The Political Is Personal

On Friday, Senator Rob Portman of Ohio became the first Republican in the Senate to support same-sex marriage, explaining in a Columbus Dispatch op-ed that his change of heart came after his son told him he's gay. It was easy to be underwhelmed by Portman's announcement; as Michael Tomasky asked, "what if his son weren't gay? Were that the case, we have no reason whatsoever to believe Portman would have taken this step." That's true, and we might also ask what took him so long; after all, Portman wrote that his son came out to him two years ago, and that seems like a rather extended period of introspection.

Portman may not be a civil-rights hero, but if nothing else his announcement is likely to force people to confront the ways public policy is or isn't shaped by legislators' own experiences. And now, many of them will be asked what they would do in Portman's shoes. That was what Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked on Sunday's This Week, and he answered, "I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman … It's what I grew up with. It's what I believe. It's what my church teaches me. And I can't imagine that position would ever change."

I'll go out on a limb here and guess that John Boehner can't imagine any of his own kids telling him they're gay. On the other hand, how was he supposed to answer that question? "Oh, if it was my son, then I'd change my mind." If he said that, he'd sound awfully selfish, but that's what Portman was saying. In his op-ed, Portman wrote, "Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love." One interpretation is that he didn't have much of a problem with other people's children being unable to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love.

But maybe it's unfair to pick on Portman. After all, Barack Obama only had his conversion on marriage equality within the last year, and we can certainly fault him for not doing the right thing long ago. He cited both people he knows and those he does not in explaining his change, saying it came because of "When I think about—members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together. When I think about—those soldiers or airmen or marines or—sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf—and yet, feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because—they're not able to—commit themselves in a marriage."

Perhaps if Obama had a gay daughter like Dick Cheney does, he would have supported same-sex marriage years ago, as Cheney did. But it shouldn't take that. The moral force of the argument ought to be enough. As far as I know, few people said during the civil-rights era that they only realized Jim Crow was an evil system once they came to know and love a black person. The analogy is imperfect, of course (since it's hard to hide your race, you aren't going find out suddenly one day that your son is black). But the point is that we should be able to appreciate people's full humanity whether we know them personally or not.

The truth, unfortunately, is that we ignore other people's full humanity every day, not just in politics. We make quick judgments about people's essential nature and breezily dismiss their interests for our own selfish reasons. It would be awfully tiring to go around empathizing with everyone you encounter. But one hopes that when we are forced to stop and consider them, and think about how the laws we make affect them, we'll be able to summon the broadness of mind to treat others with compassion, whether we've met them or not. And public officials, particularly legislators, are supposed to do that kind of reflection and deliberation all the time. They're the ones whose private beliefs affect how the rest of us live. We certainly hope they'd develop the habits of mind that would make that kind of consideration second nature. When someone proposes a new law or advocates changing what exists, we hope they'd say, "Even though I don't know anyone directly affected by this, I'll do my best to put myself in their shoes and think about how it might affect their lives."

And all politicians in every party proclaim their ability to do this. Much of their time campaigning is spent convincing us that they appreciate the conditions of our lives and will keep them in mind as they write our laws. At the same time, they constantly regale us with stories of their humble beginnings, as though they suspect we won't trust them to act on values that don't spring from personal experience.

The problem is that all of us are limited in our backgrounds and the circles we move in, no matter how cosmopolitan we imagine ourselves to be. So what matters isn't so much who politicians know and where they've been but what kind of decisions they make even when they haven't been personally touched by some issue. For example, the trouble with Mitt Romney wasn't that he'd been rich all his life, it's that he evinced only the barest concern for those who weren't. Franklin Roosevelt and Ted Kennedy were rich all their lives too, but never stopped caring about the downtrodden.

"The personal is political!" people used to say in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea being that the choices individuals make in their private lives have implications for the larger world. But the political is also personal, even when it isn't personal for you personally. It's nice that Rob Portman came around, once he understood that his policy choices negatively affected his own son. Now maybe some of his colleagues will join him, not because of what it means for their own families, but because of what it means for people they don't even know.

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