Like so many others in the progressive world, I was beyond dismay at the passage of Proposition 8 in California. The joy of having helped elect so many great Democrats this year (not least of all President-Elect Barack Obama) was muted by the knowledge that the graffiti of hatred had once again been scrawled into a Constitutional document. And it wasn't just California's Constitution that was defiled: same-sex marriage bans were passed in Florida and Arizona as well, and a particularly atrocious amendment was passed in Arkansas banning adoptions by unmarried couples. These paradoxical defeats on a night of otherwise strong progressive victories show just how much farther we have to work for equality and human decency all across America.
And yet, there is a major silver lining to this cloud that will help Democrats and progressives for years to come: a benefit that would be foolish to overlook even as we gird ourselves for the fights ahead.
That silver lining is the inevitable rise of Social Conservatives to top of the Republican Party. And truthfully, the damage done to my LGBT friends and allies this election cycle, horrible though it was, is nothing compared to the damage that the passing of these propositions will do to Republicans and to conservatism itself for the next decade.
To my LGBT friends who have seen the Religious Right attempt to snatch their wedding rings off their fingers and tear up their marriage licenses, I say this: we will win this fight. In California, we will only need to wait two short years before kicking this discriminatory legislation off the ballot. The home invasion ad I co-wrote and co-produced, backed by our wonderful friends at the Courage Campaign, is a starting point for the new, more aggressive tone that we will be setting in the fight against outside religious organizations enshrining their peculiar brand of hatred into our Constitution. That doesn't just go for the Mormons, but for the Donahues and the Dobsons as well. Notice has been served: screw with us in 2010, and we will screw with you. We guarantee it. America is becoming increasingly accepting of LGBT brothers and sisters: two more years and a better messaging effort will mean victory in California. And it's a short step from California to the rest of the nation from there.
The prospects of the Republican Party, on the other hand, are not nearly so bright. Try for a moment to put yourself in the head of a Republican. I know it's difficult to envision your brain in a permanent cloud of fear, greed and ignorance, but just give it a shot. If you're still having trouble, a visit to RedState or Free Republic will put you in the Right frame of mind. As you and your GOP allies survey the damage and begin your internecine warfare, here's what you know:
- The Republican Economic Message lost. This one is pretty obvious. After years of tax cuts for the rich, a healthcare disaster, and bailouts for Wall Street, Republicans spent the last two weeks of the campaign calling Obama a socialist or a communist. Glenn Beck even released a recording of the Soviet national anthem with lyrics praising Obama. The American People laughed and voted for Obama anyway. When your party runs on a virulent anti-taxes-for-the-wealthy message, but the educated wealthy think you've left the economy in such tatters that they scream "Please, Tax Me!", you know you've lost the argument.
- The Republican Foreign Policy Message lost. This one is also obvious. The Occupation of Iraq remains deeply unpopular with Americans--and for some reason, Americans would prefer to be loved rather than hated the world over. That doesn't just make us feel better: it also seems to make us feel safer. If you can't figure out why that might be, then congratulations: you've successfully conducted the intestinal-cranial transplant required for the Republican worldview.
- The only message for Republicans that seemed to win on a night otherwise filled with defeats was the Social Message. In all other respects, Republicans found themselves drubbed, shellacked, obliterated. These propositions were their only ray of hope. Social conservatives feel that they have been vindicated by the election results. Combine this with the fact that McCain's campaign would have been funereal without the base energy provided by crazy social-issue wingnut Sarah Palin, and social conservatives now feel that they've been proven out. They feel that the economic and foreign policy legs of the Republican stool have failed, and that it's their turn now. RedState editor Dan McLaughlin penned this sentiment most exhaustively, and it's a common meme throughout the Right these days:
But I'd suggest that there are some cautions before the cultural Left engages in triumphalism here.
The first is the referenda - even if Republicans were quite unpopular on this Election Day, socially conservative positions did a lot better in referenda. Besides Proposition 8 passing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in gay-friendly deep-blue California, you had similar ballot initiatives pass in Arizona and Florida. A ban on racial preferences passed in Nebraska and a similar measure lost only narrowly in Colorado. (Pro-life initiatives did less well in some places like South Dakota where they were poorly funded). These are not the results you would expect from a nation that has suddenly taken an abrupt left turn.
Second, while the Democrats are still intent on fighting a culture war, their behavior over the past 3-4 years suggests that they nonetheless recognize that there are serious downsides to them doing so.
This makes sense from a certain perspective. Democrats won big in the election, but lost on a few social issues referenda. So Republicans should strike at their Achilles' heel.
This, of course, is exactly what we want them to do. Nothing could be better for Democrats than to watch the GOP fulfill David Brooks' prophecy and let the Traditionalists run the Republicans headlong off a cliff. Republican Party leaders understand that this would be horrible strategy:
Party leaders said the focus on those issues had constricted the party’s appeal to moderate and independent voters more interested in jobs, health care, education and other issues that touch their lives in more concrete ways.
"We can’t be obsessed with issues that are not the issues that are important to American voters," said Jim Greer, the Florida Republican chairman and a likely candidate for national party leader.
Unfortunately for them, their base will have none of it. Their base believes that their party leaders were the ones who lost the last two elections in the first place. If the GOP Leaders could lock Sarah Palin and her Messianic delusions away forever, they would. But GOP voters want her as their next nominee, and they're making sure to punish anyone who gets in their way.
The American People will not pick their elected leaders over the next four years based on social issues, given the economic and foreign policy challenges with which we are faced. Nothing could be better for us than to watch Republicans delude themselves into thinking that these are the issues on which they will win elections--especially as the electorate becomes increasingly tolerant and accepting of "the other" year after year.
So yes, Prop 8 was bad. Yes, we're going to win our rights back. But don't forget the silver lining: we've got a future. In the short term, they don't. Prop 8 made sure of it.