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December 16, 2013 1:05 PM Douthat’s Daughter Theory

By Ed Kilgore

Ross Douthat penned a clever column yesterday cobbling together some polling data and popular culture references in order to appeal to one of the great conservative memes: that upscale liberals will abandon their ideology in a Brooklyn Minute if their own interests are threatened. In this case, it’s upscale liberals with daughters who are being preyed upon by the shiftless, commitment-phobic men of the post-sexual revolution era. Douthat uses the title character in Adelle Waldman’s novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. to invent a new threat to liberal attitudes:

Waldman’s portrait of Nate’s romantic life is sympathetic enough to have earned her fan mail from young men. But it’s precisely because Nate is sympathetic rather than toxic that the “Nathaniel P.” phenomenon — or what Rebecca Traister has dubbed “the scourge of indecisive men” — is a hard problem to escape. Indeed, it seems like one of the hidden taproots of well-educated women’s work-life-balance angst, and one of the plausible explanations for declining female happiness in a world of expanded female opportunity.
And lurking in Waldman’s novel, as in many portraits of the dating scene (ahem, Lena Dunham, ahem), is a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name — or that can be spoken of only in half-jest, as when the novelist Benjamin Kunkel told Traister that the solution was “some sort of a sexual strike against just such men.”
Because Kunkel is right: One obvious solution to the Nathaniel P. problem is a romantic culture in which more is required of young men before the women in their lives will sleep with them.
To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation’s world through their children’s eyes, that’s an insight that’s more immediately available through daughters than through sons.
And no matter what the next study says about your likelihood of actually turning into a Republican, once you’ve flirted with that insight, you’ve tiptoed a little closer to something that might be described as social conservatism.

Now there’s some Olympic-quality crabwise maneuvering, eh? It seems from Douthat’s analysis that if you favor, say, the Affordable Care Act or legalized abortion you implicitly favor perpetual sex-without-commitment for young men. I must have missed that line in the Liberal Litmus Test last time I signed it.

Conversely, I don’t see a whole lot about the Republican (or for that matter, the “social conservative”) agenda that’s going to solve the problem of “Nathanial P.” Will deregulating Wall Street make him more interested in marrying and propagating? How about a war with Iran? Are SNAP benefits his kryptonite? And will taking away the reproductive rights of the women he exploits turn him around?

It may be true that having a daughter brings out strong paternalistic instincts in fathers, and in some cases that may be a good thing, but not something that requires state sanction or a political agenda. You’d think, in fact, empowering young women with as much control over their own destinies as we possibly can would be the most obvious way to give them leverage over men who want sex without responsibility. Douthat is careful not to make too many claims for his “Daughter Theory,” but the idea that parents tacitly yearn for a Daddy State to take away the moral risks in their daughter’s lives—presumably as an alternative to more material “liberal” types of support—has to be the least persuasive We’ll Bury You conservative pitch I’ve heard recently.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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