Ireland is not a perfect land, as the Irish are generally quite willing to acknowledge.
But Ireland did a perfect thing on Friday.
Other countries have permitted lesbians and gays to marry—and subsections of countries have done so, as is the case in the Unites States. But this have tended to happen via legislative and judicial action. Ireland has done so by a vote of the people—an overwhelming vote—and it is the first country in the world to have made the choice by popular referendum.
Headlines in The Irish Times recognized more than an election result. It was, they suggested “a national boat-rocking” that might well have “changed the republic forever.”
Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country that is often portrayed as socially conservative (and that still wrestles with a host of issues, most notable reproductive rights), has done a very socially liberal, very progressive thing. And it has not done so in small measure. The turnout for Friday’s referendum was over 60 percent— a notably higher level of participation than the United States saw in the 2012 presidential election, and a dramatically higher level of participation than was seen in the 2014 elections that decided control of the US Congress. The desire to get this thing right was so strong that Irish men and women who are working around the world came #hometovote, creating magical scenes of young people arriving on ferries singing: “It will not be long, Love, ‘Till our wedding day.”
Fintan O’Toole, the great Irish essayist who has been Europe’s wisest critics of the global stumble toward austerity and lowered expectations, hailed the result as the streets of Dublin and other cities filled for celebrations Saturday
“We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal—that ‘ordinary’ is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life,” O’Toole wrote. “It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration. Tolerance is what “we” extend, in our gracious goodness, to ‘them.’ It’s about saying ‘You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us.’”
“The resounding ‘Yes’ is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind,” he explained. “It’s saying that there’s no ‘them’ anymore. LGBT people are us—our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.”
The United States does not hold national referendums or constitutional concerns. There are no electoral structures for giving voters a chance to think big, to make bold statements on a national level, in the way that Ireland did this year on the issue of marriage equality, or that Scotland did last year when more than 85 percent of voters participated in a referendum on independence.
American governing and media elites have historically refused to recognize that what matters most in politics is not politicians or parties. It is the great choice making, where citizens are invited to weigh the most profound and consequential issues. Too many issues are taken off the table in the United States, where electoral processes are drowned in corporate and billionaire money and diminished by the negative ads that are the lingua franca of contemporary electioneering.
We have so delinked American democracy from issues that, in 2014, millions of Americans voted for an exceptionally progressive agenda in referendums—on raising wages, expanding access to Medicare, extending paid-sick leave, banning fracking, and amending the constitution to limit the dominance of corporations—and then turned around and voted for candidates and parties that opposed the agenda.
The people are not to blame for this. The candidates seek to create confusion, as do the parties. Campaign consultants work overtime to assure that partisanship prevails over principle. That’s why turnout keeps declining and frustration with our political and legislative processes grows with each election season.
Instead of worrying as much as we do about candidates and campaigns of the moment, Americans ought to be asking themselves: How do we get a better politics? They should not hesitate to embrace big reforms: constitutional amendments along the lines suggested by Congressmen Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan, new voting systems along the lines suggested by FairVote, new models for direct democracy along the lines considered by Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar. The goal ought not be to advantage one side or another. The goal ought to be to make real the promise of democracy: with exceptionally high turnout elections that put big issues on the table for everyone to decide—and that value votes more than the cynical manipulations of campaign consultants and the billionaires they serve.
“Nobody has been diminished,” Fintan O’Toole wrote after the referendum results were recorded. “Irish people comprehensively rejected the notion that our republic is a zero-sum game, that what is given to one must be taken from another. Everybody gains from equality—even those who didn’t think they wanted it. Over time, those who are in a minority on this issue will come to appreciate the value of living in a pluralist democracy in which minorities are respected.”
“By pushing forward on what only recently seemed a marginal issue, the LGBT community has given all of Irish democracy one of its greatest days. It has given our battered republic a new sense of engagement, a new confidence, an expanded sense of possibility,” explained the great champion of vibrant social engagement. “It has shown all of us that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable. We now have to figure out how to rise to that daunting and exhilarating challenge.”
Americans should want to feel that same sense of hope and possibility. We, too, should recognize that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable. And we should forge a politics that embraces to that daunting and exhilarating challenge. O’Toole sent a tweet amid all the celebration in Ireland. It read: “To all our US friends watching: this is what ‘the pursuit of happiness’ means. Go for it.”