The Culture War That Social Conservatives Could Win


For the better part of a half century, social conservatives have been waging a desperate war to defend “family values.” However well-intentioned, this effort has to be written off as something of a failure. To continue it would cause even more damage to many of the things that social conservatives say they care most about.

It’s not that we don’t need some sort of culture war — a conflict over values is the ultimate liberal value — but it makes no sense to keep waging a losing one. This includes, first and foremost, attempts to oppose gay marriage, something that almost half of Americans accept, according to Pew. Gay marriage wins even more support among millennials, who will over time come to shape our politics. Other social conservative efforts, like prayer in school or efforts to establish Christianity as a state religion, as recently was proposed in North Carolina’s legislature, make even less political sense.

Obscured by such divisive approaches are larger issues, such as the durability of the family unit, that should be of concern to both liberals and conservatives. The number of children born to single mothers continues to soar. In 1970, 11% of births were to unmarried mothers; by 1990, that number had risen to 28%. Today, 41% of all births are to unmarried women. Most frightening of all, for mothers under 30, the rate is 53%.

And Americans are increasingly eschewing not only marriage, but having children, although not yet to the extent of their counterparts in East Asia and Europe. This is particularly evident among the young.

Not coincidentally, this is taking place as church affiliation, if not in free fall, is clearly on the downward trend. Secularism and the promotion of singleness and childlessness has gained cachet. Contemporary social thinking, as epitomized by “creative class” theorist Richard Florida, essentially links “advanced” society to the absence of religious values. Indeed virtually the entire span of modern urbanism — which has become entangled with both modern progressivism — not only disdains religiosity but gives remarkably short shrift to issues involving families.

These trends represent a threat to values that many, if not most, Americans still adhere to, such as the primacy of the family, the importance of faith and the centrality of children. You don’t have to be an absolute believer in the revealed veracity of the Bible to see the danger posed by a national shift away from family and toward a hyper-individualist ethos.

The question is not whether there should be a debate, or, if you will, a “war” over culture, but on what terms this struggle should be waged. This can’t be done, as one conservative writer suggested to me last year, “by marching back to the 1950s.” History does not move backward, and trying to inspire the next generations to live or think like their parents or grandparents simply lacks any serious appeal. There is truth to the Democratic claim that conservative Republicans suffer a “modernity deficit” that could assure them permanent minority status.

But for all the failings of social conservatives, we should not ignore the reality that the decline of the family and of child-bearing must be addressed if this society is going to have any dynamism in the decades ahead. The largely native-born population is demonstrating all the essential weakness of their counterparts in Europe and East Asia; last year, more whites died than were born. Despite a total rise in population of 27 million from 2000 to 2010, there were actually fewer births in 2010 than 10 years earlier.

Immigrants may bail us out in the short run — migrants and their offspring have accounted for one-third of the nation’s population growth over the past three decades—but the longer they stay, the more marriage and child-bearing decline over time. Even more seriously, 44% of all millennials think marriage is “obsolete”; among their baby boomer parents, the number is 35%. And fewer young people think childbearing is even important in a marriage.

This could have disastrous social consequences, Conservative analysts such as Charles Murray point out the deterioration of family life among working-class whites, as measured by illegitimacy and low marriage rates. Among white American women with only a high school education, 44% of births are out of wedlock, upfrom 6% in 1970. With incomes dropping and higher unemployment, Murray predicts the emergence of a growing “white underclass” in the coming decade.

Sadly, neither of the rising political tendencies — what might be seen as “clerical” liberalism and its libertarian counterpoint — are focused on the fundamental social deficit. Libertarianism, rapidly becoming the most legitimate form of conservatism, is almost psychologically incapable of addressing social issues. “The libertarian priority is meeting market needs,” noted Ben Domenach in Real Clear Politics recently.

Markets are wonderful things, but what if, as they evolve, they can also tilt against families and communities? If everything boils down to what Marx called “the cash nexus” or simple individual “empowerment,” then having children, or committing to marriage, becomes far less palatable. It’s easy for well-heeled tech entrepreneurs, or inheritors of vast wealth, to speak about principles of classical liberalism, but if free markets fail to serve society’s needs, then support for competitive capitalism will necessarily fade.

Libertarians tend to detest class warfare, but seem incapable of identifying with anyone other than those they consider “talented.” They seem unconcerned about market manipulations (inevitably aided and abetted by government) that might force more people out of homes and into congested, overpriced apartments. Or how technology is destroying whole classes of jobs while programs to train people for needed skills remain poorly funded.

Ironically such an approach plays into the hands of the sworn enemies of libertarians, what I call the clerical progressives, who inhabit  certain cosseted institutions: universities, the media and foundations. This is where the new theology of planning the lives of the masses has been cooked up; it is a dogma of both power and belief, one that sees little role for the family as the central institution in society.

This represents a very dangerous break point from the kind of progressivism embraced by Harry Truman, Pat Brown and traditional liberalism. Rather than see government as something that can help families achieve greater autonomy, and spark voluntary association, the clerical progressives prefer an approach that embraces government in place of parenting, and elevates planning from above over grassroots community.

If you want to glimpse the world view of the progressive clerisy, watch the inane “Life of Julia” presented last year by the Obama campaign. In “Julia,” virtually every step in life is predicated on some government service. She does “decide” to have a child although a man is never mentioned (one can’t assume that progressive clerics accept the notion of immaculate conception), and the child, once sent off to government-funded pre-school, never reappears. So much for the permanence of family ties.

Julia did not upset modern progressives because it reflected their worldview — Ms. even carried a piece hailing Julia as “a future standard for women” who are increasingly told that they don’t need men either as long-term partners in child-raising or even as spouses.

This divergence from familialism represents the real basis for a new culture war. This means moving away from a focus on divisive and peripheral issues, such as gay marriage at least speaks to the desire for long-lasting bonds between people. The new cultural warrior might seek instead combine some elements of traditional social democracy — in terms of a commitment to upward mobility — with the assumption that family represents the essential institution in our society.

Nowhere will this battle be more intense than in the field of urban planning. The current generations of progressives ascribe, almost universally, to the notion that people should be cajoled, by price or by edict, away from owning homes large enough to raise modern families, particularly those with more than one child. Today’s progressives, echoing an old tradition among urban aesthetes, find our century-long movement to suburbia — which has slowed but barely stopped — an abomination worthy of contempt and eradication.

In the end what is needed is a new political counterpoint that embraces family as critical to the health of the society. This approach may not fit the conventional preferences of many conservatives, and most progressives, but is a necessary counterpoint to a process that threatens the future trajectory of our society.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This piece originally appeared at

Photo by John Perkins.


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The characterization of

The characterization of libertarianism as ("...incapable of identifying with anyone other than those they consider “talented.” They seem unconcerned about market manipulations...) in this article is categorically false. From what I have seen of libertarians they consisistently decry all forms of crony capitalism and market manipulations that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor including imminent domain abuse, bailouts, subsidies and regulations and licensing laws that stifle small businesses and entrepreneurs. They also oppose urban growth boundaries and other like policies that price many people out of cities. The larger point about libertarians not having much to say about the "social deficit" is probably largely correct; they seem more concerned with process than outcomes. But before relying on tired stereotypes of libertarians as venal fat cats hoarding gold coins one should do a little research. or .org is a good place to start and Randal O'toole at the Cato Institute discusses many issues with trendy urban planning and transportation policy that seem to be in general agreement with many of the ideas expressed on this website.

Very good point

I agree very much. It is sickening that the Republican mainstream AND the Democrats are both equally as bad, in fact the Democrats are probably worse, at enabling "crony capitalism" and the ONLY honourable people on this are the economic libertarians. But the soft libbewals and the ignorant majority truly seems to think the Democrats are the anti-capitalist Party and economic libertarians are just "capitalists" whatever the form.

Ayn Rand said once that crony capitalists "deserved to be hung" for the damage they did to capitalism's image and giving its enemies an occasion against it. I am not an Ayn Randist, but people could at least get it right about libertarians and crony capitalism.

Protest of a different sort

Our cultural values disfavor unwed mothers, yet the trend seems to be spiking up. Could this point to a protest of a different sort, as capitalism demands a personal extraction of a new order of magnitude.

Could this be a way to opt into a more certain, if less prosperous future than the college loan-to-job future that has become so uncertain.

Could this be a slap in the face for the child-free "creative class" and all the trappings of urban capitalistic consumption that it represents.

To re-embrace the family, capitalism must be hedged between a number of institutions, including family. When it excludes family, then family occurs outside of its boundaries anyway, such as in the single mother phenomenon, further exacerbating a two-track system.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College
Senior Project Manager, VOA Associates Inc.

Some thoughts

Joel, one of your best articles ever written, hands down.

But we are either currently in transit, or quietly undergoing, several unfortunate developments that greatly seek to undermine everything, with regards to marriage, singlism, familism, procreation, etc.

    1.) A culture, especially through entertainment, that has long mocked the institution of family, depicting babies as an annoying stinking burden that's just looking to mess your life up, what they frame as the monotony of middle-class suburbia. There have been many social crusades to deter the valuing of the family, such as hysterics who peddled over-population, a worship of the autonomy of the individual, the feminist movement which made career the primary focus of a woman's life while selling her a bill of goods that she can have it all if she decided to have a family and a career, and the constant dismissal by abortion activists that human life, prior to birth, is nothing more then tissue.

    2.) A war on heterosexism, gender distinctions, in spite of the fact that gender and orientation has been largely fluid for most of human history, prior to the biblical reformation that took place when Christianity took the values of the Torah to the world.

    3.) A loud brash chorus from Libertarian types who seek to destroy connections between social policy and fiscal/monetary policy, or destroy notions that changes in social policy won't in anyway affect fiscal/monetary policy.

    4.) A youth generation who has been spoiled beyond any in American history, who favor left wing redistributionist policies that promote equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. They want the government to subsidize their education, their health care, and a great many other things that was once thought to be the responsibilities of the individual. But what do you expect... in our move away from a culture of "obligation," to one of "rights."

If you forward in time, 50 years from now, the picture that this paints, accompanied by an assumption that we too fall into Europe's culture which is antithetical to family-creation, as well as Europe's prolonged stay in the low-fertility trap, is:

1.) One where family and children-making is looked down upon.
2.) Men and women don't immediately couple with the opposite sex, and certainly won't "settle down" to create a stable environment necessary to raise children.
3.) People will dismiss all of this as not affecting(or being affected by) any other aspect of society, and
4.) my generation will be too preoccupied with rectifying social justice and with what we are "owed" by our government.

More of my rant.

We might promote the concept of the family, in unison with many on the Left, but the definition that they champion, the one that will be propagated and supported by the media and popular culture, is one that will further break down the rigid constraints that made the family possible.

Phillip Longman's call for us to promote a family-centered culture is the same one you've been promoting for years:

  • "The trick will be restoring what, in the days of family-owned farms and small businesses, was once true: that babies are an asset rather than a burden. Imagine a society in which parents get to keep more of the human capital they form by investing in their children. Imagine a society in which the family is no longer just a consumer unit, but a productive enterprise. The society that figures out how to restore the economic foundation of the family will own the future. The alternative is poor and gray indeed."

    but I think the rigid constraints of what makes family, an a culture supportive of it, work, are too sensitive, too gender-specific, that a broad "I support familism and family-creation" is almost meaningless. The Left will also champion family, but one where the members that makeup such a unit, do no matter, so long as there is "love" between members. In other words, family can mean a group friends, your workplace colleagues, etc, and having that definition competing with ours will make it more and more difficult to succeed in our mission.

    Men have to source their manhood from procreation, women have to source their womanhood from procreation, both have to value having children as a life goal. They also need to have all options closed off to them, such as homosexual behavior, with a rigid societal preference from the male+female bias, lived out in every aspect as it is today.

    If we fall into the European rut of low birth rates, paired with all of the issues I mention above, the size of a generation falls, generation after generation, and you have many generations of children born into a smaller and smaller pool of talent, employers look elsewhere as Mercedes Benz, Ikea, and VW have in their most recent expansions, to make sure they have the mid-to-high skill level populations, who can be their workforce of tomorrow.

    The current workforce becomes even more defensive about maintaining their employment, the youth have less job opportunities because of this, as they do in Japan, South Korea, and across most of Europe, causing the youth to delay family-creation or not value it all, because they have no upward mobility, and certainly cannot afford to bare the cost of having a child. They may become even more overwhelmed by the cut in safety nets for their age group due to the fact that retirees will not have the workforce to support them and government must then ration services to those who already put into the system and were guaranteed benefits, and all of these reinforce each other to sort of put family-creation out of the picture. And this is assuming they wanted to have children in the first place… which the majority do not!!!!!

    Insights from Colin Clark

    Colin Clark’s magisterial 1967 book, “Population Growth and Land Use”, analyses numerous positive feedback loops in economies as populations are rising, that go into reverse when the population growth levels out or falls. Not necessarily to argue for “more growth”, but to try and alert people to the kind of tough political options we are going to have to confront, that will go way beyond superannuation liabilities.

    The end of growth, either planned or unplanned, means serious recession and falling income, not equilibrium at the “status quo”.
    The development of free markets and the creation of wealth requires, along with a culture that encourages trust and co-operation; “connections” via transport and communication, between potential participants in exchange and trade. These connections can be the result of proximity (through density), as well as by roads and other transport infrastructure.

    There is a limit to how much density is achievable as a substitute for transport infrastructure, because the production of low-density rural areas, especially food, has to be transported to the workers in urban industry. There is actually a correlation between the “density achieved” in urban areas throughout history, and the provision of roads in those urban areas.

    Population growth is one way in which densities are increased, and “demand pressures” result in rural land being used more intensively and efficiently. Population growth disturbs a certain “status quo” that might have existed previously, where rural production levels were regarded as “satisfactory” to both the producers and the consumers of the produce.

    As population densities increase, and rural production increases, a number of efficiencies are realised.

    There is increased competition, and reduced oligopoly, monopoly, and monopsony exploitation.

    Increased specialisation becomes possible, because of a viable number of customers for the products of the specialist.

    “External efficiencies” are realised by increasingly networked producers.

    Economies are realised in infrastructure, social institutions, and government. Roads, bridges, harbours, etc, can be utilised by increasing numbers of people without capacity increases being immediately necessary.

    The same goes for churches and clergy, courts and lawyers, hospitals and doctors, other professionals, government bureaucracies, public buildings, educational and other institutions. This also allows for important advances in sanitation and health.

    Labour productivity growth occurs, and less additional “capital” is required for each additional unit of output. The utilisation of land and resources previously underutilised, is a “substitute for capital”.

    Nevertheless, return on capital increases, AND capital formation is also increased. A rising population results in increasing returns to existing investment, encouraging more investment. Less investments “go bad”, because there is a rising number of customers for whatever products or services the investor and his competitors provide.

    More production capital is optimally utilised (and even worn out) before it becomes obsolete.

    The products that result from new investments, inventions, and efficiencies, are easily absorbed in a rising population; as are the redundancies and relocations that might be necessary.

    Younger people, of which there are more, are more mobile and receptive to change.

    The increases in wealth creation and demand, make society more amenable to changes in employment patterns as the result of advancing technology and methods.

    There are more valuable “positions” to go around, so that change is less regarded as a threat by those occupying positions of advantage.

    Younger people tend to accumulate capital, while older people tend to “draw down on it”.

    Larger families result in pressure on the parents to save more, and on the children to provide for themselves because their inheritance will be split more ways.

    (Note: Julian Simon added a further thesis to Colin Clark’s: that a higher population includes both more inventive geniuses, and more people to purchase and enjoy the commercialised realisation of those creative geniuses ideas).

    A high proportion of government spending is inflexible to rises and falls in population. This spending is more efficient if population is higher. Much government spending is extremely difficult to reduce even when falling population justifies it.

    If population is falling, there is much greater pressure on politicians to cheat by inflating the money supply, as the fewer numbers of young simply cannot sustain the taxation levels necessary to keep the government running, apart from the burdens of caring for larger numbers of elderly.

    Younger people are rendered less able to save, capital is “drawn down on”, returns on investment decline, more investments fail, investment declines.

    Population increases demonstrated beneficial effects in Holland in the 1500′s, Britain in the late 1700′s, and Japan in the late 1800′s. Holland and Japan were economic successes while importing most of their food. A LOWER percentage of the workforce in agriculture, correlates to wealth increases. These increases in population and in wealth, result in a freer, more mobile society.

    Ancient Rome in its decadent phase, illustrates the effects of falling
    birthrates, including increased taxation burdens and monetary debasement.

    Declining populations, in ancient Rome and in Europe in the 1400′s, brought about a simultaneous shortage of workers, and lack of demand. Many people clung to their source of diminishing income, becoming protective and demanding restraint of competition; others had serfdom imposed upon them by the government, their freedom to relocate and change their livelihoods being removed. These seemingly contradictory effects are the result of a reversal of the “virtuous cycle” described earlier, that occurs when population is increasing.

    France, in the period from from the revolution onwards, also illustrates economic decline consequent on falling birthrates.

    In underpopulated lands, and where population is falling, the people themselves become more “protectionist” in sentiment, and more vulnerable to illusions regarding “planning” and regulation of production and prices. This only worsens the vicious circle of decline. There is even a term in France to describe this phenomenon: "Le Malthusianisme Economique".

    Kotkin: "Determinant of future power: family formation"

    Joel, you made a very significant point a few days ago:

    ".....Then there’s the most critical determinant of future power: family formation. The South easily outstrips the Yankee states in growth in its 10-and-under population. Texas and North Carolina expanded their kiddie population by over 15 percent; and every Southern state gained kids except for Katrina-ravaged Louisiana. In contrast New York, Rhode Island, and Michigan lost children by a double-digit margin while every state in the Northeast as well as California suffered net losses.

    The differences are most striking when looking at child-population growth among the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas. Eight of the top ten cities for growth in children under 15 were located in the old Confederacy—Raleigh-Cary, Austin, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Atlanta, and Nashville. New York, Los Angeles, and Boston, along with several predictable rust-belt locals, ranked in the bottom 10.

    Historically, regions with demographic and economic momentum tend to overwhelm those who lack it. Numbers mean more congressional seats and more electoral votes, and governors who command a large state budget and the national stage....."

    Prophetic lines that I

    Prophetic lines that I expect to come to fruition, only, I wish it were sooner. We could really use the south about now, and the congressional seats they supply.

    I hope the South realizes the potential it has to lead this country into the new American century, and tries to really be a playground laboratory, to test out every idea under the sun vis-a-vis education, business incubation, public-private partnerships, and urban redevelopment. AND... to tripple down it's investments on technical training at stand-alone centers or local community colleges. Airbus is only the first of many to make the 3rd coast their home!

    Hear, hear

    You are I are definitely very much on the same wavelength.

    What we are looking at is

    What we are looking at is the decay of a culture and a civilization if these trends continue. An American society without families is a contradiction in terms. I still think my idea for a new type of factory located in the outer reaches of exurbia and beyond in which the people are employed 4-to-6 hours a day three or four days a week is part of the answer. I should rewrite my book.

    Luke Lea