Monday, October 27, 2008

Split Ticket? What California's Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage Means for U.S. Liberals


The most recent polls have shown increasing support among Californians for the passage of Proposition 8, which would amend the state's constitution and define marriage in heterosexual terms. Indeed, many gay rights advocates now fear that the initiative will pass, reversing a recent California Supreme Court ruling which holds that the prohibition of same-sex marriage denies equal protection to gays and lesbians.

In a recent blog post, I analyzed a California anti-gay group's effort to mobilize black opposition to same-sex marriage in order to strengthen support for the initiative. The organization believes that higher-than-normal black participation in the election, due to Obama's candidacy, could provide crucial votes for the measure. While this strategy cynically attempts to exploit homophobia among blacks in order to constitutionalize bigotry, the closeness of the vote shows that it might prove successful. Although I have not seen any recent polls which provide a racial breakdown of the support for Proposition 8, earlier studies have shown that in every state, blacks oppose same-sex marriage more than the general population.

The contentious California battle over same-sex marriage also demonstrates that, despite their renewed electoral power, Democrats remain divided over many issues. Although the potential for a Democratic sweep has caused many liberal commentators to opine about the "death" of social conservatism, California proves that their exuberance is misguided. Obama, like Democrats before him, will win California by a very large margin. Although U.S. culture often exaggerates the extent of California's liberalism, the state, by and large, is blue territory. And while Californians in the past have voted to prohibit affirmative action and bilingual education, it has been somewhat more progressive on issues of sexual orientation. The closeness of the polls on Proposition 8 suggest that Democrats, even in one of the bluer states, remain split over social issues.

If Californians reject same-sex marriage, this could indicate that voters there and in other parts of the country do not support issues they perceive as too liberal. Thus, the fight over Proposition 8 validates the concerns of some Democrats (myself included -- see this and this) who disagree with the idea that the party's electoral success proves that the country has shifted dramatically to the left and that social conservatism has become a relic of the past. Instead, Democrats have benefited from the ineptness of the Bush administration, the crisis in the economy (which is not completely the fault of Bush), and McCain's poorly run campaign.

Until Lehman Bros. collapsed, McCain and Obama were tied in most polls; some of them actually had McCain in the lead. The ensuing crisis on Wall Street caused many voters to shift to the Democratic ticket, following the same historical pattern of punishing the incumbent party for the nation's economic woes. The swing voters have turned to the Democrats to fix the economy -- not because they want them to implement a far left social agenda (just for the record, I consider myself far to the left of most Americans, including most Democrats). California's same-sex marriage debate should serve as a wake-up call for those liberals who continue to celebrate the defeat of U.S. conservatism.

If Obama wins, as most polls predict he will, and if Democrats expand their control in Congress, the party will have to govern a country that remains center/center-right. This will undoubtedly require compromise and caution. Many Democrats, however, have acted as if a new liberal utopia has arrived, now that we have slain the Bush-Cheney dragon. A sober assessment of the political landscape, however, tells a different story.

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