Monday, June 27, 2011

Leading From Behind on Same-Sex Marriage

The editors of the New York Times don’t have a problem with Obama’s “leading from behind” when it comes to foreign affairs. Like most liberals, they reflexively believe that unilateral applications of American power abroad are likely to do more harm than good. Presidential passivity with respect to civil rights, however, is another thing entirely.  The Times' editors aren’t concealing their exasperation with the president for sitting ineffectually on the sidelines while less reticent liberals, like Andrew Cuomo, pulled out all the stops to push a same-sex marriage bill through the Republican-controlled New York state senate:
“On Thursday night, when same-sex marriage in New York State was teetering on a razor’s edge, President Obama had a perfect opportunity to show the results of his supposed evolution on gay marriage.

“Unfortunately, he did not take it, keeping his own views in the shadows. The next night the Republican-led New York State Senate, of all places, proved itself more forward-thinking than the president on one of the last great civil-rights debates in this nation’s history.”

I experience the Times editors’ exasperation in the first-person. Yet you don’t need to support same-sex marriage to experience a little cognitive dissonance at seeing a liberal president sit out the political battle in New York. It’s not as if Obama has any trouble poking his nose in state and local politics when liberal values are stake.  He didn’t hesitate to speak his mind about the mistreatment of public employee unions in Wisconsin this winter or the treatment his friend Skip Gates received at the hands of the Cambridge police.

We nearly all presume that, in his heart of hearts, Obama supports same-sex marriage but is afraid to say so because it will hurt him in socially conservative swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. His reticence may have been an understandable and forgivable concession to political realities when the prospect of democratically enacted same-sex marriage was remote. But it's looking more and more like political cowardice in light of developments in New York, Washington, D.C., etc. in many people’s eyes. I’ll bet even a lot of people who oppose same-sex marriage see Obama standing aside while his views "evolve" as a symptom of a political character defect.

That’s an ideological reflex felt across the political spectrum that dates from the 1960s, when Lyndon Johnson presided over the dismantlement of southern apartheid. In the process, he and liberals in Congress and the Supreme Court changed the face of American federalism by bringing not only discriminatory state action covered by the Fourteenth Amendment’s plain language, but discriminatory acts by private parties within the purview of the federal government under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Under the circumstances, that was the only way civil rights were going to be secured in the south. Being effectively disenfranchised, African-Americans had no chance to vindicate their rights in state politics through the normal democratic practice of coalition-building. The federal government had to take it upon itself not only to outlaw private discrimination, but to democratize the government of southern states with bills like the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That couldn’t have happened without the determined leadership of a liberal president.  We've gotten into the habit of expecting all liberal presidents to lead from the front when it comes to any issue implicating a liberal view of civil rights.

Yet the politics of same-sex marriage and other modern civil rights issues aren’t much like the politics of Jim Crow. There are no quasi-structural impediments to vindicating gay and lesbian rights rights at the state and local level--indeed, what structural impediments there are incapacitate the federal government (e.g., the Senate filibuster). Most of the difference between Andrew Cuomo and Obama is explained less by differences of ideological integrity than by the fact that they’re both democratic politicians. Andrew Cuomo isn’t any more of an ideological purist than Obama, he’s just another elected executive answering to a more socially liberal electorate.

Maybe it's time we adjusted our expectations of Democratic presidents to the realities of American federalism.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Quit making excuses for Obama. It is not like he leads on some liberal issues but not others. Remember the public option, immigration reform, etc.? He just likes to take credit for other people's liberalism.

Lone Wolf said...

Would the New York law have been more likely to pass a Republican Senate if Obama had endorsed it when its passage was in doubt? Of course not!

Anonymous said...

Obama should stay out of state and local politics. But he should say what he thinks about gay marriage as a concept because all other presidents and presidential candidates have -- including Obama himself -- and he should be forthright and say what he believes. If his views are evolving, then he should make up his mind.

Why can't he commit? Why can't he say what he really thinks? I suspect he knows exactly what he thinks about it but won't say for political reasons. Every day, more and more, the word spineless comes to mind when trying to describe Obama.

Anonymous said...

Twenty years ago, queer weren't for gay marriage - many of us thought the vision involved aping hetero imperatives and an unhappy normalizing thrust. "We're here, We're Queer, Let us settle down and live quite suburban married lives" wasn't our slogan. Roughly 3-4 percent of Americans are culturally LGBT while some small but unknown percent engage in surreptitious same-sex sex without the slightest sense doing so conceptualizes a part of their personhood or social identity.

Marriage equality is important for a host of reasons. In 1990 a friend died of AIDS; he was cared for at a Catholic hospice called Cabrini here in NYC. His husband of more than a decade, sat day after day for months holding the hand and otherwise caring for and trying to make his husband's passing as dignified and loving as possible. The parents of the dying man, evidently too ashamed of their son's ailment and homosexuality, much less his de facto gay marriage, never visited their son at Cabrini. This cruel abandonment did not prevent them from asserting their legal right to receive the body for a Catholic funeral and burial, from which they excluded their son's husband. As this type of thing happened a lot, it is easy to understand the genesis of the enormous shift in LGBT resources toward the marriage equality fight.

Obama promised to do away with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell;" and has taken decisive action to do so. If you assume that LGBT people are represented in the military in some close proportion to our numbers in the general population, it turns out there are not so many of us in the military - three to four percent of the roughly one-half of one percent of Americans in the Armed Services (4% of 1.7 million is 68,000). It is plausible, that despite the legal option to come out, the culture in our armed forces will mean only a small fraction will take advantage of the opportunity. When it comes to LGBT concerns, symbolism can sometimes go a long way.

Across the aisle in the GOP camp, among those dueling for that party's nomination, is former PA Senator Rick Santorum famous for a vivid picture he used to evoke his moral view of male homosexual love - "Man on Dog" sex. This thoughtless comparison was met with an equally vivid but clever repose, such that one cannot Google "Santorum" without some shock or hilarity. Broadly put one's matter-of-fact understanding of the biological facts of human sexuality induces the hilarity, whilst ignorance of those matter-of-fact facts produces a certain shock to the system.

I agree with your Post, and offer these points in hopes of bolstering, its underlying proposition: Obama's job is to get re-elected, and thereby prevent the HORROR of a Santorum, Bachmann or other smug science-denying ignoramus from leading the country. -Ben Currie