Hey, how’s that for a subject line?
Ross Douthat has a great meditation up about the nature of the Sexual Revolution. He begins by linking to Jonathan V. Last’s appraisal of Mary Eberstadt’s new book critiquing the SexRev. Last writes:
Eberstadt argues that the invention of the pill and near-mastery of contraception in the West during the 1960s caused a cascade of epochal consequences. Just to tally a few of the big-ticket items: It uncoupled sex from reproduction, caused people to have sex earlier and marry later, increased divorce, cohabitation, and illegitimacy, revolutionized the economic role of women, imploded the fertility rate, and set the modern welfare state on the course to insolvency. The sexual revolution unleashed by contraceptive sex, says Eberstadt, rivals the Communist revolution in terms of its influence on the world of the 20th century.
She’s almost certainly right. And the comparison of the two revolutions stems not just from the magnitude of their consequences but also from the intellectual reactions to both. Most Western elites spent the Cold War denying the problems of the Communist state, despite all of the horrible evidence. They have taken much the same stance regarding the consequences of the sexual revolution. Which, on balance, have been quite negative.
Ross contends that both sides in the culture war over sex assume that the SexRev, for better or for worse, was mostly about politics. Douthat offers a different perspective. Excerpt:
But suppose for a moment that we thought of the sexual revolution as something closer to the industrial revolution instead: A shift that was shaped by books and individual personalities and political movements, certainly, but that was fundamentally driven by economic and technological changes that would have happened even with a different cast of characters and choices.
Read one way, this analogy offers a certain amount of vindication to social liberals, since it suggests an analogy between social conservatives and the 19th century’s Luddites or agrarian nostalgists, shaking their fists impotently against changes they were powerless to stop. (At the very least, thinking of the revolution in these terms should give liberals a little more confidence that a hypothetical President Rick Santorum couldn’t bring the 1950s back by fiat.)
But the analogy also suggests that the most strident sort of social liberal risks becoming the equivalent of the most doctrinaire 19th century economic liberals, who were so committed to an ideological interpretation of socioeconomic change that they regarded any reform or regulation as an unacceptable imposition on the glories of laissez-faire, and a dangerous and backward-looking threat to the prosperity and growth the new order had produced.
Read the whole Douthat post here. I find his take on this persuasive. Yes, the SexRev has its political element, and, as Douthat avers, this is why it’s so difficult for some people to concede that there was anything wrong with it at all. But conservatives who identify the socially destructive nature of the thing have to come to understand that, like the Industrial Revolution, the SexRev was almost certainly inevitable, and has worked itself so deeply into the fabric of everyday life that it cannot be walked away from in the way that communism has been. I mean, you cannot erase the effects of seven decades of Bolshevism on the life of the Russian people — not on their minds, not on their souls, not on their economy, not on their government — but you can expect Russians to repudiate belief in the Bolshevik ideal. That is, if every single Russian alive today said communism was a catastrophic lie, Russia would still be dealing with the aftermath, but the ideology would have been repudiated.
If every American alive today said that the Industrial Revolution had been a bad thing, and repudiated its principles, what on earth would that change? Nothing. Unless you are an extreme agrarian, you are not going to be able to live in a pre-IR world. The Shire is fiction. The effects of the IR — economically, intellectually, culturally, and so forth — were far more revolutionary than Bolshevism, which of course is Ross’s point.
For example, our entire capitalist economy is built around the SexRev, in that it depends on the behavioral and ideational changes that have been deeply imbedded in Western culture. Technology (the Pill) made it possible to incarnate to a degree theretofore impossible a spirit of individualism that was already in the culture, and had been for quite some time. My whole “crunchy con” project has been in large part to compel conservatives to see the contradictions between our professed social conservatism, and our economic views, which radically undermine our social conservatism. Similarly, as Last points out in his review of Eberstadt’s book, liberals who bemoan the destructive effects of the market practice the same kind of selective reading of the data, ignoring how the same poor and working classes with which they sympathize are devastated by accepting libertine sexual mores.
I like how Ross opens the door to a way of thinking past the politics of the SexRev towards the goal of ameliorating its worst effects without believing that one has to throw it out entirely, which is highly unrealistic. The vast majority of Americans, even social conservatives, accept the pill, the technology that made the SexRev possible. Whether or not it was a good idea is an important question, but largely a historic one at this point. It is possible not to use the pill; it is also possible not to use a computer.
What do we do with Ross’s insight? Thoughts? The culture war, and therefore our politics, is heavily about the Sexual Revolution. If you don’t believe that, look at Tom Edsall’s piece from a 2004 issue of The Atlantic. Excerpt:
Early in the 1996 election campaign Dick Morris and Mark Penn, two of Bill Clinton’s advisers, discovered a polling technique that proved to be one of the best ways of determining whether a voter was more likely to choose Clinton or Bob Dole for President. Respondents were asked five questions, four of which tested attitudes toward sex: Do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong? Do you ever personally look at pornography? Would you look down on someone who had an affair while married? Do you believe sex before marriage is morally wrong? The fifth question was whether religion was very important in the voter’s life.
Respondents who took the “liberal” stand on three of the five questions supported Clinton over Dole by a two-to-one ratio; those who took a liberal stand on four or five questions were, not surprisingly, even more likely to support Clinton. The same was true in reverse for those who took a “conservative” stand on three or more of the questions. (Someone taking the liberal position, as pollsters define it, dismisses the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong, admits to looking at pornography, doesn’t look down on a married person having an affair, regards sex before marriage as morally acceptable, and views religion as not a very important part of daily life.) According to Morris and Penn, these questions were better vote predictors—and better indicators of partisan inclination—than anything else except party affiliation or the race of the voter (black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic).
It is an axiom of American politics that people vote their pocketbooks, and for seventy years the key political divisions in the United States were indeed economic. The Democratic and Republican Parties were aligned, as a general rule, with different economic interests. Electoral fortunes rose and fell with economic cycles. But over the past several elections a new political configuration has begun to emerge—one that has transformed the composition of the parties and is beginning to alter their relative chances for ballot-box success. What is the force behind this transformation? In a word, sex.
Whereas elections once pitted the party of the working class against the party of Wall Street, they now pit voters who believe in a fixed and universal morality against those who see moral issues, especially sexual ones, as elastic and subject to personal choice.
In Ross’s blog entry, there might be the kernel of an idea that could lead us out of the current culture-war impasse. Yes? Or not?