliberal shibboleths, the left insists they are the soul of progress; instead of lamenting women’s inability to fulfill their preferred marriage and fertility outcomes, progressives defend the current state of things.

Thus, conservatives rightly lament cultural effects (atomisation, alienation) while ignoring material causes. The left celebrates the same effects as “liberation”, even as it maintains a more robust analysis of such causes. Political rewards await leaders who transcend the limitations of both sides and merge the correct half of each. Call them left conservatives or conservative leftists.

[See also: The myth of progressive Catholicism]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024