The political storm over marriage is now intensifying as gay couples wed in San Francisco and President Bush vows to stop them with a constitutional amendment. Gay marriage threatens to wreak havoc as a "wedge issue" in the November elections, but it isn't entirely clear which party's prospects will be promoted, and which damaged, through marriage politics this year. Progressives certainly haven't figured out how best to enter the contentious and confusing public debate. Widespread anxiety over changing demographics and contested social norms is producing the background noise for a relatively volatile political calculus on all sides.
If Britney Spears's high-speed annulment and the competitive gold-digging with a sucker punch on TV's Joe Millionaire are any indication, concern over the state of the marital union is justified. Statistics confirm what entertainment culture spectacularizes--marriage is less stable and central to the organization of American life than ever. There are now more unmarried households than married ones, and a variety of formal and informal, permanent and transient, solemn and casual partnership and kinship arrangements have displaced any singular, static model of domestic life. Political responses to these changes have long been polarized between those who want to bring back Ozzie and Harriet and those who are fighting for the democratization of state recognition of households, along with equitable distribution of services and benefits to Americans, based on how we actually live rather than on some imagined, lost ideal. But today, in part because of the public's own ambivalence, the major political parties have been reluctant to come down firmly on either side of this divide.
What is most vexing the political parties right now is same-sex marriage. The Republican electoral alliance is split on this issue. On the one hand, hard-line religious and moral conservatives have been working to rigidify the boundaries of "traditional" marriage and to shore up its privileged status. These groups are now pushing to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between "a man and a woman." On the other hand, libertarians, states' rights advocates and social moderates prefer to retain conventional gendered marriage but support allowing some diversification of forms of partnership and household recognition at the state level. They oppose a constitutional amendment as a federal imposition on the states, or as just too mean to help Republicans during an election year. The religious and moral right appears to be winning out in the wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's decision that the state must extend civil marriage to same-sex couples. Bush, however grudgingly, fulfilled his promise to the Christian right when he announced on February 24 that he will support a federal marriage amendment.
With their convention in Boston, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry the likely presidential nominee, Democrats will be fighting any "too liberal" charge associated with gay weddings by noting their opposition to same-sex marriage (the only remaining candidates who support it are Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich), while opposing a federal marriage amendment and emphasizing support for civil unions and domestic partnerships. Their carefully calibrated rhetoric will urge tolerance without questioning the supremacy of married, two-parent families. Indeed, the Bush Administration's recent proposal to spend $1.5 billion promoting marriage, "especially" among low-income populations, has not encountered energetic opposition from many Democrats, who have supported like-minded efforts in the past. Progressives, meanwhile, are struggling to articulate a small-d democratic politics of marriage that demands full equality for lesbians and gays without accepting the logic of the "family values" crowd.
It may be tempting to see this squabble as an example of symbolic politics, with the debate over the future of marriage potentially displacing bigger and more significant battles over war and peace, taxes and fairness, corporate greed and good government. But state regulation of households and partnerships does in fact affect the basic safety, prosperity, equality and welfare of all Americans--it determines who will make medical decisions for us in emergencies, who may share our pensions or Social Security benefits, who may legally co-parent our children and much more. It's just hard to sort out the real issues from the smokescreens as the rhetoric heats up this election year.
Moral conservatives have so far taken the lead in the struggle to frame the meaning of the "marriage crisis." In their apocalyptic imagination, the stability of heterosexual unions and the social order they insure are threatened on all sides--by the specter of gay marriage, by women's independent choices within and outside marriage, and by government neutrality, toleration or support of single-parent and unmarried households, especially among the poor. But wait! It gets worse: As Stanley Kurtz argued in The Weekly Standard last August, "Among the likeliest effects of gay marriage is to take us down a slippery slope to legalized polygamy and 'polyamory' (group marriage). Marriage will be transformed into a variety of relationship contracts, linking two, three, or more individuals (however weakly and temporarily) in every conceivable combination of male and female."
I'm not sure, given the rise of transgender activism, just how many combinations there are of male and female. But the dystopic vision is clear. Moral conservatives want to prevent courts and legislatures from opening a Pandora's box of legal options--a flexible menu of choices for forms of household and partnership recognition open to all citizens, depending on specific and varying needs. Such a menu would threaten the normative status of the nuclear family, undermining state endorsement of heterosexual privilege, the male "headed" household and "family values" moralism as social welfare policy.