Don’t think for a second that the nation’s conservatives are done meddling in our private lives.
There’s a new cultural war battlefront brewing: Marriage vs. the single life.
Flush with political victories, from the U.S. Supreme Court to county school boards, conservatives are promoting the idea that traditional marriage, more than the pursuit of a career, is the antidote to American unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
It’s another conservative tenet that will, in some form or another, transcend into politics, find its way to legislation and have a detrimental effect on our eroding personal choices.
The New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, a moderate whose writings I’ve admired for their insight, lays the case for marriage-first in his controversial blockbuster piece “To Be Happy, Marriage Matters More Than Career.”
Brooks, otherwise often lucid, doesn’t call what he’s promoting what it is — a patriarchal manifesto — but he’s building a case against young people becoming the career-focused women (and men, too) of our generation.
As I read it, alarm bells wildly rang in my head.
“My strong advice is to obsess less about your career and to think a lot more about marriage. Please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy,” he writes. “Please use your youthful years as a chance to have romantic relationships so you’ll have some practice when it comes time to wed. Even if you’re years away, please read books on how to decide whom to marry. Read George Eliot and Jane Austen. Start with the masters.”
Laugh if you’d like — I did, at first, at the way a respected male writer can get away with evoking Eliot and Austen and not be forever branded as a romantic fool. But he’s seriously pushing the dangerous conservative idea that strong marital unions equate to a strong country.
How very 1950s, disappointingly so.
Brooks says his take is no “softhearted sentimentality,” and goes on to equate the strength of intimate relationships — “the core of life” — with the value of marriage. A view, he asserts, that’s supported by “mountains of evidence.”
Yes, as with most efforts to move public opinion, his endorsement of social engineering is built on data. And Brooks offers lots of it, including surveys by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center showing an increasing number of young people aren’t prioritizing marriage. Only 29% of young adults surveyed in 2020 felt it was important for a couple to marry as opposed to 50% in 2006.
I found more data: A record number of 40-year-olds in the United States — 25% in 2021 — had never been married, a significant increase from 20% in 2010. So, the children of the divorce generation are being more cautious about marriage.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. What’s frightening is the speed with which conservative thinking over a statistical figure becomes law.
Remember how the anti-immigrant movement seen as a local nuisance in the 1980s — Miami’s anti-bilingualism wars come to mind — became a powerful national political force after, one census after another, showed the browning of America?
Laugh if you’d like at the marriage debate, but the once unthinkable and intrusive anti-abortion and anti-gay education laws passed in Florida didn’t begin two legislative sessions ago. It was a decades long battle that gained steam after religious conservatives effectively targeted Planned Parenthood, proving false “proof” of late term-abortions — and few spoke up at the time.
Nor are Florida’s restrictive new laws unique to the state.
The religious conservative movement that has birthed extremist legislation in red states is an active change agent spreading the traditional lifestyle gospel even to Democratic states like California.
And now, they’re using research data and arguments to push marriage over career as the magical path to happiness — thus, diminishing education and the financial independence that has given women like me choices our mother’s generation didn’t have.
Not one happily ever after
When Florida’s culture wars were brewing, but we hadn’t yet lived through the worst of them — legislation curtailing women’s and minority rights — I spotted along Orlando’s highway 528 a billboard encouraging a visit to Disney Wold with a tweak on the old fairy tale standard: “Happily Whatever You’re After.”
Finally, I thought, they’ve got the storytelling pathos right.
There’s no cookie-cutter path to happiness.
But, I couldn’t have suspected then that inclusive theme park philosophy would become the punching bag of the super-majority of state Republicans in charge waging a religious war to end abortion access and erase the open presence of gay and transgender children in schools.
Those of us who pay close attention saw the signs then, and see more signs now of what’s at stake: American democracy as we’ve known it since the birth of civil rights.
The patriarchy is threatened by modern freedoms and is working tirelessly to move the country to the right. It wants as many Americans as possible in traditional, legalized man-woman unions because it represents political power for them.
In the narrowness of their vision, they see fertile ground to recruit more voters and convert them to conservatism, aka, the vision of today’s extremist Republican Party.
One that argues that the loss of happiness is due to some liberal lifestyle flaw.
Stay alert to the danger of living in a society where personal choice is disappearing — and fundamentalists are writing the rule book for us all.