For several years now, liberals have been telling us that they do marriage better. Conservatives talk a big game, but when it comes to family collapse, it’s liberals who have their fingers in the dike, and liberals who are piloting real solutions.
But is red America really so bad at family-building? Two months ago, the Institute for Family Studies released a study suggesting otherwise. Using data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Study, W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Zill showed that residents of red states (that is, those that went Republican in the last presidential election) are more likely to be married, and that teenagers living in conservative states were more likely to grow up in stable households with married parents.
Unpersuaded, some scholars demanded a family-level study. IFS has obliged. In their newly-released study, Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger clearly show that Republicans are doing marriage better. They are more married, less divorced, and happier in their marriages.
Marriage By Numbers
The numbers in the study (based on the 2010-2014 General Social Survey) are eye-opening. Only 40 percent of Democrats aged 20 to 60 are currently married. By contrast, 57 percent of Republicans in that same age range have a spouse. Among ever-married Democrats, nearly half (47 percent) have divorced at least once. Forty-one percent of ever-married Republicans can say the same.
Democrats and Independents are fairly content with their marriages, with 60 percent of the married describing themselves as “very happy” in their relationships. But 67 percent of married Republicans can say the same. That’s a significant marital-quality difference.
Why are Republicans happier in their relationships? Previous studies have suggested that whites, college graduates, and churchgoers tend to have better marriages. Wilcox and Wolfinger accordingly added controls for education, race and church attendance, and found that the latter two factors did indeed help to explain the difference in marital quality. Republicans are more likely to be happily married in part because the party is whiter and more religious. There is also a statistical gap of 3 percent that is not explained by either of those two factors.
Making Marriage Work
This study is important because it speaks to the question: what would it take to help people get and stay married? Across the political spectrum it is now broadly agreed that stable, happy marriages are a significant social good. That’s true for many reasons, but especially because they create optimal conditions for the raising of children. One of the greatest assets a child can have is a pair of happily married parents. And children who enjoy this advantage are themselves far more likely to be happy, healthy, productive and law-abiding.
In their 2010 book, sociologists Naomi Cahn and June Carbone famously portrayed conservatives as reactionaries whose outdated approach to marriage has spawned a host of cultural problems, from teen pregnancy to widespread divorce. College, contraception and abortion, and gender-role flexibility are, according to these researchers, the answers to our family-structure problems. For all their ostensible concern about marriage, conservatives are rejecting the social and political moves that would enable marriage to work.
These two studies from IFS suggest that the picture is more complicated. Although some very blue states (like my home state of Minnesota) can indeed boast high levels of family stability, very conservative states like Utah and Idaho also have high rates of marriage, and correspondingly low rates of non-marital childbearing. There is a functional red-state family culture in America. Some areas of the deep South have significant social and economic problems, and those regions more nearly resemble the dysfunctional culture described by Cahn and Carbone (steeped in divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing). But before we prescribe college and condoms to all and sundry, we should consider what these two studies are telling us about the relationship between marriage, morality and culture.
Finding Our Way To “I Do”
It’s difficult to remain objective when diagnosing sociological trends, because all of us have a few dogs in this fight. Sociology casts shadows reflecting a broader cultural dispute over tradition, morality and natural law. Conservatives want to rejuvenate our culture by recovering fundamental moral truths about sex, gender and the sacredness of life. Liberals think the answer lies in a further bolstering of personal autonomy, which should make for better relationships and all-around happier lives.
The reality is probably a bit more complex than either side wants to believe. It’s interesting to note that both the “red model” of marriage (which pushes young people more aggressively towards marriage, and discourages fornication, abortion and divorce) and the “blue model” (which urges young people to educate and establish themselves before starting families) have worked fairly well in some demographics. (It’s good to be raised by Harvard-attending progressives, but also by devout Mormons.) The hardest-hit regions are those that fail to realize the strengths of either model: they haven’t successfully promoted traditional norms with respect to sex and marriage, but they’ve also lost out in the secular struggle to attain education and professional success.
Blue-model marriage is designed to facilitate professional success. That makes a certain kind of sense, since financial and professional stability help bolster marital and family stability. Conservatives may do well to incorporate certain elements of this into their own marital customs (for example by encouraging young people to marry closer to 25 than 20, or by appropriately softening some of their gender-role expectations). But the blue model also depends on worldly success to a significant degree, and that can easily become problematic. What happens, for instance, when economic depression puts blue-model “establishment” out of reach for a substantial portion of our young people? They may just stop getting married.
Likewise, it’s reasonable to speculate that the prevalence of blue-model marital norms may contribute to the dysfunction of impoverished subcultures wherein marriage is viewed positively but rarely done. If “a good marriage” depends on attaining secular milestones that many people never will attain, marriage can do nothing to order the lives of those people who are most in need of strong social supports.
Seeing these patterns, progressives respond by redoubling their calls for secular supports (more contraceptives, more unions, more university scholarships), but at some point we may need to accept that everyone cannot win in the secular-advancement game. Marriage needs to work for average people, not just the accomplished. In fact, it is especially ordinary, unaccomplished people for whom marriage and family are likely to be the central source of meaning and structure. This is a serious flaw of blue-model marriage.
These studies show us that blue-model marriage is faltering. Both regionally and on a family level, Democrats have failed to realize their promise of better marriages and more-secure households. They are less married, more divorced, and less likely to be satisfied with the quality of their relationships. Blue-model marriage may work reasonably well for some people, but it’s not the answer for society as a whole.
It’s worth noting that the strengths of these two models are not precisely mutually exclusive. The blue model stresses education and professional stability, and these clearly are needed in America’s poorest and least-functional regions. At the same time, the evidence does not support the argument that sexual libertinism (facilitated by contraceptives and abortion) is neatly compatible with (or even good for!) marriage. By embracing and teaching moral truths about sex and marriage, conservatives seem to have given themselves a significant edge in forming and enjoying happy marriages.