At this moment the minds of Americans – and much of the world – are focused on what comes after the election. But a weekend column by Ross Douthat of the New York Times put a more important question in front of readers: what came before the election that has made it a uniquely fraught and controversial one?
This is a question that has been posed in hundreds of ways during the past year, but Douthat’s answer goes to the heart of the matter: the family. In a society where family trees are tapering and thinning, he says, where a diminishing number of people experience family life as their main source of belonging and security, politics must provide a “Great Protector” — at this moment either “a feisty grandmother or fierce sky father”.
Whichever of them wins the election, the basic problem will stay the same. The fundamental unit of society is eroding, breeding new anxieties and dependencies as well as a new “tribalism” seen particularly in white identity politics, and threatening many, as they age, with a future of deep loneliness.
No-one can deny the basic facts of Douthat’s case: fewer marriages, smaller families and more people living for longer stretches on their own. But his readers are not buying his conclusions. To judge by the top billing comments among almost 500, the family is not that big a deal. Perhaps that is what we might expect from The Times’ most avid followers, but one feels in this instance most are just missing the point.
The central point is this:
Human beings imagine and encounter the future most intensely through our own progeny, our flesh and blood. The Constitution speaks of “our posterity” for a reason: We are a nation of immigrants, but when people think about the undiscovered America of the future, its strongest claim on them is one their own descendants make.
What a sad, narrow view of the world and of the future. Only my blood kin can make me care about the promise of the future? Only my blood kin can take care of me when and if I need it? objects Catherine F. And, another woman adds: As for the idea that people do not care about the future of the country or world if they do not have biological descendants, a piece of themselves, going forward: that is a very narrow view of human’s capacity to care for it is very selfish.
Well, it would be, if that is what Douthat said or meant, but he did not.
Of course, even in the most fertile societies there are people who do not found families, but they generally participate in family life in some way and have an emotional stake in the progeny of their relatives. The vast majority of those who are parents, however, will surely agree that the strongest (not the only) claim on their generosity and ingenuity is the one that their own children and future progeny make.
To affirm this is not to advocate families of 10 (though certainly not to denigrate them either), a “return to the 1950s”, patriarchal culture and women tied to the kitchen sink; or to harbour racist attitudes (not enough whites) and not care about the state of the environment – all things with which Douthat is charged.
Nor is it to deny that many parents today, especially the more educated, invest a tremendous amount in the upbringing of their few children; and that even the middle class face formidable odds in financing a home, education and healthcare for their families, as well as keeping their jobs, let alone seeing their kids settled in one – things stressed by many respondents to the column.
It is merely to acknowledge that the family is the basic cell of the body politic and that when it is healthy and strong, the community and the nation will be healthier and stronger. And let’s not forget that there is strength in numbers; a child growing up with siblings – as well as his or her own mother and father – stands to learn civic virtues more easily than otherwise.
When women in America are having less than two children on average (1.88), when 40 percent of the nation’s births are to women without the security of marriage, when nearly one in three women in their early thirties has no children and more are saying they do not want children at all, individual families may be strong but one cannot say that of family culture in general. And this is the case throughout the Western world.
Isn’t it time for citizens to stop looking to a party or a president to protect them and their families, and to reclaim the power of the small community in which we first learn to receive and give and care about our neighbour? Is there really any other way to renew political culture than to renew our own, and reverse the post-familial revolution?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.