Does the dawn of nationwide marriage equality herald the triumph of a fundamentally conservative institution, or does it signal that institution's erosion?
The answer, according to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, is both. In his Sunday column, the Gray Lady's resident social conservative identifies a great cultural irony: "[W]hile the conservative case for same-sex marriage triumphed in politics," culminating in last week's Supreme Court ruling for marriage equality, "the liberationist case against marriage’s centrality to human flourishing was winning in the wider culture," Douthat writes. Without the latter development, he posits, the former would not have been possible.
Douthat's argument -- familiar to followers of social conservative thought -- goes like this:
The traditional understanding [of marriage], which rested on sex difference, procreation, and real permanence, went into crisis in the 1960s and 1970s. But in the 1990s, when The Atlantic informed readers that “Dan Quayle Was Right” about unwed motherhood and today’s Democratic front-runner fretted about the costs of no-fault divorce, there were reasons to think that a kind of neo-traditionalism might still have purchase in America.
Not so today. Since the ’90s, approval of divorce, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have climbed steadily, and the belief that children are “very important” to marriage has collapsed. Kennedy’s ruling argues that the right to marry is essential, in part, because the institution “safeguards children and families.” But the changing cultural attitudes that justify his jurisprudence increasingly treat this safeguard as inessential, a potentially nice but hardly necessary thing.
What Douthat is attempting here is a polite, respectable critique of same-sex marriage; while he can't expect to sway the Times' liberal readership to his view, he at least hopes to demonstrate that there's an intellectual, non-bigoted case to be made against same-sex marriage. Of course, pining for marriage "rested on sex difference [and] procreation" isn't particularly conducive to his project; that's just a slightly more sophisticated way of saying, "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
But Douthat raises serious points about divorce and the decoupling of childbirth from marriage -- points we would do well to consider. Unfortunately for Douthat, a closer look at these topics does nothing to bolster his case against marriage equality.
Let's first dispense with the easily dispensed -- specifically, one of the two pillars of Douthat's argument. The columnist makes no bones about aligning himself with conservatives who believe that the combination of increasing support for marriage equality and an overall decline in the so-called marriage culture "isn't a coincidence." Instead, he contends, "support for same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marital norms exist in a kind of feedback loop." Here, Douthat implies -- but tellingly refuses to state flatly -- is that seeing gay couples wed will somehow convince straight people to give birth out of wedlock, cohabitate and/or divorce. This is far too fatuous to merit a response.
That leaves us with one pillar. Even if gay marriage does not cause straight people to harbor increasingly lax attitudes about marriage, is it possible that the loosening of marital norms helped pave the way for same-sex marriage? Insofar as we've moved away from a social order in which marriage was based purely on commonalities of class, social status, and religion -- and toward a marriage culture that prizes shared affection and interests, there is an undeniable link. If you conceptualize marriage as the union of two partners who care deeply about each other and wish to have their mutual commitment recognized by the state, why not allow two persons of the same gender to enter such an arrangement?
But Douthat goes further. He would have us believe that divorce, declining marriage rates, and out-of-wedlock births are also part of the "feedback loop" that enabled same-sex marriage. Again, Douthat feels no need to demonstrate causality; he simply notes coexisting phenomena, and because a causal link between the phenomena meshes well with his ideological priors, it must be more than a matter of coincidence. But while conservatives would tell you that the decline in marriage reflects the very cultural libertinism that also brought gay people out of the shadows, the decline in marriage is the result of well-established economic patterns.
We cannot talk about the decline in marriage without talking about class. As this chart from the Hamilton Project strikingly demonstrates, the decline in marriage rates has been far more pronounced among lower-earning American men:
Derek Thompson demystified the data in a 2013 piece for the Atlantic:
Now that women are better educated, with greater control over both their fertility and their earnings, modern marriage has changed from an arrangement where men marry for a housewife to a "hedonic" model where both partners can be the breadwinner. As marriage has shifted from opposites-attract to like-attracts-like, researchers have found that sorting has increased all along the educational scale. College graduates are more likely than ever to marry college graduates, as Charles Murray has written. High school dropouts are more likely to marry high school dropouts.
Think of marriage like any other contract or investment. It's most likely to happen when the gains are big. So we should expect marriages among low-income Americans to decline if women perceive declining gains from hitching themselves to the men around them.
That's precisely what we've seen...
For lower-income Americans, then, the shift in social norms has meant fewer marriages and more single-parent families. Douthat and fellow conservatives pin the blame squarely on feminism -- a far more convenient target than the economic forces that produce deindustrialization, inequality and, yes, lower rates of marriage. Particularly for better-off women, however, feminism has actually fostered stronger, more resilient families in the long run. The more affluent and educated a woman is, the older she tends to be when she gets married -- and the data show that this is a far better recipe for marital stability than the older model, in which couples barely out of their teens got hitched and immediately started families. As people have delayed marriage and childbirth, the divorce rate has actually declined in recent decades. Curiously, Douthat omits any mention of this as he pines for an era when marriage was more strongly pegged to childbearing, and women became reproductive vessels at 20.
What about the rise in out-of-wedlock births? Shouldn't feminists and liberals at least have to answer for that? Well, no. Such births occur at a higher rate in conservative states than liberal ones. Same with divorces, by the way. Indeed, Massachusetts -- the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2004 -- boasts some of the lowest rates nationally on both measures.
But please, Ross, tell us more about that "feedback loop."