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Resistance Is Futile

August 13, 2010

In the last few days, I’ve had arguments about whether there are arguments. Some folks think that we’re engaged in a debate over marriage equality in this country, but I am not sure whether that is more than superficially true. People are talking about it, and people are formulating arguments. But I’m not sure that anyone’s mind is being changed by argument. I think the major driving factor is simply generational replacement. There’s a major trend, and I think that’s just history. There’s an acceleration of that trend, which may be that there’s an argument and our side has the better of it; or it may be something less cognitive and more crowd-psychology than that.

(Regular readers of 538.com have seen all this data. I am indebted to Nate and his crew for their excellent coverage of this issue in particular.)

Here’s the lede:

Basically, it’s a juggernaut. Support has been growing steadily for over 20 years, with even the backlash from Massachusetts in 2003 a mere blip on the chart; the lines have now converged and are in the process of crossing.

This major pattern could be the product of good arguments winning people over to reason. But here’s the dynamic that tells me it isn’t (from here, via 538):

Jeff Lax explains it: “[T]he generation gap is huge. If policy were set by state-by-state majorities of those 65 or older, none would allow same-sex marriage. If policy were set by those under 30, only 12 states would not allow-same-sex marriage.”

Much of this is simply generational. I know progressives in their sixties who are otherwise with me on almost everything, but who just can’t get their heads around marriage equality — who know they should, and just can’t, because it’s a non-cognitive mental block. Certainly, there are het folks in their nineties on the side of civil rights (and Ted Olson is both older and a conservative), but as a trend, age is one of the overwhelming variables, along with religion. It’s simply generational. The voters who have a problem with equality are being inexorably replaced by those who don’t. Some of this is as simple as many fewer older folks knowing anyone gay, lesbian, bi/pan, queer or trans who is out to them:

That chart just falls off the table, doesn’t it? And who among us can’t think of a conservative who is supportive of GLBT civil rights because of a close relative or friend? The first chart starts in 1988; I was in high school then. Nobody was out-out. There were rumors. Some people were out to their friends. But in a suburban New England town, in a state where marriage is now an equal right, in 1988 nobody was out to more than their close friends. People waited until college to come out.

Coincidentally, 1988 was the year the first high school gay straight alliance was formed, in Massachusetts. Now, there are over 700 in California alone, and more than 4000 nationwide. People are coming out earlier, and the younger people are the more they are likely to have out GLBT friends, relatives or acquaintances, or to simply be accustomed to a culture which treats their existence as a given.

That explains the major trend since 1988, but does not explain the shift, the acceleration, that 538 identified. Nate says of it:

[I]t seems that, in general, “having the debate” is helpful to the gay marriage cause, probably because the secular justifications against it are generally quite weak.

That’s a possible read. Certainly, when given a chance to make their case, the opponents of equality have fallen on their faces. NOM’s tactics have relied on lies and fear that they can’t back up. As Judge Walker recently found based on a full trial record:

Stereotypes and misinformation have resulted in social and legal disadvantages for gays and lesbians.

The Proposition 8 campaign relied on fears that children exposed to the concept of same-sex marriage may become gay or lesbian. The reason children need to be protected from samesex marriage was never articulated in official campaign advertisements. Nevertheless, the advertisements insinuated that learning about same-sex marriage could make a child gay or lesbian and that parents should dread having a gay or
lesbian child.

The campaign to pass Proposition 8 relied on stereotypes to show that same-sex relationships are inferior to opposite-sex relationships.

[Findings of Fact 78-80, subparagraphs omitted.]

They failed to even produce at trial an expert who could provide credible testimony based on data. They make arguments based on stereotype which, on examination, turn out to simply be untrue. But then, it’s not at all clear to me that people have stopped believing this shit just because it has proven again and again to be untrue.

There’s another possible answer to what has accelerated the long trend towards marriage equality. As the facts on the ground change, with five states and DC in the equal camp and California probably rejoining them next Wednesday, there are swaths of the country where marriage equality is a fact. The republic did not fall. Even Glenn Beck admits TEH GHEYS are not going to come kick his door down and make him do things he doesn’t want to do, and marriage equality is no threat to America. (In fact, his tone is unmistakable mockery for conservatives that act as if GLBT folks are a clear and present danger. In this sense, Beck is in line with libertarian-leaning conservatives like Goldwater, who at least after his career was over, not only basically conceded that conservatives had no business opposing GLBT civil rights, but angrily rebuked social conservatives.)

People like to be on the winning side, and on the right side of history as long as it won’t cost them anything. Momentum creates its own momentum. The hardcore opponents never change their mind, but they stop being willing to put effort into a lost cause; the supporters get emboldened by the palpability of the achievement, and the folks that don’t really care hop on the bandwagon. Maggie Gallagher’s marriage-for-straights tour marshalled just eighteen followers in a North Carolina stop the other day; her tour is showing so little grassroots support some folks are starting to say it helps the equality cause.

It may be less that the opposition has had their minds changed, as that people see the power of an idea whose time has come. Those who are steadfastly opposed are few in number, tired and demoralized. They sound like bigots and can’t figure out why that hurts them. The people who don’t feel strongly either stay out of it because it’s no skin off their nose, or because they have other conservative fish to fry and don’t want to spend capital on a losing battle, or join the winning side to placate friends and colleagues or be on the right side for posterity.

But the why is really a secondary consideration. What matters, after all, is the result. These are real people’s rights, and it’s taken too long already. And it will continue to take too long; especially if the swing vote on the Supreme Court goes the wrong way. I don’t know how long, but I believe I know the outcome.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Julian Morrison permalink
    August 13, 2010 11:18 am

    What’s happening is the same as happened to racism. The homophobes are learning to be closeted. Alas, as with racism it will be a long time before the “dog whistles” die down.

  2. August 13, 2010 11:58 am

    You’re probably right that it’s a generational thing. Plus, something else Judge Walker said that I really liked was that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, and civil rights issues should never be put to the vote. (I heard that on the radio.)

  3. DavidC permalink
    August 13, 2010 12:14 pm

    I have a couple questions, for Thomas, or anyone else who might have thoughts.

    Do you know of a way to distinguish between ‘momentum’ and ‘persuasion’?

    Are there *any* issues where “anyone’s mind is being changed by argument”?

    It was really exciting to see one of my favorite blogs examining graphs from one of my other favorite blogs! Thanks.

    • August 13, 2010 12:57 pm

      From survey data? No. The reason why people change their views is usually addressed by “experts” giving opinions, though there are probably both natural experiments and ways to create experiments. A natural experiment would be to look at the issue as a function of their relationship with people they know to be gay, using a questionnaire that scores the media the subjects watch, their friends, immediate and extended family, etc. Then we could see if there’s a direct correlation between marriage equality approval and relationships with out GLBT folks. If that’s been done I don’t have it.

      I think there are issues where people’s minds are changed by argument. This is a longer discussion, but I don’t believe that we have to take at face value that people’s goals are at the highest order of abstraction (utility, min/max or any other consequentialist end claim) instead of their valuing the policy position itself. I believe people can be argued out of a position they hold contingently on it producing a result, if what they actually want is the result and one can convince them that the causation is unlikely. So if someone really wants more economic growth and thinks lower taxes get there, and you can talk them out of the belief that lower taxes produce growth in the circumstances present, they’ll abandon the position. If they really want lower taxes because they want lower taxes and economic growth is the argument they use on others and not their reason for favoring the policy, then no amount of arguing about it will change their view. That’s why the hardcore marriage opponents never change their mind. They’re not holding their position contingent on anything. Denying equality is not a policy to another end, it is the end itself.

      • joseph permalink
        August 20, 2010 7:58 pm

        I believe that the change in opinions is directly correlated with a decrease in faith and religion in this country. The increase in the Muslim population in the US may lead to a reversal of the noted trend.

  4. August 21, 2010 3:28 pm

    This definitely is generational, but I also think it’s based on education. Higher levels of education correlate strongly with support for gay marriage. This is probably because most university professors (and therefore most universities) lean to the left, and this shapes the views of students who attend those colleges. Interestingly, educated senior citizens are more likely than uneducated seniors to support gay marriage, despite the fact that gay marriage probably wasn’t an issue when they went to college. I think this could probably be explained by the fact that while universities back in the day were not supportive of gay marriage, they were more gay-friendly in general. Ultimately, out of every characteristic, it seems to me that education plays the strongest role in the formation of opinions on gay marriage.

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