The Baby Bust and the New Progressive Turn against Marriage

December 5, 2019 | Ross Douthat
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Despite a robust economy and low levels of unemployment, U.S. fertility rates have continued to fall, as they have done for roughly a decade. While some have pointed to such possible causes as the cost of childcare and other material factors, Ross Douthat observes that—however worthy of discussion these issues may in themselves be—the fertility rates of married couples have actually remained steady. This suggests that the real problem is the declining marriage rate—a trend Douthat connects with a “third phase” of liberal attitudes toward marriage:

This new phase is incomplete and contested, and it includes elements—in #MeToo feminism, especially—whose ultimate valence could theoretically be congenial to cultural conservatives. But in general the emerging progressivism seems hostile not only to anything tainted by conservative religion or “gender essentialism” [the now-derided belief that biological sex differences are meaningful] but to any idea of sexual or reproductive normativity, period, outside a bureaucratically supervised definition of “consent.” And it’s therefore disinclined to regard lifelong monogamy as anything more than one choice among many, one script to play with or abandon, one way of being whose decline should not necessarily be mourned, and whose still-outsized cultural power probably requires further deconstruction to be anything more than a patriarchal holdover, a prison, and a trap. . . .

[I]t does not feel like a coincidence that the new phase tracks with the recent decline in childbearing. If the new liberal hostility to marriage-as-normative-institution is not one of the ideological causes of our latest post-familial ratchet, it is at least a ex-post-facto ideological excuse, in which the frequent prestige-media pitches for polyamory or open marriages or “escaping gender norms” entirely are there to reassure people who might otherwise desire a little more normativity (and a few more children) in their lives, that it’s all cool because they’re in the vanguard of a revolution.

Certainly the new phase of liberalism is increasing the political polarization of both marital practice and marital beliefs. . . . [I]n the aggregate, Republicans marry more and divorce less than Democrats, ideological conservatives are much more likely to be married than ideological liberals, and conservatives are more than twice as likely to describe marriage as something “needed” for “strong families.”

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