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Gay Marriage and the Democrats: Rock and a Hard Place

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The Democratic Party is going to find itself in a very difficult place this election season. Judges and Supreme Courts from San Francisco to Massachusetts are forcing their hand; gay marriage will be an issue in 2004.

This places me in a quandry that I suspect I share with many Democrats. In general, I am a strong supporter of gay rights. Moreover, I think it’s inherently unfair that in many cases, legal rights available to heterosexual couples (joint tax returns, for example, among many others) are denied to gay people because they’re not married … and yet the law prohibits them to marry.

At the risk of sounding like I’m tossing out the old “some of my best friends…” garbage, I will say that I know several homosexual couples who are more stable and loving and who’ve been together longer than many of the straight couples I know. I don’t think gay couples represent any sort of “threat” to the family. Just like staight couples, there are good matches and bad, and good matches make for good families no matter what.

But I don’t know about gay marriage. Because while there is a legal component to the issue, certainly, marriage is also largely a religious institution. And I don’t think the government ought to be in the business of mandating its will into religious practice. (I am highly uncomfortable with the precedent it sets; once the government can dictate what MUST be practiced or included in a religion, we’ve opened all sorts of nasty floodgates.)

My own conflicted emotions on the subject serve to illustrate how hard it’s going to be for Democrats to dance around this issue in 2004. When even those sympathetic to the cause have mixed emotions, it tells me that the country’s not going to be ready for this, or wish it to become law. And that makes it a loser issue for the Dems this year.

I know the arguments… doing what’s right and doing what’s popular are infrequently the same thing; and you can’t tell people who’ve waited for centuries to wait a few years more. I am sure that there were some Democrats in the 60s who tried to tell Martin Luther King, “Look, I sympathize with you, but the country’s not ready… can’t you wait a little longer – and in the meantime, stop killing us at the polls by making this an issue?” That approach was the easy way out 40 years ago, and I’ll concede that it’s an easy way out now.

But there is a practical truth to admit: if the Democrats endorse and support gay marriage as a party platform or even on a national or state candidate level, 9 times out of 10, we’re going to lose. And I for one do not believe the country can afford four more years of George Dumya Bush. I think Bush’s re-election would be disasterous. This year, the stakes are just too high.

Bush is weak on so many levels; Democrats can attack his rush to war in Iraq (which he was planning long before 9/11), his having at best exaggerated and at worst lied about WMD intelligence in Iraq, his feed-the-rich and screw-the-rest-of-you fiscal policies, his assault on civil liberties, his basic untrustworthiness… we have so many things to point out to the American people that will resonate and will drive people to defeat him a second time. Why on earth would we hand him an issue with which he can invoke the culture wars and distract the public from his innumerable failures?

So where does that leave me? Stuck between what I believe may be right and what I know is practical; between the courageous and the realistic; between following my heart and following my head. Caught between a rock and a hard place.

What’s a good socially tolerant Democrat to do?

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About The Chronic Curmudgeon

  • http://www.ambivalent.us Eryk

    I think you’re missing the point. Gay marriage is about civil marriage, not religious ceremonies. Civil marriage is an institution that already exists and is indeed deeply rooted in our society. Civil marriage for gay couples is about establishing the blanket of protections that (here’s the important part) the law already offers. Anything short of that is discrimination.

    I think that if the Democrats would support this issue for what it is, a civil rights violation, and educate themselves on the topic they would fare a lot better. I’ve seen many of them on stages and in front of microphones going about this the same way you have and all I can do is shake my head. It’s like listening to a group of men explain to a 12-year-old girl how to use a tampon.

    Your quandary in the final paragraph troubles me. It seems that your devotion is not to the people but to the party. Putting yourself in that position makes you as bad as the die-hard Bushites. You ask “What’s a good socially tolerant Democrat to do?” I’d rather we ask: What’s the human thing to do?

  • http://christopherstake.blogspot.com Christopher

    In principle, you may well be right. But my point remains – you and I are in the distinct minority on this. And in an election with so much at stake, and with the need to defeat Bush so great (IMHO), and with him handing us issue after issue to defeat him with… do we want to press the issue right now and potentially cost ourselves an election we can win? I know that there are many who think it’s better to stand on principle and lose than it is to do what it takes to win. I am not so sure. Four years ago, Nader took that philosophy and he cost us four years of Bush.

    While I don’t value party over people, I do value defeating George Bush over all other issues in this campaign. I don’t care who it is, I want someone to beat him. And I can assure you that despite you and I agreeing on this princple, a significant majority of the voting public does not. It is my opinion that if we take a stand here, we’re going to lose the middle. Disdain them all you want, the fact is that they’re needed to win.

    So my question stands: with Bush being so dangerous for our country, and with the need to defeat him so strong, do we want to push an issue right now that is certain to provide Bush fodder to distract the public? Do we want to win, or be right? (When I say “we,” I mean the anti-Bush people… and I just don’t think a Naderesque campaign run on principle but appealing to 3% of the public — Nader’s total in 2000 — has a chance at beating Bush.)

    So we can be right and lose, therefore guaranteeing four more years of everything we’ve seen since 2000… or we can understand that if we play pragmatic politics, we stand a better shot of winning in 2004 and having a chance to enable all sorts of change on multiple issues, and make our country better. I guess I’m hoping we try to win this one.

  • Eric Olsen

    Eryk is right: this is about civil marriage, not religion. the governement can’t and shouldn’t tell religions how to handle matters of conscience, but neither should civil law be dictated by matters of religion. And religion is the only rational objection I can think of to gay marriage. People are free to decide whether their own religious or moral sense allows them to “approve” of gay marriage or anything else, but we are talking about equal protection under the law, and this is an area of very clear unfairness and discrimination. Under our system, law should take precedence over religion or we are no better than the Taliban.

    And the politics works in both directions: I am currently leaning toward Bush because of my very strong support for the war on terror and my belief no Democrat will take it as seriously as the current administration. But there are any number of issues with which I don’t agree with the administration and this is just one more pushing me away, especially the fact that he is purposely making a political issue out of it. I am sure there are others like me.

  • Eric Olsen

    Well-written and thoughtful post, by the way, Christopher.

  • http://www.ambivalent.us Eryk

    I still contend that if the Democrats played the facts against the Republic Anti-Gay propaganda factory that this wouldn’t be an issue in the first place. The fact is that most of the Democratic nominees can’t even say the word gay without wincing. This is the problem. How do they expect to make it a non-issue when it’s completely obvious how big of a wrench in has thrown into their campaign plans?

    I don’t think the topic of gay marriage will be unavoidable by any means. I’m curious as to what you think the best way to handle it would be. How can anyone compromise when civil/human rights are concerned?

  • http://christopherstake.blogspot.com Christopher

    Thanks, Eric. And thank you, Eryk, for an engaging discussion.

    How do I best think it should be handled? I guess that’s the point of my post: I don’t know.

    Before I go further, let me say that I an in fundamental agreement with you on two premises here: one, that opposition to gay marriage is based solely on religion; and two, that this is indeed a matter of civil rights. While I may discuss varying political strategies, I don’t want to be construed as being part of the Christian Right anti-gay propoganda machine. I’ve no wish to be associated or to associate myself with such hateful people.

    I’m not talking about right and wrong, though – although I concede willingly that this is very much an issue of right and wrong, both to supporters and opponents. I’m talking about the RealPolitik of our times – which is that most of the voting population isn’t going to support this. Which again leads me to wonder whether we will value being right over being electable.

    I agree with you that this topic will be unavoidable. Even if there were a way around it, conservatives will make it the centerpiece of the fall campaign. But I disagree that this wouldn’t be a “problem” if we simply play the facts against the Hate Machine. Because there are two facts that we have to be aware of too: most of America is religious, and large majorities have indicated their opposition to gay marriage in the polls. And while I totally agree with the premise I infer from your point above – that civil/human rights are an issue of right and wrong, and that honor dictates standing for what’s right – I also believe just as strongly that endorsing or supporting this issue will spell defeat for any Democrat in November.

    And that’s the quandry I’m trying to suss out in my own head. When I believe it to be so important to get Bush *out* of the White House, can I then choose to actively promote a policy position that – while right – will cost my “team” the election?

    I guess my answer to your question – call it the easy way out or cowardice if you want to, though I see it more as trying to balance reality with ideality – is that I think we on the left ought to let up on this *for now* and not allow the conservatives to make this any more a wedge issue than it already is. True, they will make it an issue, even if we on the left let it go for now. But we don’t have to help them along. I’d say that we ought to do what we must to win in November (again, by virtue of the two party system, my viable options are limited to Democrat and Republican, so if given that choice my loyalties will lie with Democrats 99% of the time).

    Once we’ve won, we can go about undoing the economic damage caused by Bush, and go about healing the social divisiveness that conservatives seem to encourage. The time to bring this issue up, to me, is once we’ve won and President Kerry (or Edwards, or whomever) isn’t trying to use it as a way of dividing and conquering America, as Bush has and will.

    Just my two cents. I don’t claim to have the answer, though. (What’s the line from the old Kansas song? “And if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know?”)

  • http://christopherstake.blogspot.com Christopher

    By the way, question for you both: do you think it might be the wording itself of “marriage” as opposed to the civil unions you seem to describe (talking about this as a civil rights issue)? Marriage is a religious sacrement; the legal recognition by the State of rights granted to married couples could in fact be written into law as unalienable if we recognized civil unions, could it not?

    I’m not taking that position, necessarily. I’m simply suggesting that the passionately felt opposition to gay marriage – and also Democratic sqeamishness at the issue – is because marriage is not simply seen as a civil issue by most people in this country. It’s seen as something with religious implications – which is why most ceremonies happen at church or temple and not City Hall. Given that religious overtone to the institution of marriage, could a compromise be to recognize all the civil and legal rights that come with marriage, without calling it “marriage?” Because whether we like it or not, people do see this as an assault on traditional religious values and beliefs. Why not eliminate that arrow from the opponents’ quiver? Remove the religious implication and title, make this all about defending legal and civil rights, and force them to try and defend the denial of those rights to people without trying to claim they’re defending marriage.

    Of course, I can anticipate your response, that the right of a couple to marry is already protected by law, and that refusing to call it “marriage” as opposed to “civil union” is in itself a way of separating gay couples out as somehow different. You’d be right in calling me on that, too. Like I’ve said, I am not sure how to handle the whole issue.

  • http://www.ambivalent.us Eryk

    Civil unions would only be acceptable if the entire institution of civil marriage (opposite-sex and same-sex) were renamed. Find a Republican in support of that.

    Establishing marriage all but in name (“civil unions”) for some citizens while keeping marriage open to heterosexual couples would still be discriminatory. As the Massachusetts court recently pointed out, the right to marry also includes the right to use the terms “married” and “spouse”. They go further to point out that the reasoning behind a separate institution would be more than semantic but a deliberate attempt to paint gay couples as second class citizens. We learned during the civil rights movement (separate water fountains, entrances, etc…) that separate is rarely, if ever, equal.

    The question of civil unions also ignores the fact that civil marriage already exists. Why create a separate “special” for gay couples when laws and protections have already been established for civil marriage? It would require many courts, business, families, and so on to do a lot of legal sidestepping to truly establish an equal institution.

    The above doesn’t take any of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment into consideration, which bans gay marriage “or the incidents thereof” (i.e “civil unions”). The conservatives don’t want to deprive gay couples of marriage, they also want to deprive them of the protections associated with it. They are not prepared to compromise, why should we?

    Senator Kerry has chosen to take the civil union approach in his campaign and has gone so far as to put out press releases condemning the Massachusetts decisions. I think this is a mistake and makes it very difficult for me to support him. In any civil rights argument, there is only one answer: full and equal protection under the law. Anything less just isn’t good enough.

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    Christopher, I’ve visited this issue on my blog here. The part I’m not sure about is your belief most of the Democratic electorate is strongly opposed to gay marriage. I know polls say sixty something percent of the public opposes marriage for gays. But, would Democratic voters consider it a make or break issue? Wouldn’t those voters simply include it on their for and against lists without giving it dominance?

    I agree with Eryk’s comment. Churches would remain free to refuse to marry gays. So, that threat does not seem real.

  • http://christopherstake.blogspot.com Christopher

    I’m not talking about the Democratic electorate. I’m talking about the general electorate – those 15% in the middle who legitimately swing between parties depending on the election and the issues involved. Sure, our base supports gay marriage – as strongly as the conservatives oppose it.

    But can we win the (horribly) cliched “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads” and other independents? What does the electorate that doesn’t self-identify with the Democrats think?

    I don’t know the answer to that. I’,m just trying to clarify what I meant.

  • http://www.ambivalent.us Eryk

    I don’t think you’re going to win soccer moms and NASCAR dads with your opinion on gay marriage, no matter what it is. I think, through education and responsible reporting, we could do our best not to turn them off by it. It’s true what they say, people vote their pocket books. In reality I don’t see it being a wedge issue no matter how hard the Christinazi’s try because it simply doesn’t truly affect but a small percentage of people.

    It’s late and I’m having trouble thinking so if the above makes no sense I apologize in advance.

  • http://christopherstake.blogspot.com Christopher

    On the contrary… late or not, I think your last comment makes a lot of sense, and you may well be right. The folks who were going to be up in arms about this were going to vote for Bush anyway, and the swing voters that will decide the election will likely have other issues top of mind. Perhaps you’re right and I am just overthinking this because that’s what I do.

    Thanks for a very interesting discussion today, Eryk.

  • http://christopherstake.blogspot.com Christopher

    And Eric and Mac Diva too.

  • http://www.bhwblog.com bhw

    The thing that concerns me about this issue is the number of people, even here in MA, who have no problem with civil unions but who absolutely draw the line at marriage. Something like 70% of MA residents support either civil unions or gay marriage, but the percentage that supports gay marriage is much smaller than that of civil unions [I can’t remember the number off the top of my head].

    The thing is, they can’t really articulate *why* they draw the line there, except to say stuff like, “Marriage has always been between a man and a woman.” I’m not sure if that’s religion talking or not, because most of these same people don’t listen to, say, the Catholic church on lots of other issues, like birth control.

    It might take a long time to break that last barrier down if people can’t really explain why they feel that way, but only that they do feel that way, and strongly. So civil unions might be the only way to go right now, even though I agree that there should never be a compromise on civil rights.

    Dunno.

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    bhw, I have had some experience with how people can find minority groups threatening. I think the white, the straight, the male, you know, groups that are used to being dominant, often feel a need to hold on to some form of dominance even when they say no to the more obvious kinds of bigotry. I would compare favoring civil unions and opposing actual marriage to being in favor of the public accommodations laws that allow people of color to ride any place on public transit, but being opposed to affirmative action, because it allows people of color to get better jobs. I am not saying they are just alike. But, each expresses a desire to withhold something from the outgroup. To maintain the status quo to an extent while changing it.

  • http://www.ambivalent.us Eryk

    I agree with Mac Diva. There are few places where groups of people continue to dominate society. These gaps have been closing quickly over the last 100 years.

    Something that hasn’t been brought up is the obvious generational aspect. People over 40 poll significantly higher against gay marriage than younger people. (Post-9/11 Neo-Conservative O’Reilly Youth aside) I have some younger friends for whom homosexuality just isn’t an issue. The times are changing. In 20 years I’m positive we’ll see a national majority of some kind in favor of gay marriage and gay-rights.

    Anyway, thanks for a good thread. Looking forward to more.

  • Chris Kent

    The Dallas Morning News just three months ago began posting photographs of gay couples who had made “Commitments” to each other. These are run on the same Personals page that include heterosexual couples announcing engagements, marriage detail, etc….I’m certain other citites are doing this, but for the DMN to do this, one of the most conservative rags in the country, is an interesting step. To me it’s a sign that such a union is slowly being accepted in our culture, emphasis on the word “slowly.”

  • http://macaronies.blogspot.com Mac Diva

    You are kidding, Chris? I know that paper from my journalism days. Was an intern there one summer. It is hard for me to envision a place that conservative running commitment announcements. Believe me, it really has changed.

  • Chris Kent

    It shocked me too MD – and I grew up and live in this town. I was pleased to see it. Dallas, for all its faults, and there are many, is slowly (like frozen molasses) becoming cosmopolitan….

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