A GOP poll confirms recent trends. Single women don’t like the conservative message. The poll takers and those running the focus groups asked about various policies about equal pay, education, jobs, and so forth, which is natural. That’s typically what we debate in politics. But I think the gap has a deeper explanation that brings the challenge we face into focus.
People have become disoriented as traditional cultural forms lose their authority over our lives. Marriage and family are key instances. The weakening of these and other institutions tends to make people more vulnerable. They want a sense of belonging and a modest degree of confidence that their life-path will bring happiness. Both tend to be weakened as traditional institutions exercise less authority.
Thus we have the seemingly odd political instincts of a single, 35-year-old McKinsey consultant living in suburban Chicago who thinks of herself as vulnerable and votes for enhanced social programs designed to protect against the dangers and uncertainties of life. Why would a woman whose 401K already exceeds $1,000,000 and who owns a condo worth almost as much be so concerned to expand public support for in-home care of the elderly? It’s because she’s not married and feels as though she’s going to have to take on all the responsibilities of life on her own—a prospect that is indeed daunting.
Thus the problem facing a social conservative. Insofar as I promote a public philosophy designed to reinforce the authority of traditional culture, I’m necessarily “judging” those whose lives aren’t in accord with that authority teaches. They take offense to my being “judgmental”—even though a modest restoration of traditional authority in their lives would help them be less atomized, disoriented, and vulnerable.
Put somewhat more concretely, the single, 35-year-old woman feels “judged” when I oppose gay marriage, because she intuitively senses that being pro-traditional marriage involves asserting male-female marriage as the norm—and therefore that her life isn’t on the right path. She resents this implication. Her problem, however, is that (statistically speaking) she wants to get married and feels vulnerable because she isn’t and vulnerable because she’s not confident she can. So (by my way of thinking) she needs a pro-marriage culture, but rejects it, or at least rejects the social and political defenses of it.
Philip Rieff saw this dynamic quite clearly. We live in an age that recoils from the “NO!” and wants to believe life and society and culture can be organized around a plenary “YES!” That’s what “inclusion” means, I think. As a result, people suffer from anomic disorders. (That means various kinds of personal unhappiness related to the lack of clear norms for how to live.)
The problem is that our liberal culture encourages us to respond to these experiences of unhappiness by blaming the ever-so-slight remnants of the traditional “NO!” This makes things worse. The LGBTQ project is a good example of this. Nine times out of ten, a “transgendered” individual would be far happier if he or she were simply told, with effective authority—you’re a boy or girl.
Of course, the difficulty today is in finding a source of “effective authority” that has currency in the public square. The GOP commentators want to avoid this problem. Some counsel side-stepping the moral issues. I don’t think this will work, because the deeper dynamic of modern liberalism is toward the public provision of meaning and security for atomized individuals otherwise vulnerable and uncertain about life.
Put simply, you can’t have limited government without a cultural politics that reinforces traditional modes of authority that can’t be reduced to social programs and government bureaucracies.