Has conservatism just been punked? Not intentionally, no. But it might as well have been.
The New York Times caught heck for its story a couple of weeks ago about Marco Rubio's driving habits. Even Jon Stewart, who typically lampoons right-wingers, ripped the newspaper for its coverage—and for good reason. Out of the 17 traffic tickets Rubio and his wife, Jeanette, have racked up during the past two decades, only four of them were his.
Roping in his wife's driving record helped inflate the numbers to make the insignificant story seem at least marginally worth reporting. But it also invited easy parody by conservatives, who noted that, "taken together," Rubio and Pontius Pilate were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—and that, between them, Rubio and Colombia are responsible for most of the world's cocaine production.
Funny stuff—but it drives home a point many conservatives would, in different circumstances, prefer to dispute.
It is an article of sometimes literal faith among social conservatives that the family, rather than the individual, is "the basic unit of society." Republicans said so in their 2008 party platform. In 2012 they called the family the "foundation of our society."
Social-conservative candidates repeatedly stress the point; Rick Santorum wrote an entire book on the subject. Last month, columnist David Brooks even went so far as to argue the "notion that society is made up of individuals" is "false" and "illusory."
All right. But if this is the case, then why all the pushback against the Times story? Why the insistence that Jeanette Rubio's driving record should not be conflated with Marco's, let alone held against him? If the family, not the individual, is the basic social unit, then it's perfectly fair to judge the Rubios collectively, rather than as individuals.
Yet those who stuck up for Rubio argued just the opposite. They wanted people to judge the Rubios' driving habits strictly on his record, not as a family's.
This has happened before. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell wrote a master's thesis on "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade." In it, he condemned "the self-centeredness of modern individualism" and lamented how the Supreme Court has "created a view of liberty based on radical individualism." Marriage is not just a tenuous contractual relationship between autonomous individuals, he insisted. It is a "covenantal bond of commitment."
Yet when McDonnell found himself entangled in a scandal for taking gifts, he tried to dodge responsibility by blaming his wife and daughter. A dietary supplement pitchman seeking state help for his business gave the family, among many other things, $15,000 to help pay for the wedding of McDonnell's daughter Cailin. McDonnell said in a radio interview that he had no part of it. "The decision really ultimately was my daughter's," he said.
"My daughter indicated that she wanted to pay for the wedding. She and her husband had come to us early and told us what they wanted to do and how they wanted to handle things. And I signed the initial … contract, I initialed it. She asked me to do that. I didn't want her to pay for her wedding. And, ah, this is something that was important to her." So it wasn't a family deal. They were just a couple of autonomous individuals held together by only tenuous bonds.
That's certainly how the authorities saw it. They indicted, and eventually convicted, McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. But they convicted them as individuals, not as pieces of a larger family whole.
Which is appropriate, because that is how the rest of society operates. When people vote, they don't cast family ballots; they cast individual ones. When a company hires a new employee, it hires an individual—not an entire family. Individuals, not families, go to prison for committing crimes; individuals, not families, get college degrees and credit cards and Social Security numbers and summonses to serve on juries. All those social arrangements refute the notion that the family is the basic unit of society.
And even if they did not refute it, simple logic would. You can break apart families, take the individual parts, and combine them to form new families. You also can take the individual parts of families and combine them to create other small societies: bowling leagues, Kiwanis clubs, elementary schools, armies and so on.
Bowling leagues, armies, and other social groups can be formed quite easily using only individuals. They can't be formed at all using any unit smaller than the individual person. An elementary school composed only of pieces of individuals, such as torsos and big toes, probably would have a hard time meeting standardized-test benchmarks.
None of this means families are superfluous to society. They're essential, and societies that have tried to pretend otherwise (such as Bolshevik Russia and Israeli kibbutzes) have failed miserably. But essential is not synonymous with fundamental. That's a lesson conservatives shouldn't find too hard to swallow. Just ask Marco Rubio.