Home/Rod Dreher/Tom Edsall’s Plant: A Fable About Family

Tom Edsall’s Plant: A Fable About Family

Liberals didn't want this plant to die; they just didn't want to water it (Vladimir1965/Getty Images)

I had planned to do a lot more work on my book today, but the news just kept coming. Well, at least tomorrow, Thanksgiving, will be a day of rest (though I have a neat post already lined up, so come read it after you eat your turkey).

I’ve said in this space on a number of occasions that the New York Times journalist Thomas Edsall is a consistent must-read for those who want to understand American politics. Today’s Edsall piece, though, is one that he uncharacteristically wrong-foots his topic, and does so in a way that I think is profoundly revealing of how liberals understand — and misunderstand — conservatives and traditionalists. Here’s how his piece is headlined:

Normally I would evaluate his argument piece-by-piece, but because I’ve subjected my readers to acres and acres of prose today, I’m going to summarize his argument.

Edsall begins by quoting from recent speeches or books by Attorney General Bill Barr, Prof. Robert George, Mary Eberstadt, and Patrick Deneen, in which all of these Catholic conservatives say that the secular liberal order is responsible for the degeneration of society, and in particular, the family. To be clear, there are meaningful differences among even this small group: Deneen, for example, is more critical of classical liberalism than George is. But in the main, they all contend that the dominant liberalism of our cultural order, for various reasons, has caused and is causing it to disintegrate.

You can’t expect a journalist to give a satisfying account of these four conservatives’ theories in one column, even though Edsall, who writes for the online version of the Times, has more space than the print columnists do. Still, it’s remarkable what he leaves out in his rush to prove them wrong.

For example, Eberstadt’s latest book, which I wrote about here, argues that the current curse of identity politics, which is by definition illiberal, comes in large part from the collapse of the traditional family, and the steady erosion of traditional sources of identity and stability. Eberstadt writes:

Yes, racism, sexism and other forms of cruelty exist, and are always to be deplored and countered. At the same time, the timeline of identity politics suggest another source. Up until the middle of the twentieth century (and barring the frequent foreshortening of life by disease or nature) human expectations remained largely the same throughout the ages: that one would grow up to have children and a family; that parents and siblings and extended family would remain one’s primal community; and that, conversely, it was a tragedy not to be part of a family. The post-1960s order of sexual consumerism has upended every one of these expectations.

Who am I? is a universal human question. It becomes harder to answer if other basic questions are problematic or out of reach. Who is my brother? Who is my father? Where, if anywhere, are my cousins, grandparents, nieces, nephews and the rest of the organic connections through which humanity up until now channeled everyday existence? Every one of the assumptions that our forebears could take for granted is now negotiable.

… Wherever one stands in matters of the “culture wars” is immaterial. The plain fact is that the relative stability of yesterday’s familial identity could not help but answer the question at the heart of identity politics—Who am I?—in ways that now eludes many. The diminution and rupture of the family and the rise of identity politics cannot be understood apart from one another.

I can’t say why Bill Barr and Robbie George take the stances that they do, because I’m not nearly as familiar with their work as I am with Mary Eberstadt’s and Patrick Deneen’s. But the latter two writers are by no means simple culture warriors who blame “the Sixties” (as a synecdoche for “sexual liberalism”) for all the ills of today. Both of them acknowledge forthrightly that economic liberalism (that is, free markets), of the sort so dear to the Republican Party and mainstream conservatives of the last few decades, has also played a role in this decay.

Edsall spends a goodly part of his column arguing that the economy has had a major role in this process … which is something that Deneen and Eberstadt, at least, would agree on! This has been one of the most consequential, and most difficult, lessons for conservatives to have learned — and many have yet to learn it. It has always been there within traditional conservatism, but as I wrote in my 2006 book Crunchy Cons, that school of conservatism was pushed to the margins by the anti-statist libertarians, who dominated the post-1964 fusionist project. Fusionism tried to unite the free-marketeers, the anti-statists, the defense hawks, and the social conservatives. Reagan was the embodiment of this ideal. We have now seen that conservatives were wrong to think that one could liberalize the markets without negatively affecting the family and other traditions that held society together.

What Edsall completely fails to consider is that social and cultural liberalism has also played a key role in the disintegration. It’s telling that he doesn’t even think it’s worth acknowledging, not even with a line or two. Has he never read Christopher Lasch on radical individualism? Lasch denounced from the Left what he called “a culture of narcissism,” which is “a way of life that is dying—the culture of competitive individualism, which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.”

Has he not read Philip Rieff, on the therapeutic society — a society that commits itself to keeping the individual’s options open, and making its highest goal helping us to live happily in the ruin? Or the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman on liquid modernity, and the impossibility of maintaining solid social structures in such a condition? Or Wendell Berry on just about anything? None of these thinkers are, or were, men of the Right, but they saw, in their own ways, where radical individualism and the consumerization of American life was taking us.

I want to return to this passage from something I wrote in 2016 about Yuval Levin’s book on fractured America:

According to Levin, the great conceptual barrier to reforming and modernizing American politics is baby boomer nostalgia for the 20th-century Golden Age of their memories. He writes:

Democrats talk about public policy as though it were always 1965 and the model of the Great Society welfare state will answer our every concern. And Republicans talk as though it were always 1981 and a repetition of the Reagan Revolution is the cure for what ails us. It is hardly surprising that the public finds the resulting political debates frustrating.

What neither side can see is that they expect the impossible. Generally speaking, liberals want maximal individual liberty in personal life, especially on matters related to sexual expression, but demand more state involvement in the economy for the sake of equality. Conservatives desire maximal economic freedom but lament the social chaos and dysfunction—in particular, the collapse of the family among the poor and working classes—that afflict American society. The uncomfortable truth is that what each side loathes is the shadow side of what it loves.

As Alan Ehrenhalt pointed out in The Lost City, his 1995 book about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, contemporary people lie to themselves about what things were like in the Golden Age. The thick social bonds and sense of community Americans enjoyed back then came at a significant cost—including cultural conformity and a lack of personal and consumer choice—that few of us today would tolerate. Ehrenhalt wrote that beginning in the 1960s, however, Americans embraced “the belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it.”

America’s political, social, and economic life of the last half-century has been a working-out of that belief—thus, the Fractured Republic. The inability of the U.S. political class, now dominated by boomers, to deal with the consequences prevents them from coming to terms with realities of the 21st-century world. We are stuck in what Levin describes as a “politics of dueling nostalgias.”

Our tragedy is that the same tectonic forces that gave us all more individual freedom also damaged or destroyed the structures that allow free individuals to thrive. Levin calls this the “paradox of liberation” and says it afflicts all modern societies. His deepest insight is the idea that we cannot hold back the towering wave we unleashed at mid-century but must figure out how to ride its crest. He writes that “the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion … have been the chief sources of many of our deepest problems in modern America, yet they must also be the sources of solutions and reforms.”

Levin is right about this. Both Left and Right have embraced and promoted extreme individualism. I say this as an admirer of Tom Edsall’s writing, but I don’t understand how someone of his intelligence and experience can claim that many on the contemporary Left do not wish the traditional family, and traditional social structures, to fall apart. Only the most radical affirmatively wish for this (it has been a core belief of Marxism from the beginning), but most liberals and progressives today simply do not want to privilege the nuclear family, or to back public policies or laws that recognize what Rieff called “sacred order” — in our case, an order that places the traditional family and the needs of children at its foundation. For the dominant strain of the Left today, there is no sacred order; there is only individual desire, and setting it free.

As I’ve made clear, far too many on the Right believe this to be true when it comes to economics. Libertarians believe it’s true about both economics and social morality. But I’m sorry, you cannot possibly claim that the political party and movement that embraces and advocates for privileging individual sexual autonomy, including making the law reflect the claim that people can be whatever gender they choose, is a party that cares about preserving the family, or society. For the Left — and for too many on the Right, it must be said — “society” is nothing more than a collection of individuals.

Edsall points out that the white working class, the demographic that is arguably the one most hostile to liberal values, is suffering the most acute decay in its morals. As if that proves anything! He appears to blame that on economic liberalism, and what it has done to working-class jobs. He’s certainly got a point — a point that the emerging leaders of the post-Trump Right, like Sen. Josh Hawley, seem to understand. But what Edsall misses is that these lost white working class people, like lost black working class people before them, have jettisoned the strong, cohesive, Christian moral code that would have helped them thrive despite material deprivation. The right-wing, white working class people who talk about God and traditional family values, and who vote on them, but who don’t live them out — are they hypocrites? Probably so. But that does not mean the moral code is wrong. It means that they, like all of us, have sinned and fallen short.

Edsall also says that the Left is more willing to compromise on these issues than the Right. This is complete gaslighting, whether he realizes it or not. Where are the people in positions of power on the Left who are willing simply to leave churches and conservative institutions alone when it comes to LGBT matters, for example? The agenda of the contemporary Left is driven by various tribes of Social Justice Warriors who are fanatical puritans. The old-school, Tom Edsall liberals are fading; the new Jacobin generation is coming to power — and they are not interested in compromise with what they regard as evil; they want to win.

I’ll say it again: Edsall is one of the smartest political journalists out there, and he’s always worth reading. I hope in a future column he will subject his own liberal side to the kind of critique that a Christopher Lasch would have given it. This so-called “preposterous idea” that liberals want to destroy the family found its way to the forefront of conservative thinking because conservatives actually pay attention to what liberals advocate, and see that they believe laws and policies governing moral and social behavior should be made to serve the end of liberating the choosing individual from any unchosen obligation.

(The fact that lots of self-described conservatives believe this too, but hide it from themselves, is a topic for a different column.)

I would also ask Tom Edsall: there are plenty of conservatives and moderates working in universities, corporations and other places, who are afraid to object to progressive claims because they are terrified of being denounced and ruined for going against left-wing identity politics. Catholic parishioners in Grand Rapids told a TV reporter that they are afraid to stand up for their parish priest, who refused communion to a gay activist judge, because they’re afraid of what would happen to them. Simply for saying they support their priest! I received a letter from a Catholic reader there who said the same thing. While I strongly believe that people should stand up to defend their priest and their beliefs against progressive bullies, and though I believe that things will not change in this country until people get sick and tired of being pushed around by progressives, and take a public stand, I also know perfectly well that what these Catholic parishioners fear is something real. It’s how progressives do business today: by demonizing and attempting to destroy their opponents.

What does this have to do with the “liberals want to destroy the family” claim? Conservative Catholics, and other Christians, often take a huge risk by defending their conception of the family, which they believe to be normative. The fact that they cannot make their arguments in public, or even be seen to take the side of priests and others who do, without having to fear that they will lose their jobs, or see their reputations destroyed, leads them to conclude that yes, liberals are happy to see the family (as Christians and everybody else has understood it for centuries) destroyed, as long as their idea of family — a collection of autonomous individuals who call themselves a family — becomes the rule.

Liberals don’t want to “destroy the family”; they just want to deprive it of the things it needs to thrive. It’s like this: I don’t want my wife’s plants to die while she’s out of town, but I don’t want to be bothered with giving them the water they need to survive. If she comes home and finds them dead, and accuses me of killing her plants, do you think it will do me much good to tell her, “Hey, settle down, it’s not like I wanted them to dry up!”?

To put it pointedly: when the act of defending the traditional family, however mildly and rationally, is to put your own job, your career, and your reputation at risk, and liberals stand by and permit you to be doxxed and destroyed for your “bigotry” — then yeah, they want to destroy the family. Stands to reason.

I wonder how long Tom Edsall would last in The New York Times newsroom if he marched into it, held up the Catholic Catechism, read aloud paragraph 2022:

A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family. This institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated.

and paragraph 2207:

The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.

.. and, having read those aloud, said solemnly, “This I believe.”

They would eat him alive. And that is why conservatives believe that many liberals want to destroy the family.

UPDATE: Oh man, University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox, who specializes in family studies, takes that Edsall column apart with the finesse of a sushi chef:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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