The Culture War Disarmed
In mid-May Democrats were finally riding high again. Their contentious primary appeared to be drawing to a close, they had routed Republicans for a third time in a Congressional special election and Americans were looking to them to address a failed war and a failing economy. Then on May 15 the California Supreme Court voted four to three to legalize same-sex marriages. As if on cue, gays and lesbians took to the streets of The Castro, Mayor Gavin Newsom vowed to turn San Francisco's City Hall into a hot pink wedding chapel and right-wing demagogues announced that they would place a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on California's fall ballot. Suddenly, conservatives like William Kristol were crowing about how resentment over "judicial activism" would help deliver John McCain the White House, and Democrats were seeing shades of 2004--when anti-gay marriage initiatives supposedly contributed to John Kerry's defeat.
But in fact, California's marital fireworks represent a more comforting reality for Democrats--the beginning of the end of the culture war. Nowhere is this sea change more evident than in the Golden State, where gay marriage has become a thoroughly mainstream proposition. In 2005 and 2007 the California State Legislature passed bills granting gays and lesbians the right to marry; on both occasions, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bills. But by directly expressing their support for gay marriage through the democratic process, the State Legislature undercut the right-wing claim that gay marriage is something "activist judges" foist onto an unwilling public. Indeed, the majority on the state's Supreme Court, comprising three Republicans and one Democrat, weren't "legislating from the bench"; they were reaffirming legislative will. And despite his vetoes, Schwarzenegger has said that he respects the court's opinion and opposes an amendment to the California Constitution, something he calls "a waste of time."
None of this will deter conservatives from pouring money, ground troops and vitriol into their campaign to get a marriage amendment passed, and they may well succeed this fall. But even that short-term victory won't change two fundamentals: in the presidential race, California will go to the Democratic candidate, and the idea of gay marriage--endorsed by the State Legislature, accepted by the Republican governor and supported by growing numbers of gay-friendly voters--has become for Californians as banal as a Hollywood divorce.
Indeed, for all the hoopla, the number of new rights California's gay couples picked up from the decision was this: zero. That's because California already had a same-sex domestic partnership statute on the books. Passed by the legislature in 1999 and expanded on several occasions to include more rights, California's domestic partnership laws are the most comprehensive in the nation, granting every right of coupledom a state can give absent federally recognized marriage. All the court did was give queers the m-word. This decision may have legal repercussions down the line, but in terms of actual economic and legal rights like access to spousal health insurance, hospital visitation and inheritance, Californians had already arrived at the conclusion that these should be available to all regardless of sexual orientation. To be sure, the symbol of marriage may matter a lot to some, mainly marriage-minded gays and Christian conservatives, but few voters are willing to hang a national election on it. According to a May Gallup poll, just 16 percent of Americans think that a presidential candidate must share their view on gay marriage.
The California gay marriage debate illustrates important national trends for Democrats. Growing numbers of Americans favor gay rights, including some form of partnership recognition for same-sex couples, especially when framed as economic and legal rights. This is particularly true of young voters; in California 55 percent of voters under 30 support gay marriage, and nationwide 63 percent of voters under 40 support civil unions or domestic partnerships. But this trend also holds true for voters of all ages; a 2007 Field poll reported that Californians young and old were four times more likely to say they are becoming more accepting of gay relationships than less accepting. Moreover, when the symbolic weight of marriage is removed from the equation, support for gay rights becomes overwhelming. Nationwide, a whopping 89 percent of voters favor protecting gays and lesbians from employment discrimination.
Instead of fearing an anti-gay backlash, then, Democrats should take this moment to reconsider their longstanding assumption that cultural antagonisms can only hurt their national electoral prospects. Fearing the worst, for decades the Democrats caved to or triangulated around cultural conservatives, making ill-fated examples out of every Sister Souljah in the house and offering insulting sops to "family values," like video-game ratings. Indeed, the premise that Democrats are still on the losing side of the culture war defined the last weeks of Hillary Clinton's campaign, which, aided by the mainstream media, dredged up nearly every assumed liberal Achilles' heel of the past forty years--race, religion, guns, elitism, patriotism and '60s radicalism--in order to paint Barack Obama as a general election loser. But, like Christian conservative attempts to portray same-sex marriage as a "threat to civilization," the culture war against Obama--waged around flag pins, Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers and bowling scores--was a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Thankfully, the majority of Democratic voters refused to be manipulated by these symbols sheared of substance, and now it is time to retire the paradigm altogether. An overdetermined catchphrase, "the culture war" was always an insult--most of all to the concept of culture itself, which the right wing reduced from a good or an aspiration to a series of cheap slurs aimed at liberals who drank too many lattes or hailed from the wrong places, like Massachusetts and San Francisco. But demography was always trending the other way, and now Starbucks lattes can be found in every small town, hip-hop is everywhere and homosexuals are here, queer and on the bridal registry--all of which elicits a collective yawn from the under-40 set.