The Democrats' Marriage Problem
Doug Ireland is a radical journalist and media critic whose recent writings can be found at his blog Direland.
When the anti-gay marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution came up for a vote in the Senate last week, its Republican proponents failed by 11 votes to pass it. Despite George W. Bush’s televised endorsement and despite the fact the GOP had gained four Senate seats in the interim, the amendment's supporters picked up only one vote since the last time the Senate voted on the amendment in 2004. But as everyone knows, passing the amendment was not the true object of the exercise. The anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment was brought up again this year to help make it a hot-button social issue for the legislative elections this coming November—and to get Democrats on record as voting against it so their votes could be used against them.
However, the Senate vote was only one part of the Republican’s anti-gay offensive. The GOP and their Christian right allies (including the Catholic Church) have already succeeded in placing anti-gay marriage referendums on the ballot in seven states, with efforts under way in a half-dozen other states to put identical measures on the November ballot. In 2004, anti-gay marriage referendums passed in 11 states, and accomplished their strategic objective: increasing voter turnout among religious conservatives, a major reason why the Republicans swept the 2004 elections. This year, the Bush-Rove Republicans, despite their declining poll numbers, are hoping to repeat that turnout success with electoral gay-bashing.
The Democrats have come in for stinging criticism from the gay community for doing nothing to fight these anti-gay marriage referendums. When, last month, Democratic consultant Paul Yandura sent a memo to Democratic leaders criticizing the party’s do-nothing attitude in the face of the Republican’s anti-gay marriage strategy, Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean responded by firing Yandura's domestic partner, Donald Hitchcock, the DNC’s gay liaison. Yandura called Dean's action "retaliation, pure and simple." A few weeks later, Dean came in for renewed criticism for appearing on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” TV show and proclaiming that the Democratic platform defined marriage as “between a man and a woman”—a total misrepresentation of the party’s official position which gays saw as pandering to a religious-right extremist. (In fact, the platform says the issue should be up to states to resolve, and is agnostic on the question of marriage equality for gay people—and Dean was forced to apologize in public for his extraordinary gaffe.)
With the November elections now only five months away, the national Democrats still have taken no concrete steps to fight the anti-gay marriage referendums—nor have state Democratic parties done so in the states where this is a ballot issue. The state parties haven’t even deployed their legal teams to challenge the petitions in those places where the anti-gay forces have collected signatures to put the measures on the ballot—a rather suicidal absence from the field, given the right‘s ‘04 turnout success with marriage referendums.
In defense of their do-nothing attitude, some Democratic leaders have thrown the question back in the face of the gay community, saying it’s up to gays to come up with a strategy on gay marriage that works. But let’s face it: There is no magic bullet that will defuse the religious homophobia that has been responsible for these referendums’ successes. Most polls show nearly three out of five Americans opposed to gay marriage. Indeed, the last Gallup poll on the subject, in April this year, reported that opposition to gay marriage had actually risen to 68 percent, as compared to 55 percent in a poll Gallup had taken the year before. That is why the right has again made it a national electoral issue.
Oh, there are arguments that can be used against these referendums—for example, most of them (like the Federal Marriage Amendment) also forbid giving the “legal incidents” of marriage to same-sex couples. This language would emasculate and wipe from the books all legislation, of the kind that exists in many states and localities, conferring domestic partnership benefits (from insurance to inheritance to medical decision-making rights) on gay couples. And the polls show that consistent majorities of Americans approve of civil domestic partnership rights regardless of couples’ gender.
Moreover, while the anti-gay conservatives like to parade as proponents of “freedom,” in fact the freedom to be who one is without being penalized for it is at the heart of the issue of marriage equality. Freedom and equality are indivisible. When the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights for black people at its famous 1948 convention, it didn’t do so because someone had just come up with clever new arguments to stop people from being racists, or because integration had suddenly become popular with all Americans. It embraced black civil rights because it was the right thing to do.
The history of the struggle for black civil rights demonstrates that only when political leaders actually lead do they begin to help change attitudes. If poll-driven Democratic politicians run away from the issue of full equality before the law for lesbians and gays—including equal rights for their committed couples—they will be retarding social advancement of the goal of full human freedom for all—an integral part of America’s promise. And, as the famous slogan rightly puts it, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
The best way to fight the nefarious electoral effects of the anti-gay marriage issue on the Democrats' chances is, of course, for the party to put forward an unambiguous program on other issues that grabs people where they live—especially in their pocketbooks. As Tom Frank, author of the best-selling What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, pointed out in a New York Times op-ed piece describing the Republicans’ anti-gay marriage campaign two years ago, “it owes its power as much to a peculiar narrative of class hostility as it does to homophobia or ideology.” Yet, in the eyes of the electorate, the Democrats still have yet to draw a significant line of demarcation between themselves and the Republicans on economic issues. That’s why, in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll on the subject three weeks ago, 52 percent of voters “said the Democrats have not offered a sharp contrast to Bush and the Republicans.” Most other polls have consistently shown similar results.
Only when the Democrats convince voters that they stand for a real alternative to the Republicans on everything from Bushonomics to Iraq will the anti-gay marriage issue lose its electoral power to determine who wins elections.