The Death of Mainstream Legal Opposition to Gay Marriage in America

Coming right off the back of a similar ruling in Oregon, the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision against the state’s same-sex marriage ban made it the 19th state, alongside the District of Columbia, to allow gay marriage (or, depending on your tolerance for semantics, the 25th – if you include states that currently don’t disallow it). In striking down the ban, District Court Judge John E. Jones III, a George W. Bush appointee, stated emphatically that:

“We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

The decision, made just a few days after the 10th anniversary of the first American gay marriage legislation, has brought with it several noteworthy milestones in the country’s stroll towards equality. For reference, an interactive map with a quick breakdown of the gay marriage situation in each state is available here. The Pennsylvania ruling has consolidated the northeast as the second American region (alongside the states of the Pacific coast) to boast full marriage equality. While progress has largely followed the familiar ‘two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards’  approach to progressive reform in the United States, this week’s decision marked a staggering 14th straight victory for advocates of equality.

It would seem that, for the time being, momentum is on the side of justice. At the moment, approximately 48% of Americans live in a state with full marriage equality. When considering the changes brought by the recent decisions in Oregon and Pennsylvania and the relative estimated density of each state’s gay residents, it’s possible that the majority of gay Americans can now marry in their home state. Additionally, a recent Gallup poll has indicated that a record-high (55%) percentage of Americans agree that “marriages between same-sex couples should… be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages”, as seen below.

Unsurprisingly, the figures also show overwhelming support for same-sex marriage among Millennial Americans, with the 18-29 age group nearly twice as likely to support it as those in the 65+ bracket (78% vs. 42%). It seems likely that the younger generation is poised to drag the country into a relatively progressive future through sheer electoral brute force.

Amusingly, Judge Jones’ decision made reference to the Federal Supreme Court Justice (and prominent conservative judicial activist) Antonin Scalia’s caustic dissent against the Court’s 5-4 ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act’s exclusionary definition of marriage in United States v. Windsor. Couched within his tirade against “same-sex marriage (or indeed same-sex sex)”  is a prediction that the actions of the majority in striking down DOMA “arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition”. Regardless of the tone and intent with which Scalia’s prognosis was produced, several publications across the political spectrum have noted just how prophetic it has turned out to be.  

Indeed, in the summer of 2014 we have reached an interesting point where a District Court Judge appointed by George W. Bush is citing language written by a Supreme Court Justice appointed by Ronald Reagan in striking down popular state-level bans on gay marriage. Indeed, he is in good company, with the vast majority of post-Windsor pushes for equality coming via judicial review attached to explicit references to the landmark case (see above).

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. In America that arc often proves itself to be frustratingly long, but it continues to bends nonetheless. Progress in establishing national marriage equality has, at times, been frustratingly lethargic, but the wave of recent District Court decisions is certainly cause for cautious optimism.

Update (11/08/14): The streak of unbroken pro-marriage equality decisions was finally ended by Roane County Circuit Judge Russell E. Simmons, Jr. in Tennessee.  In his decision, Judge Simmons Jr. said that “neither the Federal Government nor another state should be allowed to dictate to Tennessee what has traditionally been a state’s responsibility”. Amusingly, the case of Borman vs. Pyles-Borman was, in fact, brought to the court in order to determine the state’s ability to provide the couple with a divorce (by recognizing the validity of their marriage which took place in Iowa). Thus, the ruling effectively forced the couple to stay married in Tennessee.

The Myth of Third Party Growth in the United States

One of the primary talking points to surface in the wake of Chris Christie’s ambition-dashing scandal, ‘Bridgegate’, is the importance of ‘aisle-crossing’ moderates in American politics. It’s no big secret that the partisan gulf remains 0ne of the most problematic elements of democracy in the US. The gap, which continues to widen as mainstream neo-conservatism has gained ground, is reflected in record-low public confidence levels. Recently, a Washington Post and University of Virginia study found that 69% of respondents felt that the largest threat to the continued existence of the American Dream is the lack of cooperation in Washington.

The current spotlight cast on Governor Christie has had the side-effect of bringing American centrism to the forefront. Considered widely to be a Republican front-runner for the 2016 Presidential election, Christie’s success (or lack thereof) in the aftermath of the scandal will likely have symbolic repercussions on the credibility of moderates and the bipartisan project for years to come. While the government shutdown of late 2013 represented a significant setback to those who remain committed to productive and conciliatory politics, there are still those who believe in crossing the partisan divide. Notorious aisle-crosser Susan Collins, a Republican senator from Maine, was joined by five other GOP Senators in voting to allow the progression of a bill that would extend benefits from the federal government to Americans experiencing long-term unemployment. It’s absolutely crucial that efforts like these do not go unnoticed.

Using the long-term unemployment bill as a case study, we see that the majority of Republican leadership stands in stark opposition to a compromise. Firebrand Florida Junior Senator Marco Rubio continues to deny that income inequality plays a significant role in the country’s on-going struggle with underemployment in the ailing economy, and remains adamant in finding an alternative to(as oppressed to improving) the White House-sponsored plan. After an erratic (if not downright manic) 2013, during which he played a prominent role in perpetuating the government shutdown, presidential hopeful Rubio kicked off the new year with a speech about poverty in America that slammed the unemployment bill and Democratic strategy. In his speech, the Tea Party superstar outlined a series of policies designed to implement a distinctly Republican-flavored agenda of austerity-based reform. While the Democratic caucus is certainly not rushing to the negotiating table, the proposals of Rubio and his caucus are clearly designed with a priority placed on defeating the White House’s ambitions and not on the creation of a plan to rectify the country’s embarrassing levels of poverty and umployment through traditional means (i.e bipartisan compromise).

John Darkow
John Darkow

While Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic responded in a surprisingly tame manner to Rubio’s remarks (‘Rubio Talks Poverty, Says Things That Are Not Totally Crazy‘), he could not ignore the realities. While he praised the Senator’s initiative, he also made sure to remain honest about the usefulness of the policies:

Republicans these days tend to ignore poverty altogether or to blame it on the poor themselves. Rubio, the Senator from Florida with well-known presidential aspirations, took a different approach on Wednesday. He talked about the persistence of poverty as a crisis. And he made some policy proposals along the way.

That doesn’t mean they were good proposals.

It is plain to see that partisan ideologues have claimed a disproportionate amount of public attention in recent months. Culminating with the government shutdown, the far-right’s efforts to derail the democratic process and hijack centrist discourse have been met with surprisingly little resistance. However, a recently released Gallup study has diverted a fair amount of media buzz  away from the now-normal narrative of partisan clashes. The new report, constructed from an aggregation of ’13 separate… multiple-day polls’, shows that a ‘record high’ (42%) number of Americans now self-identify as political independents. Naturally, this spawned a litany of sensational headlines from the blogosphere decrying the death of party politics in the United States. Bloggers like Care2’s Kevin Matthews have predicted trends in America’s heavily-‘Independent’ future such as a ‘shift away from Conservativism’ and a ‘fall (strikeout) dip of the Two Party System’  that not only flies in the face of established logic, but also ignores an overwhelming amount of evidence that points to the continued polarization and entrenchment of both parties at opposite ends of spectrum.

The reality, however unfortunate, is that the shift identified by Gallup is likely far more superficial than a such headlines suggest. The public’s retreat from major party affiliation is, unfortunately, not the sign of an ideological revolution. Rather, it should be viewed as a symptom of  the reflexive response that has been developed by the public at large against any close association with the extremist antics so common at the fringe. The American electorate is not rejecting the two major political parties, nor is it demanding establishment of a viable third party. Instead, Americans are simply refusing to be publicly associated with political outliers. The extremists that exist at the outside edges of acceptable party ideology have been publicly rejected and privately revered, much as they always have been since the country’s inception. If anything, citizens are simply becoming less willing to out themselves as party-line voters, even if they continue to behave as such.

Why, then, does 40% of the American population self-identify as ‘Independent’ while behaving to the contrary? What is the aversion to declaring party allegiance?  The answer is, as usual, disappointingly simple.

The reality, as betrayed by all of the available evidence, is that an overwhelming majority of American ‘Independents’ adhere just as strongly to major party ideologies, agendas, and candidates as ever before. It is merely the labels that have changed. While the number of those who claim to be politically Independent is certainly on the rise, tangible results have been few and far between. Voters have elected only two ‘Independent’ Congressman. Both are Senators from New England (Bernie Sanders from Vermont and Angus King of Maine) and both have  swiftly joined the Democratic caucus after being elected. There are currently no registered Independents occupying seats in the House of Representatives. Likewise, there has not been a US President without major party affiliation since President Andrew Johnson’s failed Nation Union coalition push in the 1860s. Despite the recent surge in visibility of movements like Libertarianism, veritable Independents that actually vote ‘Independently’ compose a very small portion of the electorate. Poll data from the Gallup survey show that 47% of Americans either affiliate with or lean towards the Democratic Party, with 41% enjoying a similar relationship with the Republicans. The ‘40% claim’ needs to be read with this in mind.

The most apparent motivation for such duplicitous behavior is the prevalence of ‘illusory superiority’ among voters. That is, the aversion developed by the American layman to personal association with the individuals (thus, the parties) that perpetuate the folly of partisan gridlock. The excessive amounts of media sensationalism heaped onto contemporary airwaves has only functioned to exacerbate this behavior. In an Op-ed put together by Political Science professors Yanna Krupnikov and Samara Klar (of Northwestern University and the University of Arizona, respectively) entitled ‘Why people call themselves “independent” even when they aren’t’, the duo expounds on this idea. Pointing to the social unacceptability of support for the political status quo of staunch partisanship, the authors have concluded that:

This perception of partisans leads ordinary people to be embarrassed about admitting – including to pollsters – that they identify with a political party. Instead, people have come to believe that they will make a better impression if they say they are independent.

Indeed Krupnikov and Klar, conclude that the recent increase of ‘Independent’ (non) party identification has produced little in terms of change in the voting public’s ‘actual political views’. Writing in Politico, Poli-Sci professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University provides further support for phenomenon of what he has labelled ‘closet partisan[ship]’. Despite the fact that more and more voters are eschewing party labels, Abramowitz points to the fact that ‘almost three-fourths of independents surveyed by Gallup during 2013 indicated that they leaned toward one of the two major parties’. He believes that despite the shift towards superficial nonpartisanship, Americans are in fact becoming increasingly divided on party lines. Abramowitz points to data from the 2012 American National Election Study to illustrate his argument. Not only did the report show that over 85% of ‘Independent Democrats’ (87%) and ‘Independent Republicans’ (86%) voted for their party’s candidate, but ‘Independent Democrats’ were more likely to vote a straight Democratic ticket than those who reported a weak affiliation with the party. These results are entirely in line with the general decline of ‘split-ticket’ voting patterns, yet another factor contributing to the growing chasm between progressives and conservatives.

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It would be irresponsible to highlight the increase in ‘Independents’ without simultaneously giving lip service to the drop in self-identified Republicans. This is an area where the aforementioned desire to publicly distance one’s self from the fringes is especially apparent. The contemporary Libertarian agenda, for example, shares a large number of core values with what is now considered to be the Republican ‘old school’. If anything, the Millennial predilection for Libertarian affiliation should be viewed as a successful rebranding effort, and not an idological shift. The two movements share many elements of their political platform including: the virtues of ‘bootstraps style’ self-determination, regressive taxation, international isolationism, strong national defense, and an unwavering belief in American exceptionalism.

Gallup1

 As seen in the graphic above, the Gallup poll shows a sharp rise in Independent affiliation in the fourth quarter of 2013, a period that contained both the government shutdown and rollout of the Affordable Care Act. This seems to support the notion that the increase in ‘Independent’ self-labeling is, in large part, a knee-jerk reaction by voters who are capricious enough to be significantly affected by day-to-day developments in Washington. Extravagant amounts of media sensationalism and spin on topics such as the Obamacare rollout, Benghazi mission attack, and NSA domestic spying scandal, have produced equally high levels of distrust  in the machinations of the government. ‘Crooks and liars’ rhetoric, a disturbingly popular excuse for non-participation in America, is as pervasive as ever. Vast swathes of the population have adopted an aggressively apathetic tone and have found a comfortable, if temporary, home under the cover of ‘Independent’ self-identification.

By playing off of the young conservative voter’s fear of being associated with the socially regressive neo-conservative movement of past generations, the Libertarian movement has successfully co-opted many would-be Republicans into its own ranks. This is certainly not limited to the younger crowd, though. A significant number of Baby Boomer-era (former) Republicans that hold  traditionally conservative values are jumping ship as well. As the Neoconservative Right continues to abandon a reasonable conservative platform in lieu of one that plays to the extreme periphery of the party, moderate Conservatives will continue to abandon their cause. The neo-conservative commitment to such radical policies (such as: incessant climate change denial, refusal to recognize marriage equality, aversion to ‘common sense’ gun control legislation, removal of the social welfare safety net, commitment to the continued corprocratic influence, and the nonsensical perpetuation of the War on Drugs) is another factor driving a significant number of Americans away from major party affiliation. While this may not account for the majority of the trend towards ‘Independence’, it is plain to see that the demographics of the ‘newly Independent’ and ‘formerly Republican’ have heavily overlapped in recent years.

While the authors of the Gallup report believe that the increasing level of Independence ‘adds a greater level of unpredictability to this year’s congressional midterm elections’, there is little actual evidence to support this. If anything, it is likely that the discontent felt by the vast majority of self-identified ‘Independents’ will result in higher levels of voter abstention rather than a grandiose wave of political coat turning. That is to say, this phenomenon is first and foremost a manifestation of the pervasive desire to ideologically disassociate from the embarrassing political establishment rather than any positive ideological shift. At the end of the day, the increase in ‘Independent’ identification among American voters has much more to do with falling levels of confidence in the dysfunctional establishment than it does with any real shift in political allegiance or beliefs. As long as the  intransigence of Washington lawmakers is continually glorified and the efforts of the far-right to destabilize and discredit the political process are tolerated, the number of Americans who are too embarrassed to publicly identify with a major party, especially the GOP, will continue to rise.

How Millennials Just Might Save American Politics

American politics are certainly an acquired taste.

The high-profile spectacle of the American party-politics can be difficult to understand and even harder to ignore. The country’s sheer size (in both a demographic and geographical sense) means that the supply of talking points rarely runs dry. While it may be true that the problems vexing the United States (think: gun violence, gay rights, racial tension) are not uniquely American problems, the country’s colossal scale and well-funded media machine foster a sensationalist culture that fuels larger-than-life perceptions both at home and abroad.

While the average bystander would be quite reasonable in dismissing the whole of American politics out-of-hand as being laughably conservative, the reality is indeed a bit more nuanced. The feeling of familiarity that has accompanied decades of widely exported American culture has worked to further entrench and encourage a casual (if not the reductivist) understanding of American politics in the rest of the world. The legacy of the United States’ hegemonic status during the Cold War era has imbued much of the contemporary educated world (especially that which exists across the Atlantic) with a certain sense of laziness when it comes to confronting American domestic developments. It’s certainly easy to base one’s conception of the political scene around the dichotomy between a small minority of culturally enlightened coastal inhabitants stuck in perpetual resistance against the neo-conservative whimsy of the uneducated, gun-toting, red-necked, evangelical masses. However, this fails to account for the quiet majority represented by ‘Middle America’, arguably the most potent electoral force in American politics. It’s indeed this sort of citizen, unremarkable to the news media at large, that serves to characterize the system. While the spectrum seems to be polarizing itself at an alarming rate during its quiet slide to the right, the average voter’s convictions are still far a cry from anything that is being parroted at excessive volume from whomever Fox News has appointed pundit-of-the-week.

Despite the best efforts of the far right to stymie the flow of newcomers, America remains at its core a nation of immigrants. The notion of the ‘melting pot’ society is something that gives the Unites States a sense of individuality, a cultivated cultural identity that differentiates it from other members of the English-speaking world like the United Kingdom and Canada. The most recent manifestation of this issue has come in the form of Congress’ attempt to formulate new reforms on immigration legislation, a prospect met with resistance on all sides. Continuing the trend of Congressional gridlock, staunch opposition has arisen among House Republicans. While the proposed reforms include changes that many would deem ‘victories’ for conservatives, the antagonistic fringe of the Tea Party-right has come out en masse against the legislation without providing any insight into how the problem might be resolved, per usual.

The notion of intra-party antagonism, while nothing new, is a powerful force in a system with little third-party prospects. The mainstream remains very much the only stream. The constraints involved with maintaining a strong party line has emerged as a significant hurdle for today’s Republican party, prompting John Weaver, a former campaign strategist for centre-right candidates John McCain and Jon Huntsman to claim that ‘[The GOP] will not be a national governing party for a long, long time if we turn our backs on this chance to pass immigration reform. It’s just that simple’. [2. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/07/the-immigration-fight-is-the-battle-for-the-soul-of-the-gop/277867/ ]

While the Republican party struggles with their internal strife, the outside world is changing as well. The Millennial generation, commonly defined as those born between the 1980s and the turn of the century, represents a significant electoral force. While 9/11 remains the single most momentus moment in recent American history, the Millennials came of age during a time characterized by the economic mismanagement and inception of multiple protracted military incursions under the administration of George W. Bush. A 2009 study completed by the Center For American Progress produced an interesting observation. The Center concluded:[3.  http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/progressive-movement/report/2009/05/13/6021/the-political-ideology-of-the-millennial-generation/ ]

What is most important about these voters is not their current predilection for Democratic candidates, however, but rather the deeply held progressive beliefs underlying their voting preferences. The progressive beliefs of these young adult voters could recast the core ideological battles that have defined our country’s post-Vietnam political discourse.

Make no mistake: the GOP is losing young voters. The previously ubiquitous notion of ‘young republican clubs’ is becoming less so, and it feels like the majority of young people, raised on a diet of unemployment and economic instability, are generally becoming disinterested in things like Reaganomics, social darwinism, and radical isolationism. On the topic of the immigration reform legislation that is currently negotiating a largely stagnant Congress, a Fox News survey of ~1,000 Americans found that Republicans (90%), people over the age of 65 (87%), and whites (83%) support the addition of additional ‘border security’ measures. Similarly, Democrats (82%), people under the age of 30 (81%), and non-whites (79%) support a path to citizenship for immigrants who hold non-legal status. [4.  http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/06/13/fox-news-poll-voters-want-immigration-reform/ ]

Exit polls from the 2012 Presidential election also illustrate the sharp division between demographics that underscores this potential demographic-political shift. White men still favored Mitt Romney by an overwhelming margin, while non-whites supported President Obama by an even more staggering margin (93% of blacks voted for the incumbent). Obama handily won both 18-29 and 30-44 age groups, while Romney took the 45-64 and 65+ demographics without difficulty. Interestingly, while Obama won out among those without a university degree, those holding a degree, and those with a postgraduate degree, Romney narrowly edged out his competitor among those with standard undergraduate credentials.[5.  http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/results/president/exit-polls/ ]

Issues by Age
Three Very ‘Millennial’ Issues

On the non-Presidential contentions du jour of American politics, the divide is equally maintained. A Washington Post/ABC News poll (above) again illustrates the rather sharp divide between the generations. I believe that these three issues are quite appropriate in illustrating this phenomenon as they represent a sharp departure from the social status quo as well as the shifting social norms of the Millennials. The study shows a significant divide between the Millennials (18-29 demographic) and their parents (50-65+) with the latter half of Generation X (those too young to be parents of Millennials: born after 1965 but before 1979) displaying a slightly left-leaning bias that characterised Middle America in the 2012 elections.

Another influential element in the shifting character of American voters is the erosion of traditionally boundaries that have discouraged voters from crossing party lines on an issue-by-issue basis. This is seen in the the emergence of trans-party movements that seek to promote rationality and compromise that transcends party lines. Among the more prolific of these ‘purple’ organisations include No Labels and The Coffee Party USA , which promote progress through a commitment to bipartisan dialogue. In disputing the effectiveness of reliance on the partisan balance of surveys, The Pew Research Center for People and the Press explains that: [6.  http://www.people-press.org/2012/08/03/party-affiliation-and-election-polls/  ]

Most fundamentally, [political allegiance] is an attitude, not a demographic.

The concept of an ideological split between older and younger demographics is certainly not a new one. It would be fair to assume, even, that a country’s youth will more often than not function as the driving force behind progressive politics. However, the American Millennials have displayed a few interesting tendencies including the disinclination to unconsciously vote along party lines as well as the desire to reconcile bipartisan differences in the name of progress. Another important factor, the increase in the Hispanic/Latino population, is another demographic trend that must be considered. The 2012 US Census revealed that the immigration boom that occurred during the 1990s and continued through the turn of the century has reinforced a surging Hispanic birth rate, and will likely result in a non-white majority in America before 2050. When you consider that 76% of non-white voters of all ages supported President Obama in the previous election cycle, this is far from insignificant.[7.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/12/census-hispanics-and-black-unseat-whites-as-majority-in-united-states-population_n_2286105.html ]

In any case, the ‘two-steps-forward-one-step-backwards’ brand of progress that has defined American civil and political culture during the last half-century and beyond will be incredibly difficult to dislodge. It’s certainly far too early to proclaim the inevitable death of the American right. The second Bush President and current House of Representatives have proved that ill-conceived policy choices have no bearing on the GOP’s longevity. As a result of its tremendous size, fickle culture, and unique history the U.S. will undoubtedly continue to struggle with many disputes that are simply non-issues in smaller, wealthier, and more welfare-inclined nations. Nevertheless, the Millennial generation has brought with it a cause for legitimate, if still cautious, optimism regarding America’s progress towards a positive political future.