A few hours after watching this tearjerking ad run by the Maine marriage equality campaign—in which an elderly man, arm around his gay granddaughter, says “It takes a lot of bravery to be a lesbian”—I read an oddly deflating Slate piece about how the gay marriage battles in Minnesota, Maryland, Maine and Washington (yes, all four) were won. Spoiler: it’s not because a majority of voters in those states witnessed a particularly persuasive kiss-in at the local mall. Instead:
For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.
So this time around, the pro–marriage equality contingent emphasized ““love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits.” In response to research finding that parents worried about ceding control over their children’s values education to schools, the Maine campaign created an ad in which a teacher and her husband reassert that “No law is going to change the core values we teach our kids here at home.”
Why was this so disappointing to read? Election Day seemed to herald the arrival of a new America—Liberal America, as Ben Smith and Zeke Miller deemed it. Not only was Obama back in office, but Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin were going to Washington! Californians voted to raise taxes! Marylanders voted for a state DREAM Act! Here, though, was an indication that support for marriage equality dovetailed uncomfortably with appeals to conservative values.
Marriage, family, and community don’t have to be conservative values, of course, but when all brewed together, they can be. Pro–marriage equality messages can veer dangerously close to implying that marriage is the only, or best, way for people to show commitment or protect their families. When people argue that same-sex marriage is necessary to access survivor benefits, private health insurance and housing, they are making a claim about fairness under the law. But they aren’t challenging the biggest assumptions about those laws: that private households, rather than an expanded welfare state, should be the main vehicle for guaranteeing a minimum level of security.
And that’s an appealing message for open-minded conservatives. No wonder some forward-looking Republicans are calling on their party do a 180, come out for marriage equality and neutralize the Democratic advantage. That’s just what Marc Ambinder suggested the party do: “If Republicans drop their opposition to gay marriage, the chances that Democrats will continue to pick up majorities of new and young voters will diminish. Gay issues are the civil rights issue of the time. Many of these voters see the party’s implacable opposition to equal treatment for gays and simply turn away. The GOP is killing itself by giving libertarian-leaning younger voters a reason to think that the party is held hostage by a loud minority” (emphasis his). Here’s how a Buzzfeed piece on the coming revolt of young Republican operatives characterizes their views on the matter: “The wide agreement among the younger operatives on the need for a generational upgrade is matched by a near consensus on a pair of issues: gay rights and immigration.”
But can marriage—and only marriage, not employment or housing non-discrimination, not transgender rights, not anti-bullying protections, not honest, science-based sexuality education and funding for HIV treatment—be pried loose of a broader LGBT agenda, and a broader progressive agenda that’s both economic and social, to woo a critical mass of voters?
I think not. As Obama’s top pollster, Joel Benenson, argued yesterday, it was not a loosely held coalition driven by brute demographics—young voters, gay voters, an increasing majority of Americans that supports same-sex marriage—that handed Obama his second term. Instead, voters across race and gender chose “to side with a set of values and principles—and an agenda that would advance them—that they believe will offer not just economic recovery, but a restoration of the kind of opportunity and security that America long offered the middle class and those working to join it.” In a Logo TV poll taken in August, only six percent of gay voters said that marriage equality was their top issue. Their biggest concerns? The economy, jobs, and unemployment and healthcare—just like everyone else. And as we now know, just like the majority of Americans, they cast their vote for the candidate they trusted to fight rampant economic inequality and keep the recovery going.
There’s plenty of work to do to turn the Democratic electorate into a real progressive coalition. But with Obama headed back for four more years, that work can continue in earnest.
Oh, you want to see that ad? Here you go!