Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wedge Issues

Wedge issues are those arguments that are meant to split support for the opposition. Gay marriage has been used by the Republicans for sometime to split the blue collar Catholic voter from the effete elites who actually rule the Democratic Party. Now it seems that the Republicans are coming to grips with gay marriage as well. The social conservative position is very well (if not succinctly) put by Mike at The Last Best Place. While I agree with most of his post, the strength of his argument comes in the defense of the traditional definition of marriage. It is compelling, intelligent and well supported by thinkers of most of recorded history. But I am not so sure that his strong defense of traditional marriage denies that gay marriage can also have many of the same benefits.
Marriage is not a biological construct. It is more an economic and political construct that has the benefits of providing for a future of the human race. Historically, polygamy has been used for the better part of time, probably because of the low rate of survival of women in giving birth, and the short lives and violent deaths of young males. But at a micro level, polygamy and its lesser used sibling polyandry, are inherently imbalanced in the relations between all of the parties. There will always be the first wife, or the first husband, who agree to the subsequent marriages because it gives them control over the newbies to the relationship. But even in Western culture, we have arranged marriages, political marriages, marriages for the unification of property, shotgun weddings, mail order brides, Britney Spears and even the concept of a "starter marriage." All of these have had the support of authority and sometimes even the blessings of the religious powers. But that doesn't mean that these marriages are all equal in their application and construct. Perhaps one of the greatest problems that we have in Western Civilization starts with the Medieval notion of romantic love leading to marriage. This notion automatically creates unrealistic expectations of the marriage.
Since the period of human gestation is so long, and the helplessness of a newborn requires so much more, the need to have a stable structure that creates the newborn and cares for it is essential to our species survival. Marriage is the best system that we have to provide for that future, but it calls into question the reason to have marriage after a woman enters menopause. So obviously, marriage is much more than that.
Society benefits from marriage, in that it establishes clear relationships, removes issues of property holdings, and is the basic political building block. When two people come together in a long term relationship, it brings two equal but different selves to agree to cooperate for their mutual benefit, the benefit of any children and the community as a whole. But it is also a statement of commitment that society has agreed to honor. A vow to love, cherish and honor, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer until death do us part, used to mean something. Unfortunately, marriage has now come to mean that "I will love you until I get bored or something better comes along." And that is what I think most social conservatives have a problem with, and I would have to agree with them on that point.
Marriage has significant economic benefits for the spouses. If one of the pair has benefits that are extended to the spouse, the other spouse now has the opportunity to take risks to enhance their economic viability through either a new enterprise, or staying at home to raise and school the children. But it is the legal standing of the spouses that allow this to happen. By putting a bar to use of this protection, are we not also denying the opportunity to gays?
One of the arguments against gay marriage is the perceived transitory nature of their relationships. But isn't that a chicken and egg problem. If they had gay marriage wouldn't that allow for more stability. Even if it didn't there are numerically a higher number of divorces among straight couples. In fact, it is not gay marriage that is trivializing the concept of marriage, it is the heterosexual community and their flip attitudes toward marriage that is the trivializing effect.
For marriage to regain its status as an important institution in our society, we need to make it harder to get married, thereby insuring a minimum commitment, and harder to get out of a marriage, insuring a longer lasting commitment.
Set a nationwide standard of waiting six months for a marriage license. This would prevent those who marry in haste and divorce in leisure. And do away with no fault divorce. Right now, if one party wants a divorce, the other spouse has no say in the matter. I would return to the concept of divorce as a tort. If you want out of the marriage, you surrender all of your property rights to the other spouse. That would go a long way toward lowering the divorce rate.
But the most important thing that we can do is to remove the judges who start these problems. The supreme courts of Massachusettes and California have found a right that has lain hidden all of this time. In California, the people have rightly exercised their authority over the constitution of that state to overrule the supreme court. To make matters worse, the supremes have decided to hear a case to determine if Proposition 8 is itself unconstitutional. If that happens, we have changed from a democratic republic to a rule by the judiciary.
Gay marriage advocates need to appreciate that while they may feel their rights are being withheld arbitrarily, they must also work to remove the use of the law to coerce people away from their fundamental beliefs. Whether it is the orphanage in New Jersey that Mike cited, or more locally, the demand that the pharmacist in Glendive carry birth control pills, they are using the law to change deeply held values, and that is a violation of the Constitution's right to freedom of religion.
I say that both sides need to back off using the law to foist their beliefs and values on others in either the name of tolerance or tradition.


Anonymous said...

"The supreme courts of Massachusettes and California have found a right that has lain hidden all of this time."

I don't think it is just a wedge issue when the people fight back with a ballot measure, albeit with support from their churches. Or was it a secret GOP project? I don't know, but don't be surprised if this has a life all its own even without Karl Rove.

Do Republicans need to repudiate it or distance themselves in some way?

Steve said...

No, not at all. My point (although inelegantly made) is that the issue of gay rights is not coming from popular movements, but from the courts. Republicans need to move fast to reestablish that the courts serve to interpret the law not create it.
If the law is unfair or inadequate, it is the responsibility of the legislative branches to correct it. After all, the best way to change a law is to vigorously enforce it.
Let the gay community make the argument to the general public on why they should be allowed to marry. Just don't use the courts as a backdoor method to short circuit it.