Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Eli Lehrer Headshot

The Big Social Changes Are the Ones We Ignore

Posted: Updated:

When, in the late 1970s, the momentum behind the proposed Equal Rights Amendment seemed unstoppable, a group of "new right" activists led by conservative populist Phyllis Schlafly offered dark warnings about it. The ERA, they said, would usher in a society where government-supported single-sex environments were illegal, gay marriage common, gays accepted in all social roles, unmarried men and women able to live together without approbation, premarital pregnancy (even for the children of conservative politicians) a fact of life, and women served in combat. The ERA, of course, failed. But with females now gaining access to the (almost) full range of combat roles in the military and the Boy Scouts making noises (and postponements) related to admitting gay people to leadership roles, every "dark" fantasy of the ERA's opponents has become a reality. And with the exception of the same-sex marriage (quickly gaining broader popular support) they just aren't a big deal for most people. And this, in turn, raises a broader point: legal policy changes that might appear "extreme" in one era are rarely -- if ever -- all that socially disruptive by the time the slow-turning wheels of American democracy actually allow them to take place. Instead, more evolutionary changes -- those that happen without laws or much notice at the time -- tend to have the greatest impact.

Sometimes, indeed, past social worries prove out the adage that the past is a foreign country. For example, through the early 1970s, many individuals -- including some who supported the Civil Rights movement -- resisted what they called "miscegenation." Even National Review -- which supported the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and taught conservatives to turn their back on haters -- printed articles and interviews that opposed interracial marriage. In 2010 an obscure, bigoted Justice of the Peace's refusal to perform an interracial marriage ceremony was extraordinary enough to become a national news story.

Many of the social changes that people think about the most at the time, in other words, aren't the biggest ones. This doesn't mean, of course, that all social changes are meaningless. For example, declining marriage amongst the poorer and less educated portion of the population as well as America's declining birth rate for almost everyone are major problems that deserve significant attention. Single-parent households are the main reason why poverty rates have moved in a narrow range for almost 40 years and declining birthrates explain many of the future problems with entitlement programs.

But, outside of some policy wonk circles -- Charles Murray and Jonathan Last have both written recent books dealing with those problems respectively -- there's little attention paid to them. The "pro-marriage" movement, at least until recently, has focused very largely on trying to prevent marriage between people of the same-sex. Whatever the merits of prohibiting gay marriage (and I think they're non-existent), its difficult to figure out how doing so strengthens or encourages a single heterosexual marriage. And most self-described pro-family activists focus, best as I can tell, on fighting pornography and limiting abortion. And this isn't much of an agenda: the first cause is pointless (ummm... the Internet exists) and the second one is, at best, a reasonably small part of any effort to encourage Americans to have more babies. Furthermore, the many changes that resulted in these broader trends are either overwhelmingly good ones (women's access to higher education and the workforce) or politically impossible to reverse (no fault divorce laws.)

Society is going to continue to change in any number of ways. Within a decade or two, opposition to civil gay marriage will almost certainly be considered an anachronism and few parents will give second thoughts to a son or daughter dating a member of the same-sex. But this isn't a big deal. In fact, the most important social trend going on right now is probably one that most of us haven't even noticed yet.