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[Published in The New Republic, Dec. 19, 1994]

TRB from Washington:
The Gay Divorce


I sense a disturbing trend in American political discourse: a decline since mid-November in the amount of time people spend dwelling on Newt Gingrich's various forms of hypocrisy. Maybe critics are heeding the counsel of liberal pundits who say that the post-election frenzy of Newt-bashing should give way to cool strategic reflection. "Isn't it time to get past the fulminations and examine why Mr. Gingrich drives his adversaries particularly insane?" asks a columnist in The New York Times. Another liberal writes, in Newsweek, "Apoplexy chokes reason. Whatever his excesses of intolerance, Gingrich is not the ostrich--the liberals are. Until they recognize that, they'll never get their heads out of the sand."

I'm all for figuring out why liberals came out on the wrong end of the November bloodbath. But surely one reason is that conservatives are so good at bludgeoning opponents to death. They have spent the past two years painting President Clinton as an unfit leader on grounds of private morality (Gennifer Flowers, etc.) and professional ethics (Whitewater). Now, as if heaven-sent, comes a Republican leader whose private and professional records stand in contempt of his professed ideology. And Democrats are supposed to just slap him around a little and then retire to the classroom for a seminar on his political genius? That's the sort of nerdy earnestness that got us in the mess we're in today! I say we beat the noxious little butterball to a pulp.

Admittedly, there's a limit to how often we can recite the litany of Gingrich hypocrisy (family values, special interests, Social Security, etc.) before people get bored. But each verse is rich enough to merit exegesis. This week we'll focus on family values.

Just before the election, Gingrich tried to turn Susan Smith's alleged murder of her two kids into a reason to vote Republican. Her crime "vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we have to change."

The Susan Smith tragedy is indeed symptomatic. Specifically, it's an extreme example of the social costs of divorce. I don't mean that divorced mothers often kill their kids to land a new husband. I mean that once kids lose their father, bad things can happen: they can go without paternal guidance; they can inherit a stepfather or live-in boyfriend who, because he's not biologically related, may not love them and may even neglect or abuse them; their mother, in seeking a new mate, can sacrifice their welfare (typically in ways more subtle than killing them). The general rule is that once the father leaves, various aspects of human nature work against the interests of the kids. This is the strongest single plank in the case for " family values."

Unfortunately, various aspects of human nature also work against lifelong monogamy. Some of these forces reside in women and some in men, but in the case of Gingrich's much-discussed divorce, the problem seems to have been the man. As readers familiar with my worldview will not be shocked to hear, we are about to enter a one-paragraph (and un-nuanced) digression on evolutionary psychology.

Men are by nature more polygamous than women; they are inclined to seek a series of young--that is, fertile--wives, whether simultaneously, like nineteenth-century Mormons, or sequentially, like Gingrich and (for example) Rush Limbaugh. The polygamous impulse seems to grow stronger when men acquire status or power. Indeed, according to evolutionary theory, the whole reason men seek status and power so ardently is that during evolution these assets led to more sex, and thus more offspring, for males in particular. So it's hardly surprising that, upon attaining power, men would feel an urge to expand their romantic horizons. Gingrich, at any rate, felt the urge.

As of 1978, his wife had labored long and hard on behalf of his mostly fruitless political career. That year, he finally won election to Congress and became a bigshot. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gingrich, who had borne him two children, was at the end of her reproductive years. In dumping her, Gingrich was admirably candid. He admitted, according to an aide, that he wanted a younger woman. The gruesome details are well known: the day after his wife had cancer surgery, Gingrich bounded into her hospital room to discuss the terms of divorce.

If the impulses to which Gingrich surrendered are indeed part of our evolutionary heritage, how are we to go about restoring family values? The anthropological record is not encouraging. Most truly monogamous societies have had no real alternative; they had subsistence economies, so men lacked the wealth to support more than one family. Today we live amid social stratification, including layers of considerable affluence; and the anthropological record shows that, given material abundance, polygamy usually flourishes. Indeed, polygamy is what we find today, albeit in the covert form that Gingrich practices: "serial monogamy."

Only a few monogamous societies have bucked the odds--made lifelong marital commitment standard, even amid affluence. How did they do it? Step one in the family values formula is to make divorce a scandal: to stigmatize men who leave their families. This was the approach in Victorian times and during their aftermath earlier this century. To put the matter in Darwinian terms: Victorianism used one visceral male impulse (the extreme thirst for social status) to combat another one (the thirst for multiple mates); you could slake one thirst or the other, not both. Thus, in a society with truly robust "family values," a man who traded in his wife for a younger model would stand roughly zero chance of retaining elective office. A night job at a 7-Eleven would be a more realistic aspiration. Apropos of the "sickness" symbolized by Susan Smith, Gingrich said, "People want to change, and the only way you get change is to vote Republican." Actually, the surest known way to get the change he's talking about is to vote against people like him.

Gingrich and his ilk prefer to stigmatize another class of people in the name of family values: young women, especially black ones, who have babies out of wedlock. Yet a woman's desire to have a child may feel just as " natural," and as strong, as Gingrich's seemingly irresistible wanderlust. And her desire won't necessarily vanish just because her milieu offers little hope of enduring male commitment. Humans are designed to make the best of bad situations.

Whether "family values" are worth the various costs of restoring them is a tough question, and I'm not sure of the answer. But if you're going to say yes--if you're going to advocate full-scale war against "moral decay," as Gingrich does--you have to understand that it will in some ways be a war against human nature, and that there will be widespread sacrifice and significant casualties. Casualty No. 1 would be Newt Gingrich's political career. Pity.