White: Progress marches

Last Friday must have been an easy day for people who get paid to rail against gay marriage on the Internet.

The unanimous Iowa Supreme Court decision voiding a law prohibiting same-sex marriage hit the Web before midmorning. No more than an hour later, the tired buzzwords appeared, like clockwork, on conservative blogs: “lawless,” “dictatorship,” “tyranny,” “judicial activism,” “gobbledygook,” By noon, apparently lacking anything new to say, the right-wing pundit class might as well have taken off for a nice long weekend, doubtless secure in their confidence that they were the last bulwark against the tide of “pink fascism” sweeping America.

(I’d like to take this moment to thank radio host and columnist Michael Savage for using, with apparent seriousness, the phrase “pink fascism” in a published article. Nothing elevates the level of discourse like combining a gender stereotype and a Hitler reference into a pithy two-word phrase.)

In all fairness to commentators on the right, what happened in Iowa might have seemed like nothing special at first blush. Gay marriage came to the Midwest — like it came to Massachusetts, Connecticut and (temporarily) California — not through the legislative process but via judicial fiat.

That the decision was unanimous doesn’t materially change the fact that, as of last Friday, advocates for same-sex marriage were batting .000 in the Democratic arena. And while Iowa’s constitution is quite a bit more difficult to amend than California’s, the anti-same-sex marriage crowd was still in position to talk a big game about rolling back this latest instance of “judicial activism” with a Proposition 8-like referendum in 2011.

And then came Vermont.

Earlier this week, each house of the Vermont legislature mustered the requisite two-thirds majority to override Governor Jim Douglas’ veto and become the first state to pass a law granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples. Suddenly, gay marriage wasn’t something that judges in black robes forced on an unwitting populace. It became something that representatives in business suits enabled on behalf of a seemingly acquiescent or even eager populace. And that could be bad news indeed for the Republican Party come 2012.

Only five years ago, a rash of anti-gay ballot measures all over the country boosted voter turnout among social conservatives and, according to some accounts, provided George W. Bush ’68 with his margin of victory in the 2004 presidential elections. In 2012, gay marriage might hurt the Republican Party’s hopes of retaking the White House, even if the economy continues to suffer.

Assuming that Iowa Republicans attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling, 2011 is the soonest a referendum can appear on the ballot. That year, incidentally, also happens to be the year the fight for the Republican presidential nomination kicks off with the Iowa caucuses. Those two events will, almost inevitably, become tightly intertwined.

What Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might call “real Americans” — socially conservative rural evangelicals who tend to actively oppose gay marriage — are overrepresented in the Iowa Republican caucuses. In 2007, when gay marriage was far from an immediate issue, Mike Huckabee took 34 percent of the votes in the caucuses. He went on to lose badly in nearly every state where social conservatives aren’t overrepresented.

In 2012, with John McCain and his patented New Hampshire magic unlikely to be in the race, the Iowa caucuses assume greater importance as the sort of event that could create enough momentum to carry even a marginal candidate all the way to the nomination. And how will a marginal Republican win the Iowa caucuses? By being more virulently anti-gay-marriage than anyone else in the field.

The problem for the Republican Party lies in the fact that extreme social conservatism doesn’t win national elections anymore. As Republican candidates kowtow to the most culture war-obsessed part of their coalition, they lose the votes of the significant majorities of Americans who are sick of the culture wars and who now believe that the Democrats have better ideas on health care, the economy and education.

So keep babbling about “judicial tyranny,” Republicans. And if you get beaten in 2012 more roundly than you did in 2008, you can blame the judges for that, too. Because the Iowa Supreme Court just forced your hand, and they’re going to make you decide just how committed you are to preventing gay marriage. If the recycled jingoisms of your chattering class offer any suggestion, it sounds like you’re willing to lose an election over your opposition to granting legal recognition to two committed adults in a loving relationship.

Xan White is a senior in Pierson College.

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