Will social conservatives throw the anti-gay issue under the bus?

At an academic workshop on social conservatism most of the participants think gay rights is a losing issue, ripe for jettisoning. Sign of the times?

This past weekend, I attended a workshop on the future of social conservatism.  Though this was a somewhat odd experience for someone with my politics (which I stated openly), I’m determined not to get lazy by only talking to people I agree with.  In the end I learned a lot and, I hope, contributed at least a little.

What surprised me most at the conference was that more than one speaker casually referred to opposition to gay rights as a losing issue for social conservatives—one that they’d have to abandon in the foreseeable future in favor of something else. Nobody spoke up in loud dissent, and nobody called for distinguishing same-sex marriage from other gay rights issues.

I’ve long predicted that this shift would occur. Gay marriage now seems to have majority support, or close to it, with growth in that support accelerating over time. (A model designed by Nate Silver a couple of years back predicted that even a majority of Kansans won’t back a ban in 2015.) I still think that in a generation the Right will try to obscure the fact that it ever opposed Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell.

But now is now, not a generation from now. Three months ago, Tim Pawlenty in his quest for conservative votes was forced to give Democrats a wedge issue by promising to bring back DADT, which is overwhelmingly unpopular except on the Religious Right. (The ad writes itself: “Tim Pawlenty supports firing soldiers in wartime because of what they do in their private life.  Call Tim Pawlenty and tell him…”). So I guess I was surprised to see some intellectual leaders of social conservatism throw in the towel this soon. Even if the movement’s elites are willing to do so, I see the religious Right base insisting on an anti-gay stance for quite some time. (Nate’s model has Mississippi holding out on gay marriage until 2024.)

Thoughts? Has conservative elites’ discomfort with the issue become a widely-discussed trend? Has such discomfort been talked about in religious Right circles? Has there been violent pushback?

Update: The president of Focus on the Family has said it pretty bluntly. Given that 70 percent of young people oppose his position, and though he deeply regrets the fact, when it comes to marriage equality  “we’ve probably lost that.”

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

25 thoughts on “Will social conservatives throw the anti-gay issue under the bus?”

  1. I wonder whether some of this could be due to opinions about what makes social change legitimate. Some on the right are more vehemently opposed to the advancement of gay rights by judicial decree than by legislative action or initiative, particularly insofar as the latter is more likely to reflect changes in public opinion. It’s often easier to handle losing a policy fight if one feels it was “fair” — e.g. that there was open debate and the democratic process worked, etc. — than if it was imposed by judges. Further, so long as gay rights advanced more in the courts than in legislatures, social conservatives could convince themselves that they represented a “silent majority” of people who feel like they do, but this position is far harder to maintain when the same policies are adopted by elected representatives (as when Congress got rid of DADT). Just a thought.

  2. I’ve long predicted that this shift would occur.

    Me too.

    And not to rain on our predictions, but this has been obvious since way before someone invented the phrase: the wrong side of history. Speaking of which, this whole Ayn Rand going Galt thing, flies completely in the face of mankind’s evolution. Our species is totally social. Our neocortex is a function of our sociality. Hell even Goldman Sachs realizes all this at some commoditizing level. That’s why they pumped a half a billion into the crappy app and ugly site calling itself “Facebook.”

    Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and the tea-party me-first pariahs are as doomed as polio is in the wild. Indeed they will fall to the same scythe: Human beings working together across national boundaries to make the world a better place for everyone. Yes GBLTs are human beings. And yes, people really do want their Medicare and their Social Security. And yes global warming is real. And yes, all that is the right side of history and evolution…

    Kudos on you Andrew for going to this culture-wars planning commission and for bringing us this report. It is the right think to do. Infiltration is a good thing. And given what you wrote here: they’d have to abandon [DADT] in the foreseeable future in favor of something else. What issue are they next going to be on the wrong side of? Let me guess: they want guns in schools to protect family values…

  3. Jonathan,
    I wish I could agree with you. But I think you are guilty of projecting Enlightenment values on Talibanic minds. Enlightenment folk care a lot about process; Talibs care only about outcomes. If there are some Enlightenment homophobes around, they might be willing to lose if they think that the process is fair. But “Enlightenment homophobe” has become an oxymoron the last few years. What’s left is people who only care about winning, fair or foul, with some preference for foulness because is it manlier.

  4. I’m really surprised that social conservatives are willing to concede the gay issue. Did they say why they are giving up the fight or why they think it is a “losing issue for social conservatives”?

  5. The fact that gay marriages are occurring (and between ordinary-looking people) and are not threatening heterosexual marriages may have taken the force out of the only “argument” that the opponents of gay marriage ever offered.

  6. Benny: They didn’t elaborate, but I assume that they read the same polls I do. Public opinion is unfavorable to them on this and is getting less favorable by the month.

    koreyel: I’m not sure that social conservatives have a hot new idea. They did seem to think, plausibly, that abortion still has some force as an issue–as represents a kind of justice, since there’s at least an argument to be joined there, whereas opposition to gay rights is essentially just “ick factor.” And there are some signs that young people are less pro-choice on abortion than the generation just above them–not radically, but enough to make conservatives think the cause isn’t lost.

  7. “Enlightenment folk care a lot about process; Talibs care only about outcomes.”

    So, this would mean that living constitutionalists who disdain using the Article V process for amending the Constitution are “Talibs”? Ok, I’d buy that…

  8. Brett, can you offer me some kind of explanation for the Ninth Amendment. What does it mean to people like you?

  9. Just speculating here, but social conservative elites may be plotting on a five year timeline, while Pawlenty’s fate will likely be decided in 10 months, and that difference drives outcomes.

    It could also be a matter of which conservatives you’re talking to. South Carolina and Iowa are pretty religious (although Pawlenty may have decided to write off Iowa).

  10. That anything which was understood to be a right at the time the 9th amendment was ratified, but which happened to not be mentioned in the Bill of Rights, is none the less protected. I don’t believe it was a license for the courts to invent new rights.

    What’s that got to do with living constitutionalists, though? They hardly ever mention the 9th, it’s too much like an actual part of the Constitution to resort to…

  11. Huh. Can you name some of those rights, the ones that are protected but are not in the Bill of Rights?

  12. Uh oh. I can’t speak for the accuracy of this, but if it’s correct, it looks like the right to abortion may have been written into Brett’s version of the Constitution:

    Abortion … was legal in the United States from the time the earliest settlers arrived. At the time the Constitution was adopted, abortions before “quickening” were openly advertised and commonly performed.

    In the mid-to-late 1800s states began passing laws that made abortion illegal.

  13. Oh my. Wikipedia, too.

    There were few laws on abortion in the United States at the time of independence, except the English common law adopted into United States law by Acts of Reception, which held abortion to be legally acceptable if occurring before quickening. … Various anti-abortion statutes began to appear in the 1820s.

  14. What’s that got to do with living constitutionalists, though?

    For the purpose of this conversation, I don’t think it has anything to do with them. I wasn’t curious about living constitutionalists – I know, roughly speaking, what they think.

    I was wondering about the originalists or strict constructionists or whatever. How do they ignore the actual words of the Constitution, or the clear intent behind those words?

  15. A simpler explanation for the effect that Jonathan Adler notes: right-wing extremists will want to deprive a minority of equal rights as long as they can get away with it in terms of public opinion; when public sentiment turns and it’s no longer (a) politically useful and (b) politically possible to pick on the minority, they stop.

  16. pfootball, when you cut them off like that, there’s no amusement value remaining.

  17. Minnesota just put gay rights denial on the ballot. That doesn’t seem to square with ending anti-gay issue mongering.

  18. As a yellow dog Democrat, I hope that the Republicans nominate Rick Santorum so that the sex averse theocrats can run, balls to the wall, with a nominee of their own, in all their full throated glory. While this would likely result in a second Obama term, that looks reasonably likely in any event, and I suspect that my more sensible Republican friends, although they might swallow hard, would be secretly pleased to see their party’s Taliban rump caucus go down in flames. (Double entendres intended.)

  19. “I was wondering about the originalists or strict constructionists or whatever. How do they ignore the actual words of the Constitution, or the clear intent behind those words?”

    Why, in much the same manor as you beat your wife, (Or maybe husband…) I would presume.

  20. Jonathan Adler: “Some on the right are more vehemently opposed to the advancement of gay rights by judicial decree than by legislative action or initiative, particularly insofar as the latter is more likely to reflect changes in public opinion. ”

    I see this argument advanced a lot, but I’ve never seen proof of it. I don’t recall much in the way of right-wingers condemning a court decision which favored *them*.

  21. Sorry, Dan Staley. I didn’t think Brett would fold so quickly, and I didn’t mean to deprive you of amusement.

    Thank goodness for tough intellectuals like Antonin Scalia (joined by Clarence Thomas). These guys aren’t intimidated into silence. Here, per Scalia in the California prison case, is what strict constructionism means in the modern world:

    There comes before us, now and then, a case whose proper outcome is so clearly indicated by tradition and common sense, that its decision ought to shape the law, rather than vice versa.

    That there is a bracing dose of conservative intellectualism.

  22. You ARE aware, aren’t you, that Scalia vehemently denies being a “strict constructionist”?

  23. Pardon, Brett. Please substitute “originalism” for “strict constructionism.” Right-wing pathology ain’t my bag, and I can’t get you to explain it to me.

  24. Ooh. I’ve got a new vocabulary word: “Textualism”. Commentators seem to differ on whether Justice Thomas, who signed the Scalia opinion, is a “strict constructionist,” but there seems to be general agreement that he’s a textualist. Interesting stuff, this conservative intellectualism.

  25. The social conservatives were vociferously and repeatedly predicting that marriage equality would have awful, appalling consequences for society. If they believed their own argument, they would have no reason to throw in the towel on this issue; their attitude would be “just wait until our predictions are vindicated, then we’ll be in a perfect position to say ‘I told you so!'”

    I don’t suppose you heard a single speaker say anything like this, Andrew?

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