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Opinion | Are Liberals Against Marriage?




But whatever comes, the right’s why-marriage-declined story is presently contested, complicated, interesting and possibly getting closer to the necessarily complex truth.

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

Now what about the liberal side? To be extremely impressionistic, I would divide the modern progressive approach to marriage into three distinct phases. In the first phase, which covers the 1960s through the 1980s, there was a clear liberal-led attack on the institutional form of marriage as it existed then, on the legal and cultural structure that privileged heterosexual wedlock, pushed couples toward its rules and rituals, and then constrained them from divorce.

This assault was undertaken in a spirit of social optimism, in the name of personal empowerment and (eventually) female equality, and infused with a confidence that the old legal and moral structures were simply oppressive, that in an enlightened society most people wouldn’t need normative models of partnering and child rearing to flourish and succeed.

The second phase I would call the period of reconsideration, in which liberals continued to believe that the core legal and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s had been necessary and just, but increasingly acknowledged that the larger cultural revolution had incurred Edsall’s “significant costs.”


Liberals in this period continued to support no-fault divorce and legal abortion, continued to regard sexual fulfillment as an essential good and premarital chastity as an unrealistic ideal. But from the “Dan Quayle was right” arguments of the early 1990s onward, they also conceded that marriage is probably generally better for kids and maybe especially boys, that monogamy is often preferable to promiscuity and divorce is often undesirable, that welfare policy shouldn’t discourage wedlock and should maybe even encourage it, and that the decline of marriage at least contributed to the post-1960s struggles of the working class.

This is the social-liberalism-of-nuance that Edsall described in his column. It was especially powerful across the Bush and early Obama years — when the push to recognize same-sex unions was framed in deliberately conservative terms, when Barack Obama’s pro-family rhetoric and personal example were regularly cited as a positive influence on minority communities, when many sociologically minded liberals argued that there was an emerging “blue-state model” of marriage, egalitarian and secular rather than patriarchal and religious, that was showing the way forward even as families fractured more in culturally conservative regions that hadn’t adapted to feminism yet.

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