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):
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.
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”).