No matter what the Supreme Court decides, after hearing this week's arguments, I think America has reached the tipping point on the subject of gay marriage. I say that because I think that gay marriage is going to win, in the end -- even if the Supreme Court ducks the issue this year. As civil rights battles go, the country has moved extraordinarily fast to where we find ourselves now: the point of no return. Victory for gay rights activists is not assured this time around, but it should now be seen as almost inevitable. Which makes this a very historic point in American progress.
That's a pretty sweeping thesis, but the facts justify it, I think. If you just took a snapshot in time of where we're at now, it might not seem as optimistic as when you put everything in context. After all, something like four out of five states have bans on gay marriage written into their laws in one fashion or another. Over 30 of these state laws passed by voter referenda. That's a pretty daunting fact to begin with.
But context is key. Banning gay marriage has been a favorite for Republicans for the past 20 years or so. It's been a proven winner for them. Put a gay marriage initiative on the ballot, and not only would you get more people out to vote, but they'd be reliably more conservative in the voting booth. Gay marriage initiatives were a big factor in George W. Bush's 2004 win, according to many political analysts -- as a backlash to the mayor of San Francisco pushing the issue to the forefront.
But that was then -- even though it was less than a decade ago -- and this is now. Things have changed dramatically in the meantime. In 2012, for the first time ever, gay marriage actually won at the ballot box, and in more than one state. Add to this the fact that the conservatives are now a victim of their own success -- there are barely any states left which haven't already banned gay marriage. And if gay marriage is already banned, then putting it back on the ballot is pointless, for conservatives.
However, it is not going to be pointless for liberals, from here on out. By winning in a few blue states in 2012, gay marriage supporters -- even without taking into consideration what the Supreme Court may or may not do -- may have shown that banning gay marriage has hit its high-water mark. This tide has now turned. There are plenty of progressive "blue" states where gay marriage is currently banned where future ballot initiatives will likely go the other way. California -- home of Proposition 8 -- is a good example of this. Prop 8 passed narrowly in 2008. Put it back on the ballot in 2014, and legalizing gay marriage is a lot more likely to carry the day. As I mentioned, public opinion is changing fast. What this means is that progressives will be the ones putting gay marriage on the ballot from now on -- in states where they have a good chance of the public voting for legalization. What used to be a wedge issue for conservatives will now cut the other way.
The country is moving in one clear direction on gay marriage -- towards full acceptance. Poll after poll shows this. Younger people are overwhelmingly more tolerant of gay marriage than their elders. As time goes on, this demographic bulge will wipe out popular opposition. We're just never moving back, to put it another way. No matter how the Supreme Court rules.
It's an odd fact for Democrats to have to face, but the military is leading on the issue in a similar way as they were forced to lead on desegregation. The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has had ripple effects. While the Defense Of Marriage Act still stands in the way, gay spouses and "significant others" are gaining a more-equal status with military wives and husbands as time goes on. Interestingly, when DADT was repealed, there was less teeth-gnashing from Republicans than many would have expected (myself included).
This is because Republicans know this issue is killing their chances of making any inroads among young voters. They still harbor the hard-liners on all gay rights within their ranks, but their voices are a lot more muted than they were five or ten years ago. This is because their influence is waning, even among Republicans. The party's establishment knows full well it has to get this issue behind them soon, or they will have lost an entire generation's voters. Those who want to see a revitalized Republican Party -- and can read polls and follow demographic trendlines -- know that the issue is an absolute deal-breaker among many under the age of 30.
It's beginning to show, too. While only a very few Republicans currently serving in elected office or party leadership positions have come out in support of gay marriage, there's a growing chorus of voices of former officeholders and leaders with less political risk to themselves who are beginning to speak out on the issue. Even those who are still fighting against the gay marriage tide the strongest seem downright dispirited these days. There's a sort of gay marriage gloom which hangs over conservatives on television, and this is only going to increase over time. This was on full display yesterday, on the weekly Sunday morning shows. Virtually no Republican politician or serious conservative analyst was predicting full and complete victory for their side at the Supreme Court. They were -- at best -- hoping for a very narrow ruling which wouldn't force all states to accept gay marriage right away. They projected defeatism and not confidence of their success, to put it bluntly.
On the Democratic side, supporting gay marriage has also just recently reached the tipping point. Up until now, most Democrats (most of those now in or running for office) have either been mealy-mouthed in their support, been otherwise intentionally vague and nebulous about their support, or have wanted to duck the issue entirely. Democrats, for approximately the past six years or so, have known that supporting gay marriage is the right thing to do, but they've also been afraid to champion the issue because they think they'll suffer for their stance at the ballot box. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are two prime examples of this (from the 2008 race). But now the floodgates are opening wide. The people are leading, and the leaders are finally following. Obama "evolved" on the issue in the 2012 campaign, and Hillary wasted no time after leaving the State Department to get on the record herself. No viable Democratic presidential candidate is ever again going to get away with either ducking the issue or actively opposing gay marriage, that's my guess.
It's not just the Democratic Party or the president, either. America has evolved on gay marriage. Now, this doesn't mean that everyone everywhere has gotten fully on board yet -- not by a long shot. There's still a long ways to go. There may, indeed, be a lot more political work to do. Of course, the Supreme Court could indeed surprise everyone and issue a sweeping ruling that gay marriage is a constitutional right (as it did in Loving v. Virginia over interracial marriage). But most court-watchers are predicting a less-monumental outcome. Some sort of incremental ruling or narrowly-targeted ruling would be seen by many as a huge disappointment, but my guess is that such a partial victory will not slow down the march of progress much at all. Such an outcome will leave a lot of work left to do at the state level, many more battles to be fought, and more hearts and minds to win over.
But whether the Supreme Court goes for a bold stroke or not, the tide will still have turned with the public. From here on out -- until marriage equality is indeed declared by the Supreme Court to be the immutable law of the land in all states -- gay marriage is going to win a lot more victories than it loses. The last two decades were a constant string of defeats for gay marriage. The next decade (even if the Supreme Court narrowly rules in the two cases before it) is going to be a lot different. The youth of America is driving the issue forward. Democratic politicians are on board, a handful of even Republican politicians are on board, and the general public is getting more and more supportive with each passing day. The tide has turned, and it's not ever going to turn back.
No matter what the Supreme Court rules on Proposition 8 and the Defense Of Marriage Act, I truly believe the tipping point for gay marriage has now been reached.
-- Chris Weigant
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant