Now that around 12 million Americans seem poised to win the right to marry, is a consensus, at last, emerging?A group of centrist scholars and politicians hopes so, and have launched the Marriage Opportunity Council to move past the issue of same-sex marriage in order to promote marriage, period.
The initiative is co-directed by David Blankenhorn, one of the leaders of the “traditional marriage” movement until his about-face in 2012, and Jonathan Rauch, a fellow at the Brookings Institute who recently published a memoir of growing up gay. Its purpose is, implicitly, to get past the divisive issue of same-sex marriage (soon to be a fait accompli) and work toward policies that promote marriage in general, which is increasingly becoming a class-based phenomenon, imperiling working-class families.In a sense, this new initiative is but the latest step in Blankenhorn’s efforts to forge a bipartisan coalition on marriage. In 2013, for example, his organization, the Institute for American Values, issued a “call for a new conversation on marriage,” signed by 74 activists and scholars from across the political spectrum.Many of those same names—John Podhoretz on the right, Michael Ignatieff on the left—are among the 103 signing today’s public statement. Joining them are a number of figures from what’s left of the American center: conservative Democrats like Will Marshall, moderate Republicans like Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), independents like Amitai Etzioni.The question is whether anyone is listening. The initiative’s press release strikes a hopeful tone: “Once seemingly at odds, the pro-family and pro-equality agendas have converged, because improving marriage opportunity and improving economic and social opportunity go hand in hand.”This is certainly true on paper. But “pro-family” is one of those terms which, unfortunately, has been co-opted by social conservatives. Ostensibly, of course, pro-family should mean pro-all-families. But just as “pro-life” means anti-abortion but not necessarily pro-preschool, so too “pro-family” is an ideology tainted by history.This is not new. All the way back in 1996, Lou Reed asked, “In the name of family values, we must ask, whose family, Senator?”“Pro-equality” carries specific connotations too. As a liberal value, it means civil equality, legal equality, and, often, policies that promote economic equality, even if they restrict the liberty of corporations, the wealthy, and others. Conservatives are as chary of it as liberals are of “pro-family.”Which, of course, is why the Marriage Opportunity Council is trying to take back both terms and find common ground in the middle—if there is any.If it helps, they do have truth—the real kind, with data—on their side. Conservatives may like marriage for moral reasons, but progressives should like it for economic ones. Marriage is, as the group’s statement says, “a wealth-producing institution.” It tends to improve earning power (by promoting stability), pool resources, and better support children’s economic and social needs.And yet, there is now a “marriage gap” in America, tracking vectors of race and class. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among African Americans is 70 percent, whites 41 percent, and 96 percent for babies born to African-American high school dropouts.And, as of 2011, if you’re born to a woman with a college education, chances are over 90 percent she’s married. If you’re born to a woman without one, chances are only 50-50.So, if it is the case that marriage brings benefits of economic and social stability, then progressives should be worried that precisely those in need of such benefits are the least likely to receive them.Incidentally, these statistics do belie conservative claims that feminism and liberalism are bad for marriage. In fact, the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be feminist/pro-gay, and the more likely you are to get married. So much for Pat Robertson’s claim that “the feminist agenda… encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."Will the “marriage middle” have an impact? Only time will tell—but I’m skeptical. And the reason is the partisan disproportion of the radicals.On the Left, the anti-marriage crowd exists, but is small. More radical thinkers including Nancy Polikoff, Dean Spade, Lisa Duggan, and Katherine Franke, have charged that marriage, as an institution, is patriarchal, sexist, and primarily a form of state control of people’s bodies. This critique has often appeared in the form of attacks on the LGBT mainstream, and its focus on marriage as opposed to deeper values of sexual liberation and social justice. But in principle, it is a critique of marriage of all kinds.Yet it is also a critique confined to the Nader/Kucinich/maybe-Elizabeth-Warren faction of the Left—a faction, but not a large one, and one that has never won a national election (wingnuts’ claims about Obama notwithstanding). True, liberals tend to focus more on structural inequality than beneficent social forms like marriage, but one doubts that many would oppose family stability among the working poor.On the Right, however, the anti-marriage-for-everyone crowd remains large and influential. Social conservatives make up 48 percent of Republicans, and over half the Tea Party. As we’ve seen already, Republican presidential candidates must trip over themselves to pander to this base in the primary, only to move back to the center come the general election. While it might cost a Democrat five percentage points to sign onto the “Marriage Opportunity” movement, it could cost a Republican his political life.Perhaps Marriage Opportunity Coalition could provide cover for moderate Republicans, if any still exist. Its public statement says that, “We, like other Americans, continue to hold diverse views on gay marriage, but we come together to acknowledge that it is here to stay and to emphasize and enhance the good that it can do.”In other words, we’ve lost and let’s move on.Is that enough cover for a Republican looking to avoid carping about gay marriage, which, after all, is beloved of social conservatives but a loser in the mainstream? Who knows. So far, no Republican leaders have tried.Like many good ideas—entitlement reform, reasonable fiscal conservatism, a balance between security hawks and doves—marriage opportunity may be the right answer that no one wants to hear. And as usual, those who lose the most are those who have lost the most so far.