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The Winds and the Wedge

July 12, 2011

I’ve said it a few times already, but Clarknt67 at Pam’s House Blend has a very complete explanation, based on a poll of political insiders.  Marriage equality is a wedge issue that harms Republicans, splitting the culture warriors from their allies; the Bachmann and Huckabee fans from the Romneys.

What The Blend covers is a National Journal “Insider Survey.”  It isn’t a poll, in that it isn’t representative of a population.  It’s a snapshot at a club of influential and plugged-in people, the chattering classes, the inside-the-beltway folks, the cognoscenti.  The numbers strongly demonstrate the change in the prevailing winds.

In two years, support for marriage equality among Dems has gone from 59% to 84%.  The contingent for “oppose” has been negligible for a while now, but those wishing to dodge the issue makes up almost the whole of the rest, so that it has dropped from 32% to just 14% — more than six out of seven Dems want their party to stand up and be counted on the side of fairness.

But the really striking thing is that among Republicans, the swing is just as strong.  Support is a lot higher than opposition among Dems — 14% now, a small but significant contingent.  Opposition is down to 30%, with a clear majority of GOP insiders wanting to dodge the issue, up almost twenty points in just two years — pause for effect — the majority of surveyed GOP insiders now want to avoid the issue that was #1 on the Get Out The Vote agenda for their party seven years ago.   On the issue where National Organization for Marriage repeats ad nauseam that they have never lost a referendum, the cognoscenti don’t want to touch it.

Clark puts it this way:


But? But? Hasn’t the right wing been telling us gay marriage will lead to “anarchy,” “gulags“, “the tyranny of the majority“, “the end of the world,” and as Catholic leaders have warned, will make the United States exactly like “China and North Korea?”

How can they abandon a fight with consequences that dire?

Perhaps it’s that a look at the cross-tabs of the polls shows that 15+ years into the debate, most swing voters and independents have rejected the most deranged, hysterical, hyperbole coming out of the far right on the subject. In fact, more and more and more they are siding with those radical, activist homosexuals, as multiple majority opinion polls are showing.

On my account, a wedge issue is one that exposes the weakness in an alliance.  The most common is probably the kind that exposes a specific kind of weakness, the (often class-based) arrangement where a party pays lip service to the interests of a large group of less-influential voters to drive turnout but then, as quietly as possible, serves the interests of its paymasters while in power.  About the Dems’ propensity to do this, don’t get me started.  I’d start ranting and disclose more about how I make my living than I am inclined to.  But about the Republicans’ it’s now right there to see.  It’s a wedge because it exposes what they’ve tried to plaster over for virtually the entire period of what Kevin Phillips called the “Emerging Republican Majority” after the collapse of the New Deal coalition in 1968. 

There are huge dynamics at work, ones that many of my readers could probably teach a course on and that some folks reading this probably know better than me — like the Southern Strategy and the wholesale migration of the Southern white racists from the Democratic to the Republican party after LBJ forced through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act over the martyred body of JFK, so that Reagan started his Presidential run by speaking in favor of states’ rights in a place principally famous for the murder of civil rights workers Cheney, Schwerner and Goodman.

One major facet of the realignment that visited on us this pox of ultraconservatives was the rise of the religious right, and its charismatic leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.  It was an alliance between religious conservatives and barely concealed segregationists that brought us conservative standardbearers like Jesse Helms.  (See, e.g., Trent Lott, Haley Barbour, Rand Paul and George Allen for Southern conservatives who praise the Jim Crow South.)  This isn’t a 1:1 identity; many religious conservatives are not Southern (Bachmann, Palin) and/or have avoided saying things that sound like expressions of segregationist revanchism (Huckabee); but any narrative about the rise of the place of the religious Right in the last realignment would be incomplete without noting these two aspects and their interaction.

I’ve heard University of Maryland political economist Gar Alperovitz say that the conservative revolution began not with Goldwater in 1964, but rather when Truman defeated Dewey in 1948, and they realized that if the parties were aligned as labor versus management, labor would always have the advantage of numbers.  The religious right arose in oppostion to social changes of many kinds, mostly of the greater equality kind.  The availability of hormonal birth control decoupled intercourse from unwanted pregnancy, and that’s a change that religious conservatives are still fighting.  The Supreme Court quickly made access to contraception, and then abortion, a matter of individual rights to privacy, and limited the ability of states to encroach of them.  Abortion has been a focal issue for religious conservatives ever since, and while they try to obscure the link when the public is looking, the truth is that the culture warriors don’t really separate out abortion from contraception.  The movement’s leadership and more committed elements oppose all methods by which a woman might decouple sex from infection and pregnancy.  The folks that believed passionately in rolling back the reproductive justice clock were good for a little money, but a lot of phone banking and a lot of turnout.  Turnout swings elections; the 2010 midterm with its throng of far right freshmen was almost entirely a creature of turnout.

That doesn’t mean they got any respect inside the beltway.  Lee Atwater, the brilliant and villainous GOP strategise of that period (who famously conceded the crypto-racism of the Southern Strategy) called religious conservatives “the extra-chromosome set.”  (Screaming ablism noted so as not to leave the obvious unsaid.  Frontline’s Boogieman is the definitive documentary on Atwater; in the searchable text here, Eric Alterman quotes the extra-chromosome remark.)  It has been often said in many ways that what the GOP wanted from religious conservatives was to show up at election time and then shut up; and from the religious conservatives that the GOP used them but never delivered on their core issues. 

I would dispute that.  Under George W. Bush, for example, religious conservatives got access to a large federal pork project, abstinence-only education funding.  Consistent with Ambrose Bierce’s declaration in the 19th century that politics is a “strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles,” throwing money at a bunch of preachers to tell students that having sex will lead to disease and death and make the women dirty, used up chewing gum (and an array of other unsavory images), even though abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have a perfect track record of failure, is a concession to keep them on board.  They have also gotten Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges who are right-wing extremists, and the “four horsemen” appointed under Reagan, Bush and Bush together with Kennedy have brought us to a place where Roe is basically a dead letter — as Dahlia Lithwick points out, nobody on the pro-choice side wants to see a case go up because nobody believes that Roe will be used as precedent to overturn any restriction no matter how draconian.  In that case, I say, it has been tacitly repealed.  We live in a country, like we did pre-Roe, where abortion is practically available to those who live in some places but not others, and/or who have the resources to pay for it themselves and travel to access it.  One might say the same of Ireland, and other countries with abortion bans.

But there is plenty of evidence of cynicism within the alliance.  Even George W. Bush, who unlike Reagan and his father identified personally as an evangelical, was privately blunt about using conservatives.  In a disillusioned memoir, David Kou, the former #2 at his office of faith-based initiatives quotes Bush as saying, “Forget about all that. Money. All these guys care about is money. They want money. How much money have we given them?”  Kou points out that this history goes back through the political history of the modern religious right:

This White House is certainly not the first Administration to milk religious groups for votes and then boot them unceremoniously back out to pasture. In his days as a notorious “hatchet man” for President Richard M. Nixon, before he had allowed Jesus to transform his life, Chuck Colson used to oversee outreach to the religious community. “I arranged special briefings in the Roosevelt Room for religious leaders, ushered wide-eyed denominational leaders into the Oval Office for private sessions with the President,” Colson later wrote. “Of all the groups I dealt with, I found religious leaders the most naive about politics. Maybe that is because so many come from sheltered backgrounds, or perhaps it is the result of a mistaken perception of the demands of Christian charity … Or, most worrisome of all, they may simply like to be around power.”

[Emphasis supplied.]  To be blunt, the truth of the matter isn’t important.  What is important is that religious conservatives, whose agenda is anathema to me, have a grievance against the political party they are aligned with.  Many feel slighted, used, suckered.  They keep thinking they’re losing the culture war, even when we see them eroding long-held rights.  They know — they know — they’re losing on marriage equality.  Even the President of Focus on the Family has said that they’ll lose it, and one GOP insider on the NJ survey said that “only idiots fight demography.”

The GOP is in an awkward position.  The candidates for the nomination will have to stand for homophobia in public policy to get the nomination, reaffirming the GOP’s current status as the party of bigots and religious extremists among younger voters and harming their prospects not just in the general election but elections to come.  Even without delivering anything in policy terms, GOP insiders recognize now that just paying lip service is costly.  But no candidate can afford to leave the homophobia-first voters to the other candidates; that would sacrifice the nomination.  Going forward, the GOP has to find a way to get those voters angry and scared and make them show up, or they lose the turnout battle.

Right now, Democrats have the advantage that the right thing to do is also the politically smart thing to do, and helps drive a wedge in the opposing coalition and possibly sideline social conservatives.  Democrats since 1968 have had a remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons and justify as realpolitik what is really the shortest-term, most craven and cowardly choice — and Obama is upholding this long and ugly tradition by refusing to say what everyone knows he should say, which is that he’s changed his position and is for marriage equality.  Most of the people who would be alienated by that decision already were never gettable votes for him and it would help his turnout over the dismal 2010 midterm, when disillusioned progressives stayed home in droves.  The Republicans see the weather map and know it means rough sailing for them — but apparently our commander in chief needs a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. notsurewhattobelieve permalink
    July 25, 2011 10:27 am

    I’m sorry, this is probably off-topic, but it’s an issue that’s been weighing heavily on my mind and I really don’t know where else to put this.

    Namely, I’ve been a staunch supporter of the sex-positive movement for a long time, but recently I’ve started to have my doubts after hearing about this book called “Sex and Culture” by JD Unwin. I haven’t managed to get my hands on the book itself, due to it being rare and out of print, but from reading excerpts and reviews, it seems to prove pretty conclusively that societies are at their most prosperous when practising strict heterosexual monogamy, and start to decline soon after sexual promiscuity becomes commonplace, through analysis of over 80 historical cultures. And though I’ve searched thoroughly for information about this book, I have yet to come across a single study or article that makes a credible attempt to refute its contents.

    I’m not here to sow panic or try to convert people, actually I can’t think of anything that would make me happier than being proven wrong on this – if anyone could link a study that comes to a different conclusion about human societal development and sexuality, I’d be very grateful. The idea that sex-positivity is a good thing is a beautiful idea, an idea I really, honestly want to believe. But if it turns out that it is not true, that it’s actually harmful to society, then I simply can’t make myself believe in it.

    • July 25, 2011 12:04 pm

      Let me see if I’ve got this: you’re worried about the conclusion of a book you have not read and can’t even find, because some people say it makes really remarkable claims that you can’t evaluate because you can’t find it to read them. And it’s not influential enough to have produced a conclusive debunking that you can find, so you consider it un-debunked …? Strict het monogamy isn’t what I’d call Athens, or Sparta, or Rome, during their best-known periods. Nor Britain at the high point of its Empire, though the appearance of het monogamy certainly was universal. (And who says that the period of conquering people and stealing resources is the high point of a civilization, anyway? It was England in the desperate decline of the postwar period that produced the British Invasion bands and a whole host of rich culture.) So I’m guessing that somebody wrote a book of selectively sourced historical storytelling as a polemic for monogamous heterosexuality, and it’s kind of a piece of shit, so that the only people who ever quote or even mention it are people who already agree with its conclusions.

    • August 9, 2011 7:49 am

      if anyone could link a study that comes to a different conclusion about human societal development and sexuality, I’d be very grateful

      How about you first link to a study that comes to this conclusion? You can’t claim a book review as a source and expect other people to give two shits about it.

      Anyway, I seem to have dug up a digitized version of the book. It’s ugly as hell and I certainly wouldn’t want to read 600 pages in this manner, but it’s something.

      They’re the same file; a zip containing several folders with the books in different formats. Knock yourself out.

  2. Tom Coward permalink
    October 2, 2011 10:38 am

    FWIW Deptartment: Equality Maine is gathering signatures to get marriage equality back on the ballot for 2012. We lost the “people’s veto” of the equality bill the legislature passed a couple of years back, and we are hoping the ground has shifted enough since then. Extra bonus: it might energize enough progressives to unseat our teabag of a governor.

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