The marriage movement has failed (long live the marriage movement), Blankenhorn edition

I don’t know David Blankenhorn, so I can’t really judge whether he’s still a hypocritical opportunist or he’s really transformed into a half-evolved pseudo-moderate. But it doesn’t matter; his movement has failed. Even if he manages to get his fundraising sea-legs back under him again, nothing substantive will come of it.

I will get to the new Blankenhorn treatise in Washington Monthly. (They retitled his essay from the pompous, “Marriage Opportunity: The Moment for National Action” — as it appears on his website — to the more topical but deeply ridiculous, “Can Gay Wedlock Break Political Gridlock?“) But first, at the risk of contributing to Blankenhorn Declaration Fatigue, I start with a little background. You can skip right to the part about the new essay, or, after reading the background, just stop reading because it doesn’t matter what he says anymore. Or read the whole thing.

Blankenhorn’s lost long decade

Blankenhorn likes to collect signatories for statements of bold blandness, conservative feel-goodism dressed up as high-minded Moments of Clarity and Reason under the mantle of his Institute for American Values (IAV). The 2000 pamphlet, “The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles,” declared “something new: a grassroots movement to strengthen marriage,” which embraced the notion that “a healthy marriage culture benefits every citizen in the United States” (including, oddly, “gay or straight” Americans, whose right to marry Blankenhorn spent the next decade or so viciously opposing), and pledged to “turn the tide on marriage” in the 2000s. In the decade that followed, the decline in marriage rates accelerated in every state except North Dakota (here color-coded by common political convention):

The “marriage movement” has been a disastrous failure — in terms of its stated goals — as I discuss below. For Blankenhorn, the nadir was his 2010 humiliation by Federal Judge Vaughn Walker in California’s Proposition 8 case (Perry v. Schwarzenegger). The would-be intellectual leader of a cultural revival, and the author of several books, was disqualified as an expert in the losing cause, having provided, “inadmissible opinion testimony that should be given essentially no weight.” Under scrutiny, it was clear his expertise was limited to making moral proclamations.

At the time of his Proposition 8 disqualification, Blankenhorn and then-ally Maggie Gallagher were also part of the team assembled by the Heritage Foundation to motivate a research program showing the harms caused to children by same-sex couples, described here. Along with Brad Wilcox, Joe Price, and David Allen — who all contributed research — they launched what became the discredited Regnerus study. As with the general goal of “turning the tide on marriage,” this too was a spectacular failure, as the research was discounted or dismissed by one court after another.

But achieving one’s stated goals is not the measure of success in right-wing foundation land, where billionaires heat their tax shelters with burning cash and millionaires exchange bloated salaries in the service of ideological reproduction. The bottom line is always the same — protect the wealth of the very rich, and distract the public. The social issues are mostly details — marriage, thrift, religion, guns, and so on — although occasionally inflamed by a confused crusader for one random cause or another. And of course, at whatever effective tax rate they’re avoiding, the money they’re burning is yours.

Anyway, fortunately for Blankenhorn (and his staff, including his wife, Raina) the United States had a devastating financial collapse in 2008. Early funding from Templeton positioned him to take advantage of the crisis, leveraging the disaster to waste something like $9 million of right-wing foundation money on the issue of “thrift.” (These details are from my non-expert analysis of the foundations’ tax-exempt IRS 990 forms.) To distract Americans from the crimes of the rich, foundations like Templeton and Bradley decided to pollute the public square with the idea that what we really need to fix is Americans’ culture of personal saving. The reforms IAV proposed included promoting small loans, opposing gambling, and teaching children good behavior — and of course marriage. As far as I can tell, the result was some books and pamphlets. (You no-doubt missed their 2012 pamphlet, “An American Declaration on Government and Gambling,” produced by IAV on behalf of a failing organization run by right-wing church types called Stop Predatory Gambling, whose board includes Barrett Duke; they were shellacked in the Massachusetts anti-gaming ballot measure last November.)

In the thrift era, times were good: funding from Bradley and Templeton brought David and Raina’s combined IAV salaries to a peak above $400,000. When those grants ran out, they took a 25% pay cut (along with Barbara Defoe Whitehead, who was demoted from “Director of Thrift” to just “Director” as her pay was cut from $110,000 to $82,000):

iav finances.xlsx

Toward a new treatise

After the California humiliation, Blankenhorn — with his (then) deputy, Elizabeth Marquardt* — attempted a soft pivot on gay marriage. In 2012 they spoke out against a ballot measure in North Carolina that would have banned same-sex civil unions as well as marriage, saying it went “too far” in the direction of bigotry, instead of merely barring gays and lesbians from equal status in marriage (in keeping with his string of losses, voters approved the measure 61% to 39%, but it was later found unconstitutional). That led to yet another declaration, this one called “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” launched with 75 signatories in early 2013. They called marriage “society’s most pro-child institution” — versus unspecific contenders. (Presumably because they were still billing Templeton for the thrift work, they also called “marriage and thrift,” “the two great engines of the
American middle class since the nation’s founding.”) They wrote:

The new conversation does not presuppose or require agreement on gay marriage, but it does ask a new question. The current question is: “Should gays marry?” The new question is: “Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?”

With the Regnerus scandal, creeping court decisions for marriage equality, and shifts in public opinion in favor of gay marriage, the family right was unraveling. Maggie Gallagher, who claims to have co-written the 2000 Statement of Principles, was furious. Not only had Blankenhorn dropped opposition to gay marriage, he had stopped referring to the gender of spouses in his descriptions of how awesome marriage is.

Unlike Blankenhorn, Gallagher and her National Organization for Marriage have a track record of political victories with American voters — that these measures that turn out to be unconstitutional merely fuels their outrage. Whether Blankenhorn is successful in his attempt to outflank his former comrades — to rejuvenate his flagging income stream — remains to be seen. Whether he will be successful in changing “the culture” is obvious.

Agenda, rewarmed

The Washington Monthly piece is bylined David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. I’m treating it like a Blankenhorn production, but correct me if I’m wrong. (Galston and Rauch are at Brookings, Whitehead works at IAV; the full list of Marriage Opportunity Council members is here.)

The new headline makes it about gay marriage, but that’s really a cheap political and rhetorical device, a little taunting for those marriage equality advocates who were always afraid the movement would lead to marriage promotion. I’ll get back to that.

Recall that, in 2000, the story of marriage decline was mostly about cultural change, caused by:

…increases in intimacy expectations, greater social approval of alternatives to marriage, the greater economic independence of women, “no-fault” divorce reform, the rise in social insurance programs that make individuals less dependent on families, the expansion of market and consumer mores into family life, and lesser social supports and pressures to get and stay married from family, friends, professionals, churches, business, and government.

The problem then was young people “translating attitudes into action” and rushing into cohabitation. Now, they say, we need to “reduc[e] legal, social, and economic barriers to marriage.” In 2000 there was no mention of barriers, it was all cultural decay.

The attempt at progressive coöptation comes in the admission that “for millions of middle- and lower-class Americans, marriage is increasingly beyond reach.” In the face of barriers, they embrace “marriage opportunity” as the concept that “can help give birth to a new pro-marriage coalition that transcends the old divisions.”

as it becomes increasingly clear that aspirations to family formation are being stymied by wage stagnation and disappointing job prospects among working-class and less-educated men, conservatives are coming to realize that they need to be concerned about economic and labor market bottlenecks that reduce men’s employability, damage their marriageability, and help drive the cycle of family decline. To be sure, important non-economic factors are also at work. But the increasingly dire situation of less-skilled men in the marriage market and in the labor market implies that no amount of moral suasion can, by itself, restore a marriage culture among the less privileged. Improving the economic prospects of the less educated, especially men, is vital.

Despite the bologna sprinkles, this concession is a testament to the effectiveness of the political agitation around economic inequality after the shock of the economic crisis. The reason this seems unlikely to generate a truly unifying coalition is that they revert straight back to the story of declining marriage causing social collapse. The decline of marriage is:

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.

But none of these need to be consequences of declining marriage. Under a decent welfare state, which equalized resources, mitigated risks, and created shared responsibility for children’s well-being — in other words, created conditions more like those rich single parents can achieve today — such dire consequences would be prevented. The lesson of economic hardship and insecurity undermining marriage isn’t that we need to fix those things so that people can be married — it’s that we need to fix those things so that people can move through the stages of their lives with a sense of confidence and self efficacy.

Blankenhorn has not shaken his old scaremongering and Moynihan-esque sky-is-fallingism about marriage. For children, single parenthood is “trapping them in a multigenerational cycle of poverty or family instability”; for adults, singledom is sapping their productivity; for communities, low marriage rates are “depriving them of role models and support networks.” Then there’s the pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo that got Blankenhorn’s testimony thrown out of the California case, unfalsifiable pronouncements that amount to, “marriage is super special!”

Marriage draws its strength from broadly shared assumptions and values. Its unmatched power to bind families together, over time and through hardship, stems from its standing as a social norm, not just a legal status. It needs the social legitimacy and broad cultural buy-in that come, in America, from being a realistic aspiration of the many, not just a privilege of the few.

You lost me at the idea that there is a thing called “marriage” that has a level of “strength.” At, “the two-parent married family [is] a touchstone of America’s economic and moral vitality,” sociological readers may be scratching their heads and mumbling, “Parsons…?” This kind of polemic — not current academic research — is why we still teach “functionalism” in introductory sociology courses.

Like a state-of-the-union speech, this essay has nods to the important political donors and constituencies it hopes to appease. For the marriage promotion community — many of whom are still getting their bills paid by repossessed welfare money — they offer this bit of polite nonsense:

…notwithstanding the valuable and encouraging work of many leaders, there are currently few (if any) major policy or program interventions that have been clearly demonstrated by independent evaluations to be effective over time in areas such as improving marriage rates and improving marital quality and stability. This fact is not surprising, given both the complexity of the challenge and the still-early stage of the national policy response, and it should certainly not discourage us. But it should cause us to favor an approach to reform that is experimental, non-doctrinaire, and sensitive to emerging evidence and unfamiliar ideas.

No. The research is clear: they wasted more than a billion dollars of single mothers’ welfare money for nothing.

The policy suggestions that follow are a combination of platitudes and existing ideas that are all good or not good independent of their effect on marriage, so there is no need to review them here.

Dress that umbrage

The “grassroots movement to strengthen marriage,” which Blankenhorn claimed credit for in 2000, has failed. Demographically the results are in. Politically, too. Gay marriage won as the gays-are-bad-for-kids research was discredited and exposed as a conspiracy of bigots. (It’s no wonder Blankenhorn whines, “it is not necessary for anyone to recant old positions, confess sins, or re-litigate old debates.”) Blankenhorn and his allies kicked millions of poor families off welfare in the name of marriage promotion — that drove women to work, but did nothing for marriage. They tried slashing sex education and promoting virginity pledges, with no results. Even the Catholic Church is backpedaling on divorce.

This drubbing by the forces of history leaves Blankenhorn et al. struggling to conceal the bitter and defensive underbelly to their upbeat populism. To dress their umbrage in magnanimity, they offer a smarmy, conditional embrace to gays and lesbians — one they think also puts progressives generally in a bind:

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. … 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.

Two things about this. First, guess what? Gay men and lesbians are not a political party. Some are “pro-marriage” and some aren’t — even though almost all support the right to marriage. Some will join the marriage movement that once shunned and demonized them, and some will be progressive. Second, when have “liberals fighting for social justice and economic opportunity” ever opposed “extend[ing] the advantages of marriage to low- and middle-income couples who seek it for themselves”? What “logic of their values” requires a change on this issue?

I would like to extend to poor people the advantages of not being poor. As I wrote here:

Reducing the hardships associated with single parenthood is not a complicated proposition. The failure of basic needs provision for poor families is so stark that virtually any intervention seems likely to improve their wellbeing. Among single-mother families, more than one-in-three report each of food hardship, healthcare hardship, and bill-paying hardship in the previous year. Poor families, especially those with a single parent, need more money, which may come from a (better-paying) job, an income subsidy, or in-kind support such as food support.

In the absence of providing the obvious — and uncomplicated — support necessary for poor families to rise to a level of subsistence and security adequate to establish a basic command over their own futures, political or cultural intervention on the marriage front is deeply patronizing and morally offensive. Despite a welcome recognition of existing economic constraints, Blankenhorn’s “new pro-marriage coalition that transcends the old divisions” ultimately extends the existing practice of shaming poor people for not being married to also shame progressives for not joining in that festival of moral disapprobation.

* Marquardt has left IAV and now works at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Maybe her stronger opposition to gay marriage (expressed here) was part of their breakup, or maybe she was downsized. Her new bio says she previously worked “at a centrist think tank” (but should add: “which she thought was too centrist”).

15 thoughts on “The marriage movement has failed (long live the marriage movement), Blankenhorn edition

  1. In the thrift era, times were good: funding from Bradley and Templeton brought David and Raina’s combined IAV salaries to a peak above $400,000. When those grants ran out, they took a 25% pay cut (along with Barbara Defoe Whitehead, who was demoted from “Director of Thrift” to just “Director” as her pay was cut from $110,000 to $82,000)



  2. Blankenhorn and his co-authors have come up with a statement that is strikingly progressive: both on marriage equality (where its tone is positive) and on recognizing structural barriers to opportunity (which it focuses in on defeating). It admits many of the core problems with previous incarnations of the marriage movement: its tension with equality for women and LGBT people; its focus on moralizing to the exclusion of structure; its failure to have much in the way of success. Like you, I am skeptical of the causal story it wants to tell about declining marriage. But the point remains that most people want to get married and many people find that their economic and social circumstances make this difficult. Why would it be bad to have a policy framework that treats this as a serious problem (along the lines of, say, this article:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What is that “policy framework”? I don’t see anything to do about marriage that you wouldn’t want to do for poor people already – jobs, income, insurance, education, pensions, etc. (If you want to add free relationship counseling to a more generous welfare package, that would be great – but don’t take it out of the food, rent, or healthcare budget.)


      1. If you’re right, it sounds like, rather than being bad, such a policy framework would reinforce the things you support anyway.

        In practice, it may not work out that way, especially because there are lots of people on the right who are invested in making this kind of argument, and what they see as the relevant structural barriers is not the same as what you see, or what I see. But that sounds like a different kind of argument, just as liberals and conservatives think about the structural barriers to workplace participation differently.


    2. The article you cite is actually a critique of the same sex marriage movement from the queer left calling for a shift of priorities away from formal/legal equality, including marriage, in favor of so-called substantive equality, such as a more just redistribution of economic resources, remedying racial disparities in the criminal justice system, education, and employment, providing support for LGBT youth who are coming out at much younger ages and many of whom face rejection and violence in their homes and schools leading to an epidemic of LGBT homeless youth and many other priorities that require substantial governmental and private sector charitable resources to fund interventions in the economy, education, and specifically the idealized middle class, christian “nuclear family” that Blankenhorn promotes. This sort of gay/queer activism is his worst nightmare and the sort of “threat” to “marriage” that he used to rail against. The traditional gender roles that he views as key to “incentivizing” women to marry men for support and dissuading them from divorcing are the very conservative dynamics that fuel homophobia and create a toxic environment for gay kids, especially those who are more non-gender conforming. The sort of egalitarian relationships and marriages that progressives promote are antithetical to the goals of the conservative “marriage movement”
      Ironically, what both he and the more radical queer activists fail to realize is that formal and substantive equality are not mutually exclusive and that same sex marriage and other forms of egalitarian relationships are not incompatible with these other goals. Blankenhorn might conscript a few right wing homocons such as Rauch, some Log Cabinites, and some of the newer openly gay and affirming evangelicals, all of whom can probably be counted on two hands, who share his traditional communitarianism and economic neoliberalism. Gays as a voting demographic, however, are overwhelmingly liberal democrats, despite a very vocal minority of gay conservative republicans/libertarians, who have no desire to join hands with their traditional oppressors in some Mary Whitehouse, victorian moral crusade.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My choice of link was deliberate and knowing and the point was precisely to challenge the necessity and inevitability of the sort of ideological line-drawing you’re doing here.


  3. I wondered what happened to Marquette – after David pulled the plug on the nasty but quite entertaining in a “through the looking glass” sort of way Family Scholars blog, she lost her main platform for ranting about the catastrophic dangers of gays and IVF, which was one of the strangest anti-equality arguments the right has ever hatched – the embryo fetish was just too bizarre to rally the masses. This Chicago Council doesn’t appear to be engaged in culture war issues – in fact, the only references to gay marriage on the site were extremely positive, pro-business Richard Florida New Urbanism stuff. She must be desperate for work…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. About the only accurate statement I could find in this mean-spirited essay is from its first sentence: “I don’t know David Blankenhorn.” A fact for which I’m grateful.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I used to be a regular commentor on the now closed down IAV Family Scholars blog. One thing I learned is that Blankenhorn is about the most thin skinned man ever. He fancies himself as an “Elite.” He and Maggie Gallagher often times referred to themselves as “Elites,” typically phrased as ‘Academic and/or cultural Elites” It seems to be a favorite Heritage Foundation descriptor as from time to time you will see Heritage Foundation Ryan Anderson use that phrase. Once you know how Blankhorn self references himself as an “Elite” that is kinda all you need to know, isn’t it!

    I’ll never forget watching homocon (homosexual-conservative) Jonathan Rauch interviewed at the University of Minneapolis along with Blankenhorn, where Jonathan Rauch said that people who are gay should ONLY have the right to a Civil Marriage License if the public voted for it because then it is more, “real.” Homocon Rauch also said something to the effect of churches should have a say in our Civil Marriage Laws. Blankenhorn credits Jonathan Rauch with converting him to no longer fighting same gender civil marriage.

    The MOST outrageous thing I ever saw Blankenhorn admit to was when he wrote that when he was a hot shot anti gay marriage, well let’s use his descriptor shall we, when he was a hot shot an ti gay marriage Elite gay people would come up to him and engage him, they would take out pictures of their children, pictures of their families and how he was always offended by that, how he would never look at the pictures. In other words he just tuned them out, admits his theories of the of marriage should sexual minorities be allowed to marry, and remember folks in his hey day he and Maggie Gallagher coined that two dollar word, ‘Deinstitutionalization,’ that his pet theory, and it was only a theory, prevented him from being concerned, he was offend if people who are gay asked him to look at their family pictures.

    If you carefully read his NYT article that people read to be that he changed his mind and now supports gay marriage, he doesn’t support gay marriage, he simply says he is going to stop fighting it and in the final paragraph says he doesn’t take anything back of his prior statements.

    On his now closed blog he would be offended if you criticized his friend his new gay friend homocon Jonathan Rauch. Blankenhorn likes to hold Jonathan Rauch up as some ‘great gay leader, and he is NOT!

    Speaking of Templeton Foundation, did you know that Maggie Gallagher was helping the former editor of the Journal Social Science Research, James Wright & Steven Nock to get a million dollars in funding to do a gay parenting study? Templeton didn’t fund it then Steven Nock died and Brad Wilcox then stepped up to become director of The National Marriage Project out of the University of Virginia which Nock had headed. The evidence of James Wright proposing along with Nock, an anti gay parenting study to Templeton, is found in those e-mails the gay Journalist John Becker got through a Freedom of Information Act request. I wonder what ever happened with that court case, last I heard it was on appeal.


  6. Speaking as a person who is ostensibly targeted by this so-called “marriage opportunity” program (working class single mother)—I’m….both confused as all hell, and/or disinterested in their framing. I mean, “opportunity”? As a straight woman, I’ve always had the “opportunity” to get married. And no “marriage opportunity” movement is going to find me a spouse—that’s up to me.

    Meanwhile, what are the substantive things a movement to encourage the conditions for marriage could be doing? For one, coming out hard and heavy against right-to-work, and lobbying, protesting and organizing for labor unions to be recognized as a civil right. Then they could come out strong in favor of pro-family policies like universal childcare, before-and after-school care (since our school days don’t match our work days), paid sick leave, paid family leave, paid vacation time (all of which promote family bonding/cohesion). They could come out in favor of free post-secondary education to reduce the massive debt load of young people who have trained for a non-poverty-wage job. They could come out in favor of full employment.

    They could come out in favor of a lot of things to insure that marriage has more benefits than costs or risks. But they don’t. Their sales pitch for marriage continues to reflect a 50’s-style breadwinner/homemaker ideal, which is a tough an impossible sell to any woman who has ever had to fend for herself—which comprises all of women who are cohabiting (or living single) instead of marrying. Shorter version: your marriage movement isn’t throwing me any bones, here. Hell, they haven’t even made a statement in favor of egalitarian marriages, and the importance of equal work.


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