From Ross Douthat:
Now that there’s actually some slight movement in the Republican Party in the direction suggested by “Grand New Party,” the book I co-authored with Reihan Salam way back in the misty days of 2007-2008, I suppose I should be grateful to Slate’s Matt Yglesias for doing his part to make our ideas seem as reactionary as possible. In a post accusing conservatives of having a “phantom agenda” on marriage promotion, Yglesias raises the question of how, exactly, a movement usually suspicious of government’s effectiveness expects the state to somehow intervene effectively in people’s most intimate decisions, and then offers the following reading of our book:
One answer that Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam sort of walked up to in their book Grand New Party from several years back is that we ought to return to cruelly shunning single mothers and their children. Treat them really, really, really poorly like we would have 50 years ago. Call them “illegitimate” and rather than try to ameliorate the problems of being raised in a one-adult household, go out of our way to exacerbate them. Make life as awful as possible for single parents and their kids, and in the future you probably will see fewer single parents. The big problem with this idea, however, is that it involves deliberate cruelty to innocent people, which is morally wrong. So wrong that you never see conservatives explicitly avow it. Because it’s really obviously wrong to be deliberately cruel to innocent people.
So beyond that, you’re left with … what? … is anyone going to tell me with a straight face that tweaking the EITC formula is going to reduce the long-term structural decline of marriage?
The great thing about the phrase “sort of walked up to” is that it could basically mean anything at all, so I’m not even sure what kind of a response to offer to Yglesias’s characterization of our argument.
I would describe “Grand New Party” as very explicitly making the case that 1) the kind of family stability America enjoyed 50 years ago had massive social and personal benefits, 2) that the socioeconomic benefits of family stability have, if anything, increased as marriage has gone into decline, and 3) that policymakers should therefore look for ways to make it easier for stable, two-parent homes to be formed and then endure. On the specific question of stigma, meanwhile, I think “Grand New Party” takes for granted that draconian social sanctions on unwed childbearing are both immoral on the merits and impossible to re-impose; at most, it suggests that a kind of softer policy bias in favor of two-parent families might be desirable (by, for instance, tying a child tax credit to marriage). Whether this amounts to “sort of walking up to” a call for massive social and economic discrimination against single mothers and their progeny depends on your definition of “sort of” and “walked up to,” so I’ll just suggest that interested readers can read the book and judge for themselves.
Speaking for myself and not as a co-author, meanwhile, I’d make two further, interrelated points. First, it seems pretty obvious that there are forms of social pressure that don’t amount to “cruel shunning” and “deliberate cruelty,” but that shape people’s behavior in meaningful ways nonetheless. I think you can see this kind of soft, consensus-driven pressure at work in the decline of teen pregnancies over the last two decades (whether the cautionary stories aired on “16 and Pregnant” has played a recent role or not); I think you can see it, as well, in the way that elite culture subtly disfavors out-of-wedlock childbearing and divorce (especially divorce while the kids are young) among the college-educated upper class. In neither case are people who violate these soft norms being ruthlessly excluded from society or deliberately punished by policymakers. But in both cases there’s a gentler kind of stigma at work, one that mixes sympathy with disapproval, a promise of tolerance with a warning of negative life consequences, and that seems to have had some real effect on people’s choices without requiring vicious ostracism or abuse.