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When conservatives decry our culture’s decline, they’re fooling you, liberals warn. “Conservatives are using moral panic over girls ‘going wild’ and pre-marital sex to distract from the problems that young women actually need help with,” Jessica Valenti, executive editor of Feministing.com, wrote in an e-mail. “I’m similarly concerned that people are being duped into supporting regressive gender politics.”
This newspaper agrees: Conservatives bash alternative lifestyles to win votes. “For close to a decade, the Republican Party has gotten considerable mileage out of a narrative of cultural conflict that pits a snobbish, educated, costal [sic] elite against the hard-working, god-fearing denizens of the country’s heartland,” The Crimson wailed in an editorial, “The Wrong War,” on September 9, 2008.
They’re wrong. Politicians exploit cultural differences, but conservatives’ concern with our culture, specifically the lack of two-parent households, is legitimate.
Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, contends that people should ignore issues like marriage and follow their economic self-interest, which aligns with Democratic policies. But people care about culture regardless of their finances. “It’s no less ridiculous to complain about evangelical Christians in Kansas voting for Republicans than to complain about movie stars in Hollywood voting for Democrats who will raise their taxes,” said Ross G. Douthat ’02, a columnist for The New York Times.
Liberals also worry about culture: They worry it’s too conservative. Stigmas on divorce and premarital sex seem oppressive. People should be able to live as they wish—liberals argue—without fear of neighbors’ disapproval. If conservatives stopped forcing their values onto others, people wouldn’t fight over the culture.
But every community promotes certain behaviors and discourages others. This campus, for instance, encourages efficiency. To embarrass students over their wastefulness, the Resource Efficiency Program piled trash eight feet high in front of the Science Center last November. This campus also urges “safe sex.” Last Halloween, Peer Contraceptive Counselors gave freshmen condoms and lubricant in festive goodie bags with the slogan, “Sex doesn’t have to be scary.”
On this matter, liberals and conservatives clash. Harvard Right to Life, which opposes abortion, finds its posters torn down. The True Love Revolution, which advocates abstinence, was denied permission to hand out flyers outside “Sex Signals.” Both sides conflict because liberals say that no lifestyle is better than another, while conservatives argue that the traditional lifestyle—the two-parent household—when possible, is best. They do so not merely to criticize other living arrangements, but to highlight the traditional lifestyle’s advantages.
Consider the evidence: Two people living apart require 56 percent more money to sustain themselves than two living together, according to national guidelines on poverty. Children also benefit. Sociologists Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur found that one third of children with divorced parents who participated in their study dropped out of high school, while one tenth of children from intact families did so. One third of their sample’s girls whose parents divorced became teenage mothers—triple the amount of girls from intact families.
These numbers require caveats. “It’s not as if once a poor couple marries, a money tree magically sprouts up in their backyard,” Valenti countered. And couples should separate if they have abusive relationships—those also harm children. Yet sociologists Paul Amato and Alan Booth note that two thirds of divorces do not stem from abusive relationships and the separations themselves traumatize children. This inquiry is not a search for the guilty, but an indicator that families are more than aesthetic arrangements.
Fine, liberals concede, but there’s no going back to 1960. No one wants to. But the two-parent household has rebounded recently—among the college-educated. Since the 1980s, divorce among them has fallen by 30 percent. Meanwhile, it has risen among the less educated by about six percent. Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institute, calls this difference a main driver of economic inequality. Why the two-parent household has become more popular among the college-educated and less so among other demographics is an important question—not a distraction.
In fact, some of the best adherents to the traditional lifestyle come from the Ivy League. Just 10 percent of couples whose children attend these schools get divorced. Harvard graduates “are much less likely to get divorced and less likely to have kids out of wedlock than the poor and working-class,” added Douthat. For proof that social conservatism—at least of a kind—is still relevant, look no further than your classmates. Those prudes.
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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