It sometimes seems as though American domestic political history is one long conflict between the guardians of tradition and the forces of progress. The controversies change, but the essence of the battle remains the same, whether the contestants are arguing over slavery, women's suffrage, Jim Crow, or abortion rights.
But though the larger culture war continues, one by one these controversies can get settled, and we reach a consensus on which side was wrong and which side was right. Today, the hottest culture war issue is gay rights, specifically marriage equality. Although most conservatives will be loath to admit it, this battle is over, and they have lost. Not that there won't be plenty more arguing, and fights in courts and legislatures and at the ballot box -- there will be, and it will take years before there are no more skirmishes. But the outcome is no longer in doubt.
We know this not only because of the extraordinary events of the last couple of weeks, but because of how the debate has shifted so quickly to the left. The most striking change hasn't been among prominent progressives or Democratic politicians; instead, what's most remarkable is how far conservatives have moved.
Of course, events are galloping in the right direction: same-sex marriage is now legal in Vermont and Iowa, and the District of Columbia city council voted to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. New York, which also recognizes such out-of-state marriages, could be next. The state assembly there has already passed a marriage equality bill, and the bill is a few votes away from winning a majority in the state Senate (Governor David Patterson supports it, and is attempting to press the issue).
The latest issue of Newsweek notes, "Many conservative Christians believe they have lost the battles over issues such as abortion, school prayer and even same-sex marriage, and that the country has now entered a post-Christian phase." James Dobson, eminence gris of the right-wing culture war, just admitted to his troops that when it comes to abortion and gay rights, "we have lost all those battles." With typical restraint, the UK's Daily Telegraph titled their article on Dobson's speech, "US Religious Right Concedes Defeat." Not quite, but equality is spreading.
Consider how different things are today than they were the last time we had a Democratic president. When Bill Clinton tried to allow gay people to serve in the military, it caused a firestorm; when Barack Obama gets around to fulfilling his pledge to do the same, he'll find that comfortable majorities of Americans favor lifting the ban. When Clinton nominated Roberta Achtenberg to be assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, conservative hero Jesse Helms vowed to defeat her "because she's a damn lesbian." He went on, "She's not your garden-variety lesbian. She's a militant, activist, mean lesbian" (Achtenberg was confirmed).
Republicans also attempted to torpedo the nomination of James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg, citing the danger that Hormel would use the position to advance a sinister homosexual agenda. (Clinton eventually used a recess appointment to give Hormel the job.) Just two years later, George W. Bush appointed America's second gay ambassador, longtime Foreign Service officer Michael Guest, to serve in Romania. There was little outcry.
And the wave of anti-gay marriage initiatives may well have petered out -- not only because such bans have probably passed everywhere they could, and there's only so many times you can ban something, but also because opinions are slowly but surely changing. A Newsweek poll in December found that 49 percent of respondents said they'd oppose a gay marriage ban in their state, while 45 percent said they'd support a ban -- a fairly remarkable result, given that 41 states currently ban gay marriage. Using a relatively simple statistical model, Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight.com produced predictions of when every state would vote against a gay marriage ban. It turns out that such bans are losing support at a rate of about two percent a year; according to Silver's model, ten years from now there will be majority support for such bans only in the South.
And this is how change will spread on this issue. Before long, gay Americans will have marriage rights throughout the Northeast. Iowa will be followed by the more progressive Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. The western coastal states of California, Washington, and Oregon will see marriage equality, followed by the libertarian states of the interior West and Southwest. Eventually, even the same-sex marriage bans in the South will fall. Because the most important impact on the future of marriage equality isn't geographic, it's demographic: it is the oldest Americans who are the most opposed to marriage equality, and the youngest who are the most strongly in favor. Who will today's 10-year-olds -- the voters of tomorrow -- resemble more in their opinions on this issue: today's 20-year-olds, or today's 80-year-olds? No one doubts what the answer is.
We can already see how the bounds of acceptable discourse have changed. Today even the most anti-gay Republicans (with a few exceptions) claim to believe that all people are created, well, sort of equal. The kind of bigotry that used to be mainstream has now moved to the fringe. How many prominent conservatives today would be willing to stand up and pledge their support to a state law that made it illegal for two men to have sex? Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Rehnquist did just that a mere six years ago, in their dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, the case that finally struck those laws from the books.
As former British prime minister Tony Blair said when chastising the Pope for his anti-gay views (Blair is Catholic), "Now, that doesn't mean to say there's not still a lot of homophobia and a lot of things to be done. But the fact that it is unacceptable for any mainstream political party to be anything other than on the side of equality and respect is, in a way, the biggest change. The items of individual legislation matter a lot, but I think it's the general shift in climate that is perhaps the most important point."
The consequence is that the right's side in the debate is increasingly represented by buffoons like Iowa Congressman Steve King, who when not ruminating on whether Iowans should "defy" their Supreme Court's decision (How exactly? By, like, totally not marrying someone of the same sex?), offers up weirdly Freudian statements like "When these kinds of things happen, it sucks me into the Iowa policy in a way that I haven't been sucked into it in a while." Between politicians like King and the perpetually horrified forces of the religious right, seeing sexual Armageddon around every corner and seemingly more obsessed with gay sex than any gay person you know, the anti-equality forces are not exactly showing the most appealing face to the public.
Democratic politicians, on the other hand, are lagging behind the times. The standard position -- held by President Obama, among so many others -- is "I support civil unions, but I still think marriage should be between a man and a woman." While some are certainly sincere, it's impossible to believe that many of them don't cringe inside as they make this concession to cowardice.
But as it becomes less politically hazardous to support same-sex marriage, more will announce the conversion that New York Senator Charles Schumer did three weeks ago. Where previously he had taken the standard Democratic position, Schumer has now come out in support of full marriage rights. And he won't be the last. More and more Democrats, and eventually even Republicans, will announce that where they once supported laws like the Defense of Marriage Act (signed by Clinton in 1996), they have come around to support marriage equality. But try to picture a politician going in the other direction -- saying that though he used to support same-sex marriage, he no longer does. It's almost impossible to imagine, because the direction history is moving has become so clear.