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Why did marriage equality come so quickly?

by Eric Ferguson on May 23, 2013 · 11 comments

marriage equality wins at the state capitolYou already know this if you’ve been hanging out in the liberal blogosphere or lefty social circles, but for everyone else, a recent topic of discussion is how the issue of marriage equality reversed so fast, and so certainly. Or was it so fast and certain? The context is wondering how it happened so we can copy it with other issues. Gun sanity seemed to have sudden momentum after the Newtown massacre, but then faded. Not entirely of course, but enough that opponents have been able to protect the cruel jokes we call gun laws.  Climate change is an urgent issue yet, despite being high on the national agenda for a generation, progress is incremental. It’s there, but not close to what we need. Yet marriage equality moved, in what feels like a blink, from a wedge issue for Republicans to a wedge issue for Democrats; from a long string of lopsided defeats at the ballot box to four wins last election day, and several states legalizing it this year, with the opinion polls steadily in our favor. Why? And could correctly understanding why help us on other issues?


I have three theories, which I call “good news”, “bad news”, and “no news”. That last one isn’t a great descriptor, but seems to fit the naming pattern. The first two though … great naming on my part IMHO, even if readers decide the naming was the only part I got right. Let’s start with the good news.

The “good news” is what I’ve heard referred to as “generation next”. Or maybe that was a energy drink ad. Anyway, it means the change in public attitudes and electoral fortunes has been driven by young voters. Young voters, even in elections when they do better at turning out, have low enough turnout that candidates can safely ignore them, provided they don’t lose young voters by blowout percentages. Which the Republicans did, and more immediate to our subject, so did marriage opponents. Even at that, losing last year’s new voters shouldn’t matter much, except two other things are going on. One, young voters have supported marriage equality since roughly sometime in the 1990’s, and there’s no indication that’s going to change in foreseeable elections. Second, they maintained that support as they reached the age where they vote more regularly. So supporters have won young voters for a bunch of elections, and kept their support as they got older.


That would explain results in referenda. To explain legislative success, possibly something legislators are thinking about, at least if they’re thinking past the next election, is that marriage supporters are going to be voting for a long time, while opponents on average have a fewer elections ahead of them. Just in case I could appeal to self-interest, an argument I made to legislators is that they risked alienating people who just started voting and haven’t established that habits yet. Likewise, at least in Minnesota, the campaign to defeat the constitutional amendment last year brought in a lot of volunteers who volunteered for a campaign for the first time in a long time or first time at all, and those are the legislators’ future volunteer base they’re alienating by finding excuses for not acting now. So some who voted to legalize gay marriage took a risk in terms of the next election, but they seriously mitigated future risks. Maybe those who voted to legalize saw the folly of defying generation next. Obviously, they also could have just been voting their party or their conscience or their district, with no concern about generational differences.


However, not just the gay rights movement has been doing this. The TPM article I linked above is about how marijuana legalization has followed the same trajectory. TPM included this rather telling chart (click to enlarge):


changing attitudes: marriage equality and pot legalization


Opinion on marijuana legalization has changed the same way, with the same young voters, just a bit behind marriage equality, and it’s getting similar electoral and legislative results.


The other issue with rapid recent progress is immigration reform. I haven’t seen such a neatly laid out chart like for the other two issues, but I found polls showing greater support for immigration and citizenship among younger voters in 2002, 2010, and this morning. Though to add fuzziness, the 2002 survey didn’t ask specifically about citizenship or legalization for anyone undocumented, the 2010 poll is just Arizona, and this morning’s poll by Washington Post/ABC defined young as 18-39. That’s problematic because the first election where young voters went heavily Democratic was 2004, and those first-time voters are just now reaching 30, so not quite testing the theory. Still, there is a strong indication that for a decade, young voters have been friendlier to immigration, which is what we’re looking for. However, to add more nuance, the increase in the Hispanic population is thought to have driven the issue, and there’s a lot of overlap in newer voters between young voters and Hispanic voters.


If this is accurate, then an issue where we’re spinning our wheels should be one where there isn’t an age difference in opinion. That Washington Post/ABC polls didn’t find much age difference on gun regulations, and seniors are actually most supportive. This National Journal poll found the same thing. Of course, this issue has followed a radically different trajectory than the other three, where support has increased gradually with each new group of young voters adding to the support.


The ramification is that if this is accurate, then the way to make progress on an issue is to win the young voters, keep their support as they age and get more frequent in their voting, and win the young voters for a bunch of elections in a row. If we can do this, then we want young voters to drive public policy, and marriage equality advocates, gay rights supporters in general,  have been doing this with substantial success.


So what’s the “bad news”? An alternate theory on the sudden success of marriage equality is that advocates matched marriage opponents in big money.  There are rich guys who support marriage equality, and their money gets them instant credibility and attention. If they don’t think they got enough attention,  they can afford lots of paid media. The pro-marriage side didn’t depend on big money as much as the anti-marriage side, but it seems to have gotten as much big money roughly, and a big advantage in small donors provided an overall financial edge. Discrimination advocates claim they’re consistently outspent, and they seem to be at least partly right, though keep in mind that the linked article looked only at Minnesota in detail.


Why did I label this “bad news”? Because the left hates rich guys being able to get instant attention and credibility just from being rich. We hates campaigns being a matter of who has more money, and which side has a wealthy special interest or sugardaddy able to drown out the opposition. If this is why we won, obviously the pro-discrimination side was far from drowned out, but it implies that we can’t win just with better arguments, small donors, and grassroots campaigning.  Considering how many issues have the big money all on the other side (the minimum wage increase jumps immediately to mind — heavy popular support, but hard to get it considered), it’s actually discouraging to think we can’t win without negating the advantage in big money by finding as much big money ourselves. I’d rather think the “good news” really explains it, but beware of believing what’s convenient.


So what do I mean by “no news”? That questions the whole premise that this change happened fast. Yes, there’s a pair of tidy bookends, because legalization by the Democratic majority in the Minnesota legislature came almost to the day of two years after the Republican majority put the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the ballot. Obama endorsed marriage equality last year, four states voted pro-equality last year, and several states legalized legislatively this year. Seems fast, but it also could just be a tipping point rather than a sudden change. Sure, going back two years, it’s fast, and even the Republican use of it as a wedge issue in 2004 is only nine years ago, but the first filing for a same-sex marriage license was 1973. The gay rights movement can be dated to the Stonewall riots in 1969 (obviously a date chosen for prominence, like dating women’s suffrage to the Seneca Falls convention, which required the pre-existence of women’s suffrage supporters to organize it ) which were 44 years ago. 38 states still ban gay marriage, DOMA still stands pending Supreme Court decisions on ban challenges, job discrimination is still mostly legal, so  there’s a long way to go. Which is normal. The aforementioned Seneca Falls convention was in 1848, and it took 72 years to pass the 19th amendment and allow women to vote everywhere, which I expect seemed to happen all at once at the time. If we date the civil rights movement to the founding of the NAACP (again, there obviously were already civil rights advocates to organize it, but for a starting point), then 30 years later, they hadn’t even been able to get an anti-lynching law past the conservative filibuster in the Senate. 50 years later, nothing more than very marginal civil rights bills could get past the filibuster and maybe not even gain a simple majority. 60 years later, the Civil Rights Act had become law, the Voting Rights Act was law (under assault again today, but so far still standing), the Fair Housing Act was law, and membership in the KKK had gone from pretty much a social per-requisite for ambitious white men in many states to something toxic everywhere.


So what seems to be happening isn’t that attitudes changed quickly, but that  they changed slowly, and hit a tipping point where equality won a bunch in a short time after many losses. So does that tell us anything useful, or is it just our neat bit of history for today? My take on it is that the “generation next” strategy really does work, and might be the only way to make big changes, but it takes a long time. Yet, if we have patience, it’s the most certain strategy we have. So essentially:

  • Win young voters by a lot
  • Keep them with you until they reach the age where they vote regularly
  • Repeat for several consecutive elections

and you have a base that’s hard to resist.

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