There are plenty of differences between a liberal and a conservative: One lives primarily in coastal cities and university towns, the other in rural and exurban areas; one is likely to be older, white and middle income; the other, more likely to be younger, a member of a sexual or ethnic minority, and either quite affluent or quite poor; one is a customer of Chick-fil-A and Spice House, while the other goes to Popeyes and Penzeys Spices.
But here’s one difference you may not have thought about: The conservative is more likely to be married.
Liberals do, of course, get married, and write joint checks to Greenpeace before strolling hand in hand to vote in the Democratic primary. Nonetheless, a new study from the Institute for Family Studies finds that there’s a surprisingly clear difference between conservatives and liberals when it comes to marriage: 62 precent of conservatives are married, compared with 39 percent of liberals and 46 percent of moderates. According to the study’s authors, conservatives are more likely to be married even when you control for relevant factors like age.
Two explanations might account for the gap: that married people are more likely to be conservative, or that conservatives are more likely to get married. In truth, there’s evidence for both propositions.
Families provide a certain amount of “social insurance,” someone to care for you if you’re sick, or provide backup income if you’re unemployed, or take care of the kids when you need to be elsewhere. If you don’t have those benefits, then you’ll look elsewhere for them; and today, “elsewhere” probably means the government. You’re also likely to be unfriendly to socially conservative messages that suggest you ought to be married.
Which explains why unmarried women are among the Democratic Party’s strongest constituencies, having gone for Hillary Clinton by 31 points over Donald Trump in 2016. And unmarried women with children are even more overwhelmingly Democratic; 74 precent of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008, long before Trump arrived, with news of his adult-film-star payoffs and bragging about molesting women.
But the IFS study also shows that conservatives do value marriage more than moderates or liberals. Among conservatives, 80 percent say marriage is needed to create strong families; among liberals, that figure is only 33 percent. It’s possible that the causation runs in the other direction — that conservatives congratulate themselves for a lifestyle they chose for other reasons — but it’s hard to imagine what those other reasons might be. No, it seems reasonable to assume that more conservatives get married because more conservatives think it’s important to be married, especially before having children.
In fact, conservatives think it’s so important that they’re panicking about the state of everyone else’s marriage. Conservatives are substantially more likely to say that they’re completely satisfied with their own family life; 52 percent say this, compared with 41 percent of liberals and moderates. But they’re about twice as likely as liberals to say that marriages in general are significantly weaker now than they were just a few years ago, which seems both unlikely and hard to prove.
It would be easy to make fun of conservatives for scaring themselves with dubious statistics. It may be slightly harder to accept that although they’re wrong about the details, conservatives are overwhelmingly right about the big picture: Marriage is incredibly important to both individual and societal health, and any society that loses sight of that truth is ultimately putting itself, and its members, in serious danger.
Researchers have found time and again that married people live longer, happier and more prosperous lives; and that although some of this may reflect the sort of people who get married, it also reflects an effect of marriage itself.
That’s especially clear when it comes to children. No government subsidy program, regardless of how generous, can substitute for the benefits of having two adults, not just one, focus their attention and resources on a child’s needs. The benefits are so strong, in fact, that they seem to generate spillover effects: A landmark study of economic mobility found that one of the strongest predictors of income mobility was growing up in a neighborhood with lots of two-parent families, even for a child being raised by a single parent.
All of this means that it’s entirely appropriate to be gravely worried when 40 precent of kids are born outside marriage. And when you realize that only a third of liberals, and half of moderates, think that marriage is vital to creating strong families, it’s time to panic about where America might be headed.
Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.