The Contradictions of the Conservative Cultural Marriage Campaign

By Mike Konczal |

Liberals have spent the last eight years learning the limitations of presidential rhetoric, while conservatives have romanticized its possibilities. Beyond getting Obama to say “radical Islam” as a foreign policy objective, conservative anti-poverty programs have come to focus on cultural campaigns to promote marriage.

Take Jeb Bush’s new anti-poverty plan. Beyond block-granting anti-poverty programs in a way designed to weaken them, Bush will “promote marriage as the most reliable route to family stability and resources. As president, he will join with other political leaders, educators and civic leaders in being clear and direct about how hard it is to raise children without a committed co-parent.” This is a new focus for conservatives: professionals need to lead in promoting marriage. Since professionals themselves get married at higher rates, why shouldn’t they preach what they practice? [1]

But there’s an intellectual contradiction here that makes this whole project unworkable. According to this, professionals need to advocate for marriage to convince poor people to get married. Yet if you read deeper into the conservative literature, you find that one of their main diagnoses of why poor people don’t get married is because of the dominance of professional views of marriage over society. As we’ll see, they need this theory because the actual evidence shows that poor people already have a very positive view of being married. What’s stopping them from actually marrying is this professional “capstone” model of marriage, one appropriate for people for whom the economy works, but (supposedly) devastating for everyone else. [2]

It can’t both be the case that professionals need to advocate more for marriage and that professional ideals of marriage are preventing marriage among the poor. Which means that the actual substance of what an intellectual campaign would consist of doesn’t really exist. It gets even more implausible when you try to bridge the gap. Let’s dive in.

Professionals Need to Preach What They Practice and Promote Their Marriages

Let’s go to the AEI/Brookings anti-poverty plan, which is where Jeb Bush gets his language almost word for word.[3] Their first bullet-point is to “Promote a new cultural norm surrounding parent-hood and marriage.” They say these aren’t all the failed marriage promotion programs of the past, but instead a new cultural campaign to shift norms. “Major cultural norms have been changed many times before when leaders expressed firm and unequivocal views about even entrenched cultural attitudes.”

There’s a snarky edge to it. They write that college graduates, who have low non-marital birth rates (less than 9 percent compared to more than 50 percent for women without a high school degree), “appear to have been influenced by a cultural expectation concerning the advisability.” As a result, “We should not be afraid to preach what we practice.”

One fatal problem to this argument is that, rather than hating it or being indifferent, poor people already have a positive view of marriages. As Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas demonstrate in their book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, poor women have “embraced a set of surprisingly mainstream norms about marriage and the circumstances in which it should occur.” Instead, “Poor women often say they don’t want to marry until they are ‘set’ economically and established in a career,” in large part because the men around them are too economically insecure and demanding to be seen as good bets.

But Also the Promotion of Professional Marriages Has Destroyed Marriage

As a result, conservatives actually tell each other that the problem isn’t that poor people hate marriage, but that they like it in the wrong way, the way professionals like it.

Let’s go to the National Marriage Project (NMP), whose When Marriage Disappears explains these findings by noting that, in recent decades, a “capstone” (or “soul mate”) model, “which sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses” has taken over. This replaced the previous “institutional” model, “which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union.” This changes the very nature of marriage: “Thus where marriage used to serve as the gateway to responsible adulthood, it has come to be increasingly seen as a capstone of sorts that signals couples have arrived, both financially and emotionally—or are on the cusp of arriving.”

In NMP’s argument, this is bad for the poor because it gives them a model of marriage that they can’t sustain. A capstone model “sets a high financial and emotional bar for marriage,” a major problem as “many poor and Middle American couples now believe that they do not have the requisite emotional and economic resources to get or stay married.” This, in turn, leads to single-motherhood among the poor. NMP: “The capstone model seems out of reach for many poor and Middle American couples, who do not have access to the kinds of jobs that would propel them into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.” This leads poor “women [to] turn instead to the traditional source of young-adult female identity—motherhood—for meaning and satisfaction.”

The more you look for this among conservative writers, the more you see it. Ross Douthat uses this framework to emphasize the class-conflict elements. Where “the institutional model was associated with similar family structures for rich and poor alike, the soulmate/capstone model has thus far only really been stabilizing for the upper and upper middle classes. […] As middle American ideas about marriage have converged with upper class ideas, their outcomes have converged with the destabilized lower class.” [4]

What Is Even to Be Done?

Fair enough. But if this is true, the worst thing we can do is have professionals advocate for marriage in the public sphere. It will only quicken falling marriage rates, destabilize poor families and communities, and create worse economic conditions for those at the bottom.

It’s not clear to me how conservatives square this circle. You could ask professionals to start a campaign lying about their marriages, airing commercials saying “marriage is great because I married early when I was still economically insecure (but I actually didn’t, tee hee hee).” Granted, it’s movement conservatism, where they are all going to spend this year convincing others but mostly themselves that Marco Rubio’s inequality generating tax plan is exactly what our inequality-dominated economy needs, but a more general policy proposal centered around people lying to the public seems like a bad idea.

Professionals could all embrace an “institutional” approach to marriage, but the whole idea is really underdeveloped. While the capstone model has research backing it up, the institutional model mostly seems to be defined as the opposite of the capstone one, with a lot of nostalgia, hope, and folk history filling in the blanks.

Perhaps there’s really good historiography on this, but it hasn’t dominated in the discussion. (I’m willing to read whatever, but most of the marriage think tank reports describing this just cite other marriage think tank reports.) ‘The 50s were more religious and had stricter gender roles, so those must be responsible for higher marriage rates.’ Maybe? But that’s not actual evidence, and it’s tough to see how deep this institutional model even goes. Stephanie Coontz, in Marriage: A History, gives the institutional-era a shelf life of a “long decade”, from 1947 to the early 1960s, where it is dominated by the ending trauma of the Great Depression and World War II, as well as the initial postwar economic boom. Is this really a guide going forward? [5]

And what would the relevant tradeoffs even be, and how would you promote them? Attacking a system of marriage that “depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses” doesn’t sound appealing. What would you emphasize and what would you discard? Part of what Edin and Kefalas find is that low-income women also worry that traditional gender roles will take over their marriages. So for every step you would get forward, you’d probably take two back. Promoting one system for the rich and one for the poor also seems like a poor way to shift norms.

It could simply be the case that poor men are poor marriage prospects regardless of the ideological superstructure dominating the marriage culture. (I generally find when people start talking about “norms” doing all their analysis they’ve completely lost a guiding political economy framework.) But if the core center-right cultural approach to fighting poverty can’t make it out of the gate without collapsing under contradictions, it’s hard to imagine it could ever succeed.



[1] I’m going to use the easier term “professional” instead of upper-class, top 20 percent, elites, leaders, or so on. You can substitute in whatever you like, though remember the conservative will use it in a class sense while discussing economic careers and “capstone” marriages.

[2] I’m going to be very generous to conservative arguments here, in order to tease out why they don’t work on their own terms. Though I think this enterprise has bigger problems – as Matt Bruenig correctly writes, “Promoting Marriage Has Failed and Is Unnecessary to Cut Poverty.” More generally, I haven’t seen any response to the analysis that the anti-poverty effects of the so-called “success sequence” – graduate high school, have a job, get married – aren’t entirely dominated by the “have a job” part, and the lack of response makes me think there isn’t one.

[3] Imagine the poor right-wing think tank communications person putting together their “demonstrates impact” report on anti-poverty and their top bullet point is that Jeb Bush loves it.

[4] This “capstone” model is how Douthat believes the counterintuitive notion that gay marriage weakens marriage among poor people, as “gay marriage itself is a form of advocacy on behalf of that [capstone] model, and (perhaps more importantly) against the traditional/institutional model’s tighter sex-marriage-procreation link.”

[5] I’d like to thank my wife K for this citation, but doing so would emphasize that we got married well into our career and intellectual development and promoting how great that is would devastate poor families everywhere, like a miniature Ryan Plan.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.