From the perspective of 2005, the idea of a major social movement to normalize polygamy seems far-fetched. But from the perspective of 1975, even 1985, it would have seemed equally far-fetched to think that we would have legal same-sex marriage in some states and in a number of our allied countries. I don’t think that universal same-sex marriage is inevitable, nor do I think that even the current state of acceptance is guaranteed to be permanent. Cultural revolutions are made by free actors, even if not always in conditions of their own choosing, and could go any number of ways.
At the beginning of the 1990s John Frohmeyer, then the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, predicted that the cultural issue of the 1990s would be the normalization of homosexuality. He was right. Yet this was not inevitable. Homosexuals make up about 3% of the population. Most groups that make up only 3% of the population do not succeed in getting their issues front and center in the national cultural debate. There are not many gay men, and even fewer lesbians. There are, however, quite a few liberals and libertarians. More importantly, there is an even larger group who believe in “live and let live,” even when the other guy wants to live in a distasteful way. That is what “tolerance” really means.
Tolerant people probably make up a majority of the American population, though the size of this group varies a bit from issue to issue. If 3% -- any three percent – want to live some distinctive way, most Americans are inclined to tolerate them, as long as they don’t rub the majority’s nose in it. Homosexuals have long been tolerated in most large cities, and the laws prohibiting homosexual acts were usually ignored. What has been different since the Stonewall riots in 1969, and especially since AIDS became widespread, has been the rise of pro-homosexual activists who want more than toleration. The sexual-orientation culture wars have not been about tolerance, though that term is often used, nor about hate, which is the pre-occupation of a tiny minority. The issue has been whether homosexual orientation, and many aspects of gay and lesbian culture, are morally identical with – exactly as good and desirable as – their heterosexual and otherwise mainstream counterparts,
Polygamy is, at this moment in America, the orientation, desire, and practice of an even tinier minority than is homosexuality. Polygamy is tolerated in most places where it exists. The recent high-profile prosecutions of polygamists had the added crimes of forced marriages, welfare fraud, and even incest. Most marital arrangements, though, don’t become the concern of the police. The variant on polygamy that is sometimes called serial monogamy or sequential polygamy is now common; in Hollywood it seems to be the norm. (That may have been a cheap shot.)
Until this moment, though, there has not been a substantial cultural movement to normalize polygamy since the Mormon culture war in the nineteenth century. But the time may be ripe. Let me say clearly that I do not call for such a movement, and would not welcome it. But I think it is coming.
Americans love equal liberty above all else. We are inclined to tolerate other people’s practices if they don’t actively harm us, asking only the same courtesy in return. Social movements that try to expand choice and liberty have a built in advantage in our culture over movements that try to build commitment to any other virtue. Put another way, it is easier to get Americans to tolerate lower social standards than to get them require higher social standards.
Which is why I think that normalizing polygamy might be the cultural issue of 2020. And why it might even win.