Bush's marriage-promotion initiative isn't new; it first appeared in the welfare reauthorization legislation passed by the House two years ago, which is now before the Senate and may come up for a vote as soon as this spring. Bush's $1.5 billion package, to be used to hire counselors and offer classes in marital harmony, extends the commitment contained in the 1996 welfare "reform" bill, passed under Clinton, to "end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting...marriage." Women and children, in other words, should depend on men for basic economic support, while women care for dependents--children, elderly parents, disabled family members, etc. Under such a model, married-couple households might "relieve" the state of the expense of helping to support single-parent households, and of the cost of a wide range of social services, from childcare and disability services to home nursing. Marriage thus becomes a privatization scheme: Individual married-couple-led households give women and children access to higher men's wages, and also "privately" provide many services once offered through social welfare agencies. More specifically, the unpaid labor of married women fills the gap created by government service cuts.
Besides being sexist and outdated, this model of marriage is not exactly realistic. Relatively few men today earn a "family wage," and employed married women are not able to care fully for dependents by themselves. Marriage promotion, moreover, has not proven an effective means of alleviating poverty and reducing the need for government benefits. But even without any measurable economic impact, the effort to promote marriage among low-income populations works at the rhetorical level to shift blame for economic hardship onto the marital practices of the poor rather than on the loss of jobs, employment benefits or government services.
Republicans and Democrats are by and large in agreement that as social programs are whittled away, gender-differentiated marriage (heterosexual, with different expectations for women and men) should take up the slack. Clinton's marriage-promoting welfare law embodied this principle, which also helps to explain the ambivalence of conservative and centrist Democrats toward genuine gender equality in marriage (illustrated in the retro discussion of the proper role of political wives in the current presidential campaign) and their opposition to gay marriage. So there is an economic agenda, as well as surface moralism, attached to calls for the preservation of traditional marriage. The campaign to save gendered marriage has some rational basis, for neoliberals in both parties, as a politics of privatization.
Unwilling to support gay marriage, defend Judith Steinberg's remote relation to her husband's now-defunct presidential campaign (though Laura Bush did so) or openly attack marriage promotion as public policy, the Democrats are left with lame advocacy of second-class status for gays, mandatory secondary supportive roles for political wives and public silence about welfare policy. No viable Democratic candidate has yet been able to shift the frame of reference to escape a weakly defensive posture on these issues. So it's left to progressives, both within the Democratic Party and outside it, to formulate a clear, positive vision of how best to address the needs of real households for state recognition and social support.
But progressives are divided, too, in their approach to marriage politics. The hateful campaign to exclude same-sex couples from full marriage rights creates tremendous pressure on gay-rights advocates and supporters to emphasize access to civil marriage as a core right of citizenship. A few marriage-equality advocates have continued to call for the multiplication of democratically accessible forms of state recognition for households and partnerships, and for the dethronement of sanctified marriage as privileged civic status, but many have couched their advocacy in language that glorifies marital bliss, sometimes echoing the "family values" rhetoric of their opponents. The "Roadmap to Equality: A Freedom to Marry Educational Guide," published by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Marriage Equality California, begins with the kind of banal American Dream rhetoric that appeals to some gay people, but misdescribes, annoys and even stigmatizes many others:
Gay people are very much like everyone else. They grow up, fall in love, form families and have children. They mow their lawns, shop for groceries and worry about making ends meet. They want good schools for their children, and security for their families as a whole.
The guide goes on to recycle some of the more noxious views routinely spouted by conservative moralists:
Denying marriage rights to lesbian and gay couples keeps them in a state of permanent adolescence.... Both legally and socially, married couples are held in greater esteem than unmarried couples because of the commitment they have made in a serious, public, legally enforceable manner. For lesbian and gay couples who wish to make that very same commitment, the very same option must be available. There is no other way for gay people to be fully equal to non-gay people.
No other way? How about abolishing state endorsement of the sanctified religious wedding or ending the use of the term "marriage" altogether (as lesbian and gay progressives and queer leftists have advocated for decades)? In a bid for equality, some gay groups are producing rhetoric that insults and marginalizes unmarried people, while promoting marriage in much the same terms as the welfare reformers use to stigmatize single-parent households, divorce and "out of wedlock" births. If pursued in this way, the drive for gay-marriage equality can undermine rather than support the broader movement for social justice and democratic diversity.