Inescapable truism: Opponents of gay marriage are dying like flies
Jonathan Rauch EXAMINES the shift in American public opinion on the subject of gay marriage:
In 30 years of covering the American political scene, I have never seen a change as quick and dramatic as this one. Even (I should say, especially) those who have been in the thick of it from the beginning are scratching our heads, wondering why the tide turned so rapidly. I think part of the answer is that a number of things went right, from gay marriage advocates’ point of view, more or less simultaneously. And part of the answer has not much to do with marriage at all…
Support for gay marriage is correlated with age; three in four Americans under 30 favour it. Gay marriage opponents are dying off and being replaced with proponents. More is going on than generational replacement, however. We know this because support has increased impressively among every generational cohort. Tellingly, support almost doubled over the past ten years, Pew finds, among “silent generation” members born between 1928 and 1945 — people in their late 60s and older. A lot of Americans, not excluding older Americas, have changed their minds.
One reason is what I think of as the Tocqueville effect. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman whose observations of America in the 1830s remain shrewdly relevant, famously remarked on Americans’ deference to majority opinion: “As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.” Although he exaggerates, the broad point remains true: the legitimising effect of public opinion is such that, other things being equal, majority support tends to amplify itself. Even if I have doubts about gay marriage, the fact that most of my countrymen are on the other side weakens my resolve and impels me to acknowledge the legitimacy of their view. The difference between support at, say, 55 per cent versus 45 per cent — that is, the different between majority and minority standing — is one of kind, not merely of degree. That is not to say that opposition evaporates or crawls under a rock when it loses majority standing. But its power and relevance are greatly reduced.
Still, those two somewhat mechanistic factors — demographics and the Tocqueville effect — beg the deeper question. True, younger people favour gay marriage; true, majorities amplify themselves. But why do the young feel as they do? Why has gay marriage crossed over to majority standing? Here we need to look inside the numbers, as it were, and understand the changes in moral thinking which drives them.
In 2012, a public intellectual named David Blankenhorn, the founder and president of a pro-family think tank called the Institute for American Values (on whose board I sit), switched sides on gay marriage. His change of heart was of no mean significance. Beginning in the mid- 2000s, Blankenhorn had emerged as one of America’s two or three most articulate and thoughtful opponents of gay marriage. He wrote a book arguing that allowing gay couples to marry would push marriage dangerously far from its core task of uniting biological parents, especially fathers, with their children. In the important court case challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, he was the only expert witness to testify in favour of the ban. His reversal, coming on the heels of President Obama’s similar announcement, was a dramatic indication of the rethink which was going on.
Why the change of heart? Not just, or even mainly, because he had been argued out of his position. Rather, he had come to know gay people and gay couples, and had come to understand better their lives and aspirations. “I changed my opposition to gay marriage because of personal relationships,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Put simply, becoming friends with gay people who were married or wanted to get married led me to realise that I couldn’t in good conscience continue to oppose it.”