As I drive through the nation’s capital, marijuana smoke wafts out of many car windows. In recent years, it has become the dominant aroma of the city. Hiding beneath this or that underpass, I glimpse tents surrounded by shopping carts filled with garbage bags, blankets, and cardboard. A ten or twelve-year-old boy burdened with a heavy backpack crosses the street as I wait at a stop light. He’s holding the hands of two much younger boys — hurriedly escorting younger cousins or siblings to their elementary school. While the day’s news draws my attention to more elite concerns — the rise and fall of candidates, impeachment proceedings — like many Americans, I regularly witness drug addiction, poverty, and familial collapse.
Our political theatre often fails to connect with such political realities on the ground. One reason for that is that our politics have mostly centered on individual rights claims, or on the claims of commercial interests. Washington is filled with lobbyists that look out for commercial interests, and filled with liberals who want to use state power to invent ever-new rights around ever-changing identities. Both represent politics of detachment, and that fits the kind of detachment we have witnessed at the heart of American society in the family.
The family has been weakened over decades by myriad factors — not just by court decisions about divorce, contraception, abortion, and the neutering of marriage, but also by the demand for the two-income family. It has been weakened by the politics of the individual and commercial interests, both of which have rarely risen above a concern for individual liberty or corporate profits — that applies equally to both political parties. Through the din of those divisions, there remains, however, falling fertility rates, and the failure of a generation to form strong bonds of marriage and family. And this concern has largely fallen to conservatives.
This is not to say that it’s only conservatives who care about the family, as Thomas Edsell fretted at The New York Times recently. Liberals do care about the family. As Rachel Lu observes, echoing Edsell’s complaint, “Sociologists go to Trump country if they want to study family breakdown. Meanwhile, tony upper-middle-class progressives are marrying, buying adorable craftsman bungalows, and raising highly accomplished children.” It’s not that elite liberals don’t care about the family, it’s the fact that their view of marriage doesn’t really help most American families. The “capstone marriage” which enables successful individuals to enter into a marriage contract as a luxury good does not work for the boys who cross the street together on my way to work in the morning through the mists of marijuana any more than it helps the collapse of red state families.
Our political disconnection from realities on the ground are rooted in a disconnection in how we, as a society, have come to think about the family as the basis of our political life. Our politics have become anti-political to the extent that they have preferred to orient policies around the individual and corporate interest, rather than familial interest.
As Pope Benedict XVI said in Caritas in Veritate, “States are called to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs.” This is not to suggest an all-encompassing welfare state. The principle of subsidiarity can guard a politics of the common good against that. What it does suggest is that American politics will continue to be disconnected from political realities on the ground so long as it works with a deracinated view of marriage that works only on the logic of individuals who attain the ends of the market in order to find meaningful human bonds which generate the life that is the wellspring of a nation.
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