Gay marriage: redrawing the American political map
In officially endorsing same-sex marriage, Obama is signalling that the Democratic Party now has little interest in its old blue-collar supporters.
US President Barack Obama’s declaration of support for same-sex marriage has a strategic significance that goes way beyond the issue of gay relationships, and way beyond the coming presidential election.
Obama has calculated that the future of the Democratic Party does not lie with its traditional white, blue-collar supporters. So instead, through ‘coming out’ on gay marriage, he is consolidating a coalition of upwardly mobile urbanites, both white and African-American, as his party’s new, firm base of support. Democratic Party strategists clearly believe that such a coalition has a good chance of winning the support of Hispanic voters, too, thus creating a new electoral majority. The Democratic Party’s self-conscious abandonment of the socially conservative white electorate – the working classes, rural and elderly – is enthusiastically backed by the so-called creative class that now dominates America’s cultural elite.
Obama’s bold attempt to redraw America’s electoral map and realign party politics is comparable to the Republican Party’s Southern strategy of the 1960s, which was promoted by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. This strategy sought to capture the Democrat-voting Southern white electorate by accommodating to its fears of the civil-rights movement. The Republican Party’s exploitation of anti-black racism successfully won it significant electoral support in Southern states. However, this electoral realignment also meant that black voters deserted the Republicans, a party they once enthusiastically supported.
In recent years, same-sex marriage has become a red-button issue among the Democratic Party’s base. Attitudes towards homosexuality are frequently treated as a marker of where people stand in America’s Culture Wars. For many Democratic Party activists, the issue of gay marriage has a fundamental significance; they see it as the cause of their time. And what is really at stake is not so much the right of gay people to marry, so much as a desire among Democratic Party activists to annihilate morally people they despise.
Consider Edmund White, a leading American gay novelist. He was well known for his anti-assimilationist views and his criticism of gay marriage, but he has recently changed his mind. Why? ‘I became pro-marriage equality once I realised how opposed to it the Christian right is in our country’, he wrote. And just to remind his European readers who these people are, he said that ‘one-third of the American people have had a personal conversation with Jesus Christ and the born-again are not just little old ladies in black but also CEOs and provosts of universities and candidates for office’. It seems pretty clear that what motivates White – who has now decided to marry his partner after living with him for 17 years – is not so much the marital ceremony as his animosity towards the Christian right.
The crusade against people who pray – those who have a ‘personal conversation with Jesus Christ’ – has become enormously significant over the past decade. Perversely, it is a crusade that is no less moralistic than those it aims its ire at – that is, the Christian right. Anyone who travels to the United States these days will be immediately struck by the intemperate language used by people who mistakenly refer to themselves as ‘liberals’. They are explicitly hateful of what they view as homophobic religious nutters. If you point out to these otherwise polite members of the cultural elite that their language is no less moralistic and degrading than that used by sections of the Christian right, they will look at you as if you come from a different planet.
What they don’t realise is that when they suggest that a homophobe is an inferior form of human life, that he is a ‘knuckle dragger’, they are actually expressing an outlook that is strikingly similar to that of their opponents. Their use of cultural discrimination against anyone they consider to be racially or sexually intolerant reveals the power of illiberalism in both ‘liberal’ and conservative circles in America today.
In the short run, Obama’s declaration of ‘I believe in gay marriage’ is likely to galvanise the Democratic Party’s base. For this group of people, the fantasy that they are recreating the vibe of the 1960s civil-rights movement plays an important role in flattering their sense of moral superiority. Gay marriage may also help to distract attention from the inconvenient reality that America is in big economic trouble. Official endorsement of same-sex marriage could also consolidate the power and self-confidence of the coalition of creative, media and cultural mandarins who now make up a huge section of the nation’s ruling elite, and who increasingly define themselves in opposition to the hicks and rednecks of ‘the other America’.
With so much cultural, emotional and financial capital invested in this moral crusade, it is probably only a matter of time before same-sex marriage becomes a legal reality in America. More importantly, with so much capital at stake, it is inevitable that the Culture War will continue to be one of defining historical markers of our era, and for decades to come.