Can Gay Wedlock Break Political Gridlock?

David Blankenhorn, Washington Monthly, 2/23/2015

Suddenly, it's in both parties' interests to fight the broader decline of marriage. Here's the case for a "marriage opportunity" agenda.

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Subjects: Marriage, Gay marriage

More by: David Blankenhorn

Make marriage achievable for all who seek it.At this moment in our country’s history, reducing legal, social, and economic barriers to marriage has become something America must do. It is also something the country can do—together, in a way that has not been possible before. For the couples who seek it and for the nation as a whole, marriage is fundamental. Marriage creates family and strengthens social bonds. It’s a wealth-producing institution. It’s almost certainly society’s most pro-child institution. Warts and all, it’s today’s best bet if you are seeking faithfulness and lasting love. But American marriage today is becoming a class-based and class-propagating institution. In upscale America, marriage is thriving: most people marry, fewer than 10 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers, and most children grow up through age eighteen living with their two married parents. Among the more privileged, marriage clearly functions as a wealth-producing arrangement, a source of happiness over time, and a benefit to children. But for millions of middle- and lower-class Americans, marriage is increasingly beyond reach, creating more fractured and difficult family lives, more economic insecurity for single parents, less social mobility for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, more childhood stress, and a fraying of our common culture. This growing class-based marriage divide threatens all of us. It endangers the very foundations of a broadly middle-class society. Such a core fracturing of our civil society surely calls for—but has not yet received—sustained national attention and commitment to reform. Why? Much of the explanation is that for nearly fifty years marriage has been a source of deep cultural conflict in our society. Since the 1960s, the nation has argued almost continuously over the worth of marriage and engaged in a series of polarizing culture wars over the institution’s relationship to family formation and stability, racial equality, women’s rights, traditional family values, and, most recently, the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry. But now, particularly as the legal and social barriers to gay marriage come down, we have reached a moment when we may finally be able to change course. Today we have a remarkable and perhaps even unique opportunity to think anew about the meaning and role of marriage and to come together as a nation to address the growing class divide in American marriage. Everyone should have the opportunity to marry: that is a cultural message that gay marriage has sent. It is a broadly inclusive message, and it is the message that America needs to hear, whether the issue is sexual orientation or social class. In addition, scholars and leaders from across the political spectrum are in growing agreement on the importance of marriage in both promoting social mobility and improving children’s well-being. For these reasons, we believe that today the broad theme of marriage opportunity can help give birth to a new pro-marriage coalition that transcends the old divisions. Liberals fighting for social justice and economic opportunity are now called by the logic of their values to help extend the advantages of marriage to low- and middle-income couples who seek it for themselves, much as they fought to help gay Americans attain the right to marry. Conservatives fighting for social stability and stronger families can now, based on the logic of their deepest values, recognize gays and lesbians who seek the same family values. Gays and lesbians who are winning marriage for themselves can also help to lead the nation as a whole to a new embrace of marriage’s promise. In short, for the first time in decades, Americans have an opportunity to think about marriage in a way that brings us together rather than drives us apart. What for most of our lives has been a culture war can now become a common cause. Fifty years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, issued a report on the deterioration of the black family that soon became both famous and notorious. He noted that out-of-wedlock childbearing was at the then-astronomical rate of 25 percent among black Americans, and he famously concluded that the result in affected communities would be “chaos.” Moynihan wrote out of a real concern for the well-being of African Americans, but the report set off a backlash that lasted a generation. Many people interpreted the report as an attack on African American communities, on family diversity, or both. It turned out that out-of-wedlock childbearing among African Americans was a harbinger of what would happen later among whites. By 1995, the percentage of white children born out of wedlock surpassed the African American rate that had so alarmed Moynihan in 1965. Today more than 40 percent of all American children are born out of wedlock. In the 1970s, another wave of controversy began: religious conservatives and others sounded public alarms about divorce, single parenthood, and other worrisome indicators. They perceived that family norms were breaking down, and they were right to see something amiss, but the norms they promoted made no room for gay and lesbian Americans and at times seemed at odds with the growing social and economic independence of women. Already interpreted by many as an attack on blacks, pro-family advocacy now picked up additional baggage as an attack on gay rights and feminism. The result was to set up a long conflict in which personal freedom and civic equality were seen as being fundamentally at odds with family stability and traditional norms. Even as the so-called “family values” debates raged in the popular culture, many family scholars were quietly finding empirical support for the proposition that family structure matters. In the 1980s and 1990s, they noted the importance of fathers, the disadvantages of divorce and single parenthood, and the independent economic and social value of marriage. This emerging consensus, however, was swamped by yet a third wave of controversy: in the 1990s, the gay marriage debate emerged and seemingly swept all other family issues off the agenda. For two generations, then, those who favored women’s equality and gay rights went hammer and tongs against those who favored traditional values such as durable, child-centered marriage. For two generations, Americans took for granted that marriage would be a subject of pitched battle. It seemed almost as if, where issues concerning marriage and family were concerned, America was capable of nothing but endless conflict. That has changed. Events of the past few years have turned the old culture war assumptions upside-down. If there ever was a conflict between social equality and family values, it is over. Even as it was igniting political firefights around the country, the gay marriage movement was quietly bringing about a cultural realignment. Gays and lesbians emerged as champions of marriage—something unimaginable when the Moral Majority entered the scene in the 1970s. They also emerged as parents, embracing the premises and practices that put children’s interests at the center of adults’ relationships and communities’ purposes.

This article originally appeared here.


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