Marital Strife

With a speed that has astonished both its supporters and its opponents, same-sex marriage has gained the support of a majority of Americans.

Opinions and policies range from state to state, however, and this week the United States Supreme Court took up the question of whether marriage by two people of the same sex is as protected by the U.S. Constitution as marriage by two people of the opposite sex.

That cases like these have come before the high court at all is a testament to the importance of the court’s role in socially divisive issues. Peter Drucker, when he first wrote about U.S. politics, found it striking how much the American political process preferred “to handle noneconomic issues on a ‘bipartisan’ basis, that is, to remove them essentially from party politics.”

When there was no room for broad bipartisan consensus, however, “initiative in such an issue is left, as if by passive agreement, to the one body in the American political system that is outside the established party alignment, the Supreme Court.”

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court
Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court

Drucker had no objection to this, for he felt the Constitution owed its longevity in great part “to the fact that the Founding Fathers wrote into it provisions for its being changed, and also created in the Supreme Court an organ specifically designed to adapt the Constitution to changes in society, economy and technology.”

As time went on, however, Drucker saw this balance coming apart. No longer, by the 1980s and ’90s, were party politics the home of “economic” issues and the Supreme Court the home of “noneconomic” issues. Instead, a “new pluralism” had placed noneconomic issues front and center in American politics, with numerous single-issue interest groups organized around staunch moral values.

Economic interests can be compromised, which is the great strength of basing politics on economic interests,” Drucker noted in Managing in a Time of Great Change.  By contrast, with many moral issues, “there is no compromise possible.”

That has the effect of placing divisive social issues into a no-man’s land, with no agreed-upon moral authority except for a majority. From this perspective, it’s possible that Drucker would have seen a Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage as an intrusion by the court into the domain of politics. But it’s also possible that he would have seen the politics of same-sex marriage (such as the Defense of Marriage Act) as an intrusion into the domain of the court.

What do you think: What should be the Supreme Court’s role in setting policy on same-sex marriage?