Beyond the ‘M’ Word: The Tangled Web of Politics and Marriage

Beyond the ‘M’ Word: The Tangled Web of Politics and Marriage

Marriage entered presidential politics for the first time as farce: Dan Quayle’s June 1992 attack on the television character “Murphy Brown” for having a child while unmarried. In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, the then-vice president addressed the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “The lawless social anarchy which we saw,” he argued, “is directly related to the breakdown of family structure.” The poverty at the root of the disorders was a “poverty of morals.” At the very end of speech, he denounced “Murphy Brown” and her Hollywood creators for “mocking fatherhood,” glamorizing single motherhood, and thereby encouraging family disintegration among the poor. The attack on a popular television show launched a media frenzy and a torrent of late-night talk-show jokes.

It’s hard to believe now, but the Quayle fiasco and Pat Buchanan’s declaration of cultural war at the Republican National Convention later that summer seemed to bury the hard-line version of “family values” as a political strategy. A chastened Quayle denied that he had ever criticized single mothers. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton captured the national mood with a pluralistic vision of “an America that includes every family. Every traditional family and every extended family. Every two-parent family, every single-parent family, every foster family.”

Yet the Murphy Brown episode turned out to be merely the misfired opening shot in a real political/cultural war. Clinton had barely settled into the White House when a barrage of op-eds, articles, books, and talk-show appearances argued that, as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead put it in the Atlantic Monthly, “Dan Quayle Was Right” after all: the rise of “illegitimacy” and divorce would have dire consequences for the nation’s children and for all the rest of us, too. Ever since then, marital status and family structure have remained major themes of political rhetoric and government policy.

Though conservatives led and funded the new crusade, centrist Democrats and even some liberals inside and outside the Clinton administration joined up. No more was heard about “all our families” no matter what their form. Instead, Clinton advisers hailed the two-parent family as the “best anti-poverty program.” In the media, pundits of all political hues warned that single parenthood had become the preeminent threat to the country because it was the root cause of all the rest: poverty, crime, drugs, juvenile violence, and failing schools—what Joe Klein called “a nauseating buffet of social ills.”

Since the early 1990s, then, marriage has been a major combat zone in the culture wars, at the center of debates over poverty, welfare, sexuality, divorce, race, gender, and gay rights. At first, the focus was on welfare as the breeder of crime and inner-city pathologies. But the end of welfare as we know it in 1996 did not end the marriage crusade. Government a...

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