Get Married: An Interview with Brad Wilcox

Published April 11, 2024

Public Discourse

In today’s interview, author Brad Wilcox joins contributing editor Patrick Brown to discuss how marrying young can renew culture and form the foundation of a healthier culture. His book Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization was released last month.

Patrick T. Brown: Brad, thanks for joining Public Discourse—where you’ve published before—to talk about your new book. Let’s start with the bad news: we all know marriage is in decline, with many potential causes at play, from general economic forces to Hollywood-induced cultural changes to public policy decisions. If someone asked for an elevator-pitch-length ranking of the most important forces behind the diminution of marriage in American life, what would you tell them?

Brad Wilcox: I would focus on five dynamics, many of which have been championed by the elites who control the commanding heights of our culture, economy, and government: 

(1) Expressive individualism—the cultural orientation that tells us life is about living for the desires and projects of the self, rather than for family and community.

(2) Secularization—the decline of religious authority and practice in modern life, which has diminished the normative power of marriage and the social supports that sustain marriage.

(3) The rise of a post-industrial economy—especially the economic shifts that have disadvantaged non-college-educated men, making them less “marriageable,” that is, less likely to marry and more likely to divorce.

(4) Statism—the modern state’s tendency to supplant many of the functions and much of the authority once held by the family to the detriment of marriage (including “marriage penalties” that make marrying a bad financial deal for lower-income families). 

(5) Electronic opiates—Big Tech’s products have left too many young women anxious and depressed and too many young men bereft of drive and ambition, dynamics that undercut their capacity to forge good relationships. They also distract us from IRL (in real life) dating and investing in the relationships that matter most, including marriage and family.

To sum up, as I note in my book: 

Dominant elites have advanced ideas that devalue and demean marriage, cast aside the normative guardrails that forge strong families, passed laws that penalize marriage for the poor and working class, and superintended the rise of a new economy that benefits them but has put marriage and family life out of reach for millions of their fellow Americans. [But the] irony . . . is that the very group—our ruling class—that has sabotaged our most fundamental social institution has figured out ways to protect their own families even as marriage flounders in the nation at large. 

This, in part, is why a majority of educated and affluent Americans (ages eighteen to fifty-five) are married, whereas only a minority of poor and working-class Americans are married.

PTB: The title of your book is admirably blunt—Get Married. But the group for whom marriage has declined the most—namely, blue-collar Americans—are perhaps least likely to pick up a book by a sociologist from the University of Virginia. What’s the conversation you hope to kickstart with this work?

BW: It’s a great point. The erosion of a strong marriage culture starting in the 1960s initially had a disparate effect on the most vulnerable Americans. But the ongoing erosion of a strong marriage culture has been climbing up the class ladder into working- and middle-class communities since the 1980s. And now, as my book suggests, America’s retreat from marriage is beginning to affect even well-educated and affluent Americans, especially those who embrace a progressive orientation to life. What I mean is that it is not only working-class and poor Americans who are markedly less likely to marry but also more progressive-minded Americans.

So, my aim is to help revive the cachet of marriage among the elites who command the heights of the culture, along with other scholars like Brookings economist Melissa Kearney. To persuade politicians, Hollywood and Big Tech titans, educators, and social media influencers to shift their treatment of marriage not just in a more family-friendly direction, but in a more honest direction. And if mainstream elites prove unpersuadable, then I will work with insurgent elites in media, politics, education, and social media to find new ways to advance a family-friendly message to the American public.

Because the truth is that marriage is a path to financial security and happiness for most Americans. If this truth catches on in the hearts and minds of the general public, especially young adults, and marriage begins to gain greater cultural respect, everyone will benefit—including the least advantaged Americans.

PTB: There’s definitely a conversation happening now that feels different. In response, some left-leaning provocateurs have rolled their eyes at the idea that getting married is “defying the elites.” They point out, I think fairly, that college-educated Americans who skew left and make up a large share of what we might consider “the elite” do get married, and often more stably, than Americans without a college degree. What are they missing?

BW: I laughed when I saw this point making its rounds on Twitter. I’ve written a ton about elite marriages, so I know that elites, in their private lives, tend to get and stay married.

The problem is what they do in their public capacities as cultural, business, and political leaders. Our elites often “Talk Left, Walk Right” when it comes to marriage and family, privately embracing a marriage-minded way of life even as they deny the importance of marriage and the two-parent family in public. And there are now good polling data showing that no group of Americans is less marriage-friendly than college-educated liberals when it comes to their public attitudes.

The pushback was especially funny because the very people who objected to this phrase from the book’s title, like the journalist Matt Yglesias, were exactly the elites I was thinking about in writing the book. Yglesias famously wrote an article in Vox entitled “The ‘Decline’ of Marriage Isn’t a Problem.” Efforts by elites to deny, discount, or devalue the importance of marriage in the media, education, Hollywood, Capitol Hill, and even now, the C-Suite, are a big reason we have a marriage problem.

If our elites used their power to tell the truth about marriage—in schools, universities, media, pop culture, and on social media—we’d have a much healthier family culture. For anyone looking for recent evidence in support of my point that our elites often get behind ideas that are unfriendly to marriage, you only need to look at the recent push for polyamory, coming from seemingly everywhere, from the pages of the New York Times to the Peacock streaming service with its new show, “Couple to Throuple.” It’s like none of these cultural elites know anything about how open marriages fared in the ’70s.

To be fair, there are still glimmers of hope. Influenced by scholars like Kearney, no doubt, even Matt Yglesias has been more positive about marriage and the two-parent family of late. Let’s hope many more elites follow in Matt’s footsteps.

PTB: Part of this shift has to happen in academia as well. I think it’s safe to say you are one of, if not the, most prominent academic voice making an explicit case for marriage and family in the social sciences. As someone with conservative principles at an elite, left-leaning university, how have you seen the conversation around marriage change during your time doing academic work? Do you think the academy—and America—are more open to this message than they would have been in 2014 or 2004?

BW: Given its leftward tilt, the academy is generally not very favorable to a marriage-friendly argument. But because of the work and witness of Bill Galston at Maryland, Sara McLanahan at Princeton, and Isabel Sawhill at Brookings, in part, we saw a brief uptick in appreciation for marriage in the academy in the 1990s and early 2000s. Less so in recent years, as the academy has turned pretty hard to the left.

But Kearney’s new book, my book, and Rob Henderson’s new book, Troubled, are all helping to revive an appreciation for marriage in other precincts of the culture besides the academy. We’ve seen good pieces in mainstream media platforms—like The Atlantic and The Washington Post, for instance—on marriage, that suggest some new movement in a better direction in the media regarding our most important social institution. Let’s hope these books—and the work of civic and educational leaders like J. P. De Gance (president of Communio, a religious initiative to strengthen families) and Ian Rowe (founder of Vertex Partnership Academies)—will help paint an updated, more positive picture of marriage in the culture at large.

Moreover, think tanks like the American Enterprise InstituteEthics and Public Policy Center, and the Institute for Family Studies are now producing original empirical research on family-related topics. This research allows us to discover and publicize marriage findings that would otherwise be overlooked in the academy. So we’re less dependent on what is happening in the academy when it comes to conducting and publicizing marriage-related research.

PTB: There is, of course, a long tradition of conservative pundits and intellectuals arguing for a revivified culture of marriage, from Pat Moynihan to Dan Quayle to Rick Santorum and on down the list. But for the most part, they’ve failed to convince the primary vehicle for conservative policymaking, the Republican Party, to prioritize marriage and the family with something more than mere lip service. Are you optimistic or pessimistic that today’s conservative movement is willing to explore policy options other than the bully pulpit that could shore up marriage?

BW: This is a legitimate concern. We’re heading into a very uncertain political climate, both regarding the White House and the makeup of the House. It’s quite possible that the 2024 election will lead to a divided government again. Given all this, I’m not overly optimistic that we will make much headway on policies that would strengthen families in the near term. But, in principle, I’m supportive of policies that (a) financially reward, or at least stop penalizing, marriages, (b) make family life more affordable, (c) let families choose how to best raise their young children, (d) make it easier for parents to spend time with their kids, and (e) underline the value of marriage and parenthood to the general public, especially adolescents and young adults.

Accordingly, I would love for Congress and the states to minimize marriage penalties in means-tested programs like Medicaid, expand the child tax credit for working- and middle-class families, tackle housing costs, give families generous educational savings accounts, and underline the cultural value of marriage in schools and on social media by teaching the success sequence.

To be clear, government can only do so much to renew marriage and family life. It’s worth noting that family formation is falling in countries with very generous family policies, like Finland. So family policy is no panacea. But policy should at least aim to make marriage and childbearing more appealing and attainable to ordinary Americans.

PTB: Certainly policy can’t do it alone; culture plays a huge role as well. When you study the landscape, is there a particular state, region, city, or community that gives you hope that we can turn this thing around?

BW: There are new family policy pushes to strengthen marriage and family emerging in states like Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah: marriage initiatives, new policies on teens and tech, and fatherhood programs—some civic, some public. I am encouraged, for instance, by the work that Communio is doing to strengthen marriage and family ministries in Catholic and Protestant churches across America and the work that Governor Spencer Cox and the Utah legislature are doing to advance the Success Sequence and a range of other family-friendly laws. I am also impressed by what J. P. De Gance and Live the Life seem to have done in their marriage initiative in Jacksonville, Florida to bring down divorce rates there.

Finally, churches that have put a premium on encouraging dating and stressing the value of marriage to their teens and young adults seem to be doing better on the marriage front. St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, for instance, has seen weddings increase 50 percent in the last four years. I would attribute its success, in part, to how its Catholic Hoos ministry, which serves UVA students, has emphasized the vocation of marriage and the practical importance of dating to its students. And given the dramatic decline in dating across the culture that has affected even Latter-Day Saints, the BYU University system is also stepping up efforts to encourage dating among its Mormon students.

Let’s hope evaluations indicate that many of these policies and initiatives work. Otherwise, this nation is facing what I call the “Closing of the American Heart,” where record shares of young adults will never marry and/or never have children. Demographer Lyman Stone projects that, on the current course, as many as one in three young adults in the United States might never marry and as many as one in four will never have kids. That’s a lot of kinless Americans. Given the importance of marriage and family for what Jefferson called “the pursuit of happiness,” this would be a tragedy. So let’s find new ways to make it easier and more appealing for young adults to get married.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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