I believe a key reason why “mainstream” conservatives — a disappearing breed, indeed — support crazy proposals like a so-called Marriage Protection Amendment is to rally conservatives to the voting booth.
I have a hard time believing that more informed and socially sophisticated conservative leaders really sees something like gay marriage as a threat to our country. Gay marriage, a threat to America? Really? What about jobs, the environment, education? Or gay marriage as a threat to the sanctity of marriage? How about divorce? That seems like it is doing more damage to the virtues of marriage than people choosing openly and freely to join together. (Perhaps John Edwards or Newt Gingrich have some pointers I am missing.)
These hot button social issues simply play a key role in keeping otherwise aloof voters active. So I have always thought, don’t freak out. Most of America is relatively sane and sanity will prevail.
But then I read Baird Helgesen’s assessment of how the vote in Minnesota might hinge on a general rural versus urban divide among voters in last Sunday’s Star Tribune. That got me thinking more about this. First of all, social issues increasingly straddle political lines and there really is no objective identity with an issue one way or the other anyway.
Which political party, for example, really has the corner on “family values.” I would argue, however, that one party has done a much better job co-opting the language of social issues and the discourse of topics like family values. That is the Republican Party.
This is an important consideration if your goal is defeating something like an anti-gay marriage amendment. Strategically, defining your “base” is difficult and depending on that base to vote consistently with your ideology might add another layer of uncertainty. In the anti-marriage amendment example, the state might run blue, but how deep is that shade of blue?
Baird brought up a good example. In Minnesota the Iron Range tends to be socially conservative. And if politically active voters on the Iron Range turn out whether you bait the ballot with a social issue or not you still put a social conservative in the polling booth. They might vote pro-labor and anti-marriage, for example. These socially conservative democrats mark a troubling tipping point in politics when progressives stay home, making once progressive states like Minnesota more a robin’s egg blue than deep navy.
So, since legislators are increasingly eager to let the public legislate by putting issues up majority vote — which flies in the face of what the Bill of Rights is intended to protect, i.e., the rights of the minority against the wishes of the majority — why not put progressive hot issues on the ballot? We could have a Clean Air Amendment, a Right to Education Amendment, and a Chicken in Every Pot Amendment! Who doesn’t like chicken?
Ok, I am joking…kind of. What progressives need and don’t seem to have is the ability to stir up its aloof base. The left doesn’t seem to have a solid and consistent policy discourse. The left doesn’t have simple ideas people can grasp. “Change We Can Believe In” is much more abstract than the simple — and simple-minded — “one man, one woman,” for example. In short, progressives need a better message, need more guts.
Today when you listen to the debate about our economic malaise, for example, you hear Democrats speaking the so-called moderate language of compromise and pragmatism. Democrats are in a double-lose situation. The right has hijacked the discourse of freedom while the left struggles to co-opt the language of failed conservative policy. The result is a somewhat poorly defined Democratic Party and disengaged political support.
So two-fold advice. First, progressives cannot take it for granted that the wacky minority will be defeated by a more sophisticated and calm majority. You have to rally to vote. Every election is important, whether local or national.
Second, while I believe progressives need to put teeth into their political messages, I also think they simply need more fight. Find stronger policy positions and promote them consistently and aggressively. Engage and re-engage the voter. Most Americans are not going to sift through the marginalia of political discourse anyway. Right now I don’t see a lot from the left-of-center that seems all that definitive. Instead I see too much compromising on the truth.
And if that is going on, then these divisive social issues do indeed matter, and could present potentially regressive results. It is bad enough that we live in a society suffering from failed conservative fiscal and economic policy. It isn’t going to get any better if we start making laws that strip citizens of their basic rights.
A lot divides this country politically. It is hard to see how divisive issues set up as fodder for political discourse and as tests for political identity are going to reunite the country. These are distractions that have to be dealt with, but the bigger issue is the bigger message. In politics it is all about “What have you done for me lately?” In that regard I believe the left needs a better PR wing.
- General Mills Officially Against Minnesota’s Gay Marriage Ban (queerty.com)
- PPP Poll: Minnesota Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment in Serious Trouble After Major Shift in Attitudes (towleroad.com)