Apocalypse Now

Wendy Sullivan thinks society’s impending collapse is self-evident. This isn’t an uncommon sentiment among social conservatives, but I think it’s worth noting that things are never quite as bad as they seem. Here, for example, is a good summary of a Contentions article from a few years back on so-called “leading social indicators” – crime, divorce, and abortion rates, among others – and their prognosis for American society. Money quote:

But a strange thing has happened. Just when it seemed as if the storm clouds were about to burst, they began to part. And now, a decade and a half after these dire warnings, improvements are visible in the vast majority of social indicators; in some areas, like crime and welfare, the progress has the dimensions of a sea change.

According to the National Crime Victimisation Survey (NCVS), the rates of both violent and property crime fell sharply between 1993 and 2005, reaching their lowest levels since 1973 (the first year for which data is available). Teenage drug use, which moved relentlessly upward throughout the 1990s, declined thereafter by an impressive 23 per cent. In welfare, since the high-water mark of 1994, the national caseload has declined by over 60 per cent. Abortion, too, is down. After reaching a high of over 1.6m in 1990, the number of abortions each year in the US has dropped to fewer than 1.3m, a level not seen since the supreme court’s 1973 decision to legalise the practice. The divorce rate, meanwhile, is at its lowest level since 1970. The high school dropout rate, under 10 per cent, is at a 30-year low, and the mean SAT score was 8 points higher in 2005 than in 1993.

The authors are also unable to identify a causal link between the erosion of traditional two-parent families and broader social problems:

Murray may well have been correct about the importance of illegitimacy. But he—and not he alone—seems to have been incorrect that it would drive everything else. Over the past 15 years, on balance, the American family has indeed grown weaker—but almost every other social indicator has improved. Murray’s dictum could still be borne out; in time, the explosion of illegitimacy might undo the signs of healthy cultural revival we have charted. Or it may be that the broad improvement in cultural attitudes will in time cast its benefits upon the family as well, helping to curb the seemingly inexorable growth of illegitimacy.

This gets at something I tried to grapple with during the same-sex marriage debate a few days back. Due deference to tradition and culture is one thing, but society is both incredibly fluid and surprisingly resilient. Instead of fighting organic social change, conservatives should find ways to accomodate themselves to new circumstances. For some, this means embracing a “Benedict Option” and withdrawing from society altogether, but most should be able to adopt a workable modus vivendi within an increasingly diverse, tolerant community.

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Filed under Conservatism, Culture

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