Weird Politics on Gay Marriage and Voting Rights
This week's Supreme Court decisions overturning a key section of the Voting Rights Act, and then, a day later, advancing gay rights by overturning California's Prop 8 and declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, show an American conception of civil rights at war with itself.
Gay and lesbian couples and their allies are celebrating, and so are Southern conservatives, who are rushing to erect barriers to voting for African Americans, Latinos, and the poor.
What is going on in our country, that even as we experience a great leap in enlightenment for gay and lesbian equality, we are bringing back Jim Crow?
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, suggests the answer is that gay and lesbian activists shifted their strategy from talking about legal equality to talking about love.
This move, "from the abstract notion of 'rights' to the very concrete notion of LOVE," won over the public, Lerner argues. "Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives have tried to show the liberal and progressive forces . . . that a 'rights-oriented' movement' is less effective than one which can put the desire to live in a loving world at the center of a progressive agenda."
When gays and lesbians talked about love to straight friends, neighbors, and colleagues, "their hearts melted and they began to support gay marriage," Lerner says. And he suggests that the political left should imitate this heart-melting strategy.
Another possibility, though, is that a more hard-headed libertarian argument for gay marriage won over conservatives.
The theory that people ought to be left alone to do what they like--whether you love them or despise them--fits a consistent conservative strain in American politics.
In contrast, conservatives like to make the argument that "big government regulation"--including environmental law, as well as the Federal government's enforcement of voting rights protections on historically racist states--is costly and cumbersome.
Letting gay people marry can be seen as an example of laissez faire--the government simply lets people make their own decisions about their personal lives.
At the heart of the Supreme Court decision to overturn Prop 8 was the argument that the anti-gay Christians who challenged gay marriage did not have the standing to bring their suit. In other words, the Court said to the anti-gay bigots: You may not like it, but it doesn't do you any harm when gay people marry.
Conservatives, including attorney Ted Olson and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, were attracted to this line of thought.
It would be nice if conservatives were more consistent about the "right to be left alone" where women's reproductive freedom is concerned. But political ideology is a thicket of contradictions. Rabbi Lerner is probably right that the justices' personal experiences with gay people influenced their thinking. A wave of coming-out in every family in America had a huge impact in all social, political, and economic groups.
And it could be that a key factor in the messy civil-rights theory that just emerged from the Court is that Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in both the DOMA and Voting Rights decisions, has a stronger personal affinity for gay people than he does for disenfranchised African Americans.
Certainly, consistency in the law across states is a common feature of both the DOMA and Voting Rights decisions.
Kennedy wrote a ringing defense of gay marriage in the DOMA decision, pointing to the impossibility of sustaining an unequal system, now that an increasing number of states allow gay marriage.
And Kennedy also agreed with Justice Roberts that the Voting Rights Act, re-ratified overwhelmingly by Congress, is dated and unfair in its disparate treatment of Northern and Southern states. Times have changed, Roberts held, and Kennedy agreed. The states should no longer be held to different standards.
This is an idea that has no bearing in reality, as Texas proved within hours, when it moved forward with voter ID and redistricting legislation that explicitly blocks black and Latino voters.
Republican voter suppression efforts in states across the country, which make it more difficult for black people, Latinos, students, the poor, and the elderly to vote, got a big boost from the Court. Appeals based on the overturned portion of the Voting Rights Act were holding back many of these efforts.
Get ready for more shameful images of long lines at the polls, like those photos from Ohio in 2012, which clearly resulted from policies that aim to make it hard for (mostly Democratic) low-income and minority voters to participate in elections.
Maybe voting rights advocates need to spread a little more love in the hearts of the people who are pushing through redistricting maps and voter ID and voter registration restrictions.
Whatever the strategy, the core principle of protecting the legal right to vote ought to be damn compelling to anyone who claims to care about maintaining even a semblance of democracy.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Scott Walker’s Sneaky School Voucher Plan."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter
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