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The Laxity of Hope

May 10, 2012

Obama has finally come out and stated his support for same-sex marriage rights (pardon the pun). Or, put more directly, Obama announced he was “evolving” in favor of equality.

I never thought same-sex marriage should be a controversial issue. After all, this is just one form of equality and equal rights, which I thought had been more or less historically and constitutionally mandated by the end of the civil war. But then again, the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t really do what it was intended to do. See The Slaughter-House Cases.

The most “evolved” my opinion has ever been on the issue of marriage equality is the position I advanced in debate in college: that the states should simply get out of the business of sanctioning religious concepts of marriage in total, including between a man and a woman, and instead the state should simply honor contractually, rather than religiously, defined relationships. After all, I had grown up observing that Judaism mandated wifely subservience and inequality (at least if you took a large swath of the 613 commandments seriously) and heard the stories about husbands getting proverbially “screwed” by the legal thumb on the scale of a wife in a divorce. I thought that any system of top-down authority that defined the contours of a private relationship between two people seemed wrong.

So the fact that Obama supports same-sex marriage didn’t shock me, but I clearly wasn’t the target audience. Nor do I particularly think that Obama was attempting to roil an electoral base to come out and vote in his favor, given that North Carolina was far from the first state to impair the rights of same-sex marriages. See, e.g., Alaska (1998), Hawai’i (1998), Nebraska (2000), Nevada (2002), Arkansas (2004), Georgia (2004), Kentucky (2004), Louisiana (2004), Mississippi (2004), Michigan (2004), Missouri (2004), Montana (2004), North Dakota (2004), Ohio (2004), Oklahoma (2004), Oregon (2004), Utah (2004), Kansas (2005), Texas (2005), Alabama (2006), Arizona (2006 and 2008), Colorado (2006), Idaho (2006), South Carolina (2006), South Dakota (2006), Tennessee (2006), Virginia (2006), Wisconsin (2006), Florida (2008) and even California (2008). Though I suppose the conventional wisdom is that he was attempting to roil a donor base.

My guess is that Obama is finally taking a principled stance. Or maybe he’s just trying to put himself in a position that effectively communicates to the median voter what two famously bipartisan political scientists have finally come out and said: “The Republicans are the Problem.” Obama may be trying to convince average voters that Democrats are not Communists, as GOP House members apparently get away with saying with impunity. And that Democrats are not against the free market by standing by child labor laws. Obama may be continuing to try to be the party of common sense, as electorally unexciting as that may be.

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

Of course, in practical terms, being the party of common sense doesn’t mean much if the party is still subject to the same pervasive electoral errors. And what’s the use of being the party of common sense if you don’t mobilize it in the direction of common sense results. The most damning fact of this whole “evolution” is that Obama stated his position in favor of same-sex marriage the day after the controversial passage of North Carolina’s Amendment One, specifically when the bully pulpit could have no effect on the outcome of the legislation. Why not make the announcement the days before? Would Obama’s electoral fate in six months from now fare any differently? Almost certainly not, given that he’s up against an magic-underpants-wearing robot millionaire. But would the fates of thousands (millions?) of North Carolinians have been any different if Obama had actually utilized the bully pulpit to some practical effect? One can only Hope.

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