Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

For GOP Candidates, Only the Few, the Married, the Monogamous Are Real Americans

GOP candidates only want married Americans to have rights.

It almost reads like a piece in the satirical Onion. "GOP Candidates Only Want Straight Married and Monogamous Citizens to Vote." In fact, a few years ago some friends and I organized a protest against tying citizenship rights to marriage called "HMM" or "Heterosexuals for Mandatory Marriage." Our Manifesto, the Heterosexuals for Mandatory Marriage Manifesto or HMMM, demanded that only straight, married citizens should be able to vote, have credit cards, go to university, and that ultimately we should be awarded special parking spaces next to the handicapped ones. We at HMM were being ironic; sadly many Republican presidential contenders are not.

Last week two GOP presidential contenders, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, signed something called "The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family." "The Marriage Vow" was put together by a conservative Christian religious group called the Family Leader and asks candidates to affirm their commitment to the belief that

(e)nduring marital fidelity between one man and one woman protects innocent children, vulnerable women, the rights of fathers, the stability of families, and the liberties of all American citizens under our republican form of government. Our exceptional and free society simply cannot endure without the transmission of personal virtue, from one generation to the next, by means of nurturing, nuclear families comprised of sexually-faithful husbands and wives, fathers and mothers.

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In addition to demanding that candidates support marriage and "robust childrearing practices," the pledge also demands that they oppose gay marriage, easy divorce and reaffirm their belief in the statistical truth that there is

overwhelming statistical evidence that married people enjoy better health, better sex, longer lives, greater financial stability, and that children raised by a mother and a father together experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble, and less extramarital pregnancy.

The pledge also ties high levels of poverty among Black Americans to the once discredited idea of a "culture of poverty" whereby single motherhood creates "poverty, pathology and prison." Originally the pledge tied slavery to better parenting among Black Americans:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.

Due to public outcry, that more controversial bit of racism was removed, but the general blame single Black motherhood for poverty and mass incarceration remains. Not to mention the pledge to fight against any legal recognition or support for relationships that are not heterosexual married ones. 

How is it possible that our political arena is now so absurd that not only a candidate's fitness for office is judged by their ability to maintain conjugal discipline, but social policies and laws are now to be enacted that create an explicit relationship and family apartheid whereby married men and women are at the top and the vast majority of American families- who are not living in nuclear formation- are defunded, refused legal recognition or protection, and generally blamed for any poverty or imprisonment they might encounter?

The answer is a long one, no doubt, but some of it has to do with the rise of the middle classes at the end of the 1800s to positions of prominence and some of it has to do with my own damnable field of sociology and the misuse of statistics for ideological purposes. Let me try to explain without boring you to tears.

The rise of the middle classes at the birth of capitalism happened because success in the market began to translate into success in politics. Americans no longer wanted leaders who were to the manor born but leaders who were "self-made men" (even if most of these self-made men were in fact to the manor born also). This notion of the rugged individual who "deserved" his success was counterpoised against those who were given everything, the upper classes. The middle class man was a leader because he worked hard; the upper classes never worked. Not only was this new leader assumed to work harder, he was also considered to be more physically disciplined, to engage in the new sports culture, as well as to evidence more sexual discipline. Indeed, it is no accident that as Market Man became our new ideal leader, a host of laws were passed to make any sex outside of marriage illegal. From prostitution to sodomy, any sex outside of the conjugal bed was, for the first time, now off limits to men as well as women.

Of course this highly disciplined Market Man, as likely to go off and shoot a bunch of large game animals on safari as to make a killing in the market, was as much a myth as the lazy and morally corrupt gentleman, but it was a myth that stuck with us and continues to haunt our current political moment. It is also the fetishization of discipline, sexual discipline in particular, as a cornerstone of American citizenship that was born not with America's philandering founders, but with far more recent leaders, especially George W. Bush who was most decidedly not like that sexual undisciplined Bill Clinton.

But if the GOP is increasingly willing to tie citizenship to conjugal discipline, they do so in a nation where marriages don't really last, especially the second time around, only about a fifth of Americans live in nuclear families, a gay rights movement is demanding recognition of same-sex marriage, and there are nearly as many unmarried citizens as married ones. In other words, statistically speaking, it would seem like a bad idea to demand special rights and privileges for a small portion of the population. But that's where sociology, at least of a certain bent, comes in. More socially conservative sociologists and statisticians have been arguing, at least since the Moynihan Report over 30 years ago, that single motherhood causes poverty. 

This is actually one of the most damnable lies ever told. Lack of money causes poverty. Period. Poverty is caused by not having resources. I am a single mother with a PhD and a good job. My single motherhood did not cause poverty because I have benefitted from the economic and educational capital of my parents, which was passed onto me, not to mention the racial privileges afforded me and my children in this culture. Every single statistic the sociologists provide to "prove" that single motherhood causes poverty and imprisonment uses "correlation" to argue "causation." So "poor people are more likely to have children out of wedlock therefore having children out of wedlock causes poverty." I could just as easily "prove" that "poor people who are married are poor therefore being married causes poverty." Indeed, the pressure on poor people to get married has intensified in the past ten years as the federal government, through its Healthy Marriage Initiative, spends $300 MILLION a year to convince poor people that marriage will make them wealthier. Brilliant. A poor person marries a poor person, they can't find jobs, the husband is in and out of the prison industrial complex for his involvement in the only money making enterprise in his neighborhood, the drug trade, and somehow they are now less poor? That isn't even bad social science or statistics. That's just plain old magical thinking. Like the idea that a prince will ride in and sweep me off my feet and take me off to his castle to live happily ever after.

Or that the Republican presidential primaries won't be full of racism and queer-bashing. Because after all, the GOP now just wants to represent the married and monogamous among us. And the poor only to the extent they are willing to be married and monogamous or blame themselves for structural racism and inequality. If only The Marriage Vow were a joke.  A satirical dig at the idea that citizenship should be limited to the few, the married, the monogamous. Hmm...

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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