A state constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman won with 52 percent of the vote, leaving its detractors to wonder how Nov. 4 could have been such a step forward and such a fall back. This is Yes We Can … and No We Can’t.
The promise of a balance of power, that grade school truth that no one in a democracy should have overriding authority, falls short when a mere 52 percent of voters, just 500,000 more votes out of 10 million at first count, can ink the constitution to handcuff the governor and high court in this supposed “mandate” from the people.
The majority does rule in a democracy, but on the national level, two-thirds of both houses of Congress and a three-quarters majority of states are required to amend the Constitution. This is an intentionally difficult bar to achieve, one worthy of the critical power endowed to the document.
It hardly seems right that 48 percent of the (supposedly) most progressive state in the union, one so often viewed as a snapshot of the future of America, would now be left with so few options to stop this miscarriage of justice. Fifty-two percent in a democracy makes something legal; it doesn’t make it right.
The second aspect of Proposition 8 that must be addressed is the nightmarish revival of the “Bradley effect.” L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, whose 1982 gubernatorial election defeat after most polls gave him a safe margin suggested that many voters could not bring themselves to support a black candidate when imminently faced with the prospect behind the ballot curtain. This fear proved unfounded in Obama’s resounding victory, in large part because voters were accustomed to Obama as a personality and political force that moved beyond race.
But this kind of spontaneous, heat-of-the-ballot reversal may have held strong sway in Proposition 8’s victory. Most polls suggested the measure would go down in defeat by as much as a 10-point margin. What caused such a strong denial of these prognostications? Did self-professed progressive voters tell pollsters both before and after voting that they’d refuted Prop 8, when in fact they’d succumbed to yes votes in the booth?
It seems unlikely that the evangelical and radical conservative base turned out in sudden masses, considering Obama’s large margin of victory in the state. In fact, the L.A. Times reports that 70 percent of African-American voters, who supported Obama overwhelmingly, voted for Prop 8. Significant support for Prop 8 was also found in Asian and Latino communities who voted convincingly for Obama. The schism of progressivism – how much progress is enough, how much is too much – crippled the drive to defeat the bill.
So then, at such a watershed moment in the history of American civil rights, what can be said of the progress of gay rights? Martin Luther King was fond of saying that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice, so can the struggles of equality based on sexual orientation be chalked up to a long struggle on a very long road?
In part yes, but now is an ideal moment for the gay rights movement to address its major failings as well. While the civil rights movement found its truest purchase with a grassroots effort to counter, face-to-face, the worst racism in the deep South, the leadership of the gay rights movement has headquartered its cause in the country’s most accepting cities – San Francisco, New York among them – and seems in many instances out of touch with the realities of prejudice in small towns and “middle America.”
The movement has been unable to stem the tide of conservative communities using the issue of gay marriage as a rallying cry to pass restrictive legislation and elect candidates far outside the mainstream values of their constituency. Even the map of Prop 8 support within California shows a clear divide between more progressive coastal counties and the more conservative inland.
Americans are inherently and foolishly disdainful of our judiciary, and the gay rights movement cannot base its progress on court rulings in its favor, those perceived to go against the “will of the people.” It is the opinion on Main Street, not the majority opinion read out by law clerks that must carry the day.
Now is the moment for introspection in the cause of gay rights, to begin a greater effort to work from the ground-up, to change minds that will lead to changed laws. No doubt the younger generation, living with openly gay and lesbian friends, family members, co-workers and mentors, will one day set right this shame. But in the here and now, gay rights advocates must seriously reconsider their approach to hasten a bend towards justice.