This week, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on Proposition 8 in California that banned gay marriage. Rumors are circulating that if nothing else, the SCOTUS will not uphold Prop.8, which if you’re aware of the composition of the Court is surprising. Over the past couple of years, gay marriage has reached a tipping point in public opinion with a majority supporting it. Only as recent as 2004, opposition to gay marriage was so strong that it was credited to have reelected George W. Bush.Merely having it on the ballot of battleground states brought out hordes of conservative hell bent on preserving ‘traditional’ marriage .
It is 2013 now and nearly 67% of Californians and more than a majority across the nation support gay marriage. The tipping point, I think, was when the Vice President Joe Biden came out in favor which led to President Obama also overcoming his reluctant opposition. This admittedly may have been due to overwhelming pressure from big donors in Hollywood and NYC who are dedicated to the cause. Earlier this month, the
governor of Senator from Ohio, a perennial battleground state, Rob Portman, also came out in favor of gay marriage. However, his motivations, at least publicly, were different. His son is gay and he considered his personal duty to support gay marriage.
Comparing the motivations of these two groups i.e. Biden-Obama and Portman, the latter’s change of heart seems genuine and as a better catalyst for a change in heart. But in terms of public policy and civil rights, is it really? In terms of advocacy and bringing about change among elected officials, what would you prefer to be a more desirable process? Although we look down upon politicians and their changing ways, it is an integral part of a democratic process. Politicians are motivated by their chances of getting reelected and their legacy, if under a term-limit. Most politicians want to be in the forefront of an inevitable wave of change. The public cannot be fooled by someone who just jumps on a bandwagon. At the same time, the politician has to be careful so as to not bet on change that may happen. It is a carefully calculated risk.
In terms of influencing change either through lobbying efforts or threatening to not donate to their next campaign, people can cause politicians to hasten their decision. Although money gets a bad rap, it is often a powerful tool, if harnessed correctly, in the hands of the people. Either that or using tools of publicity campaigns through social media. Politicians respond to external influences. That’s how the political and democratic process work. At least in such case, we know we have a chance.
Now if you consider Rob Portman’s influences, it was personal. It was his son who came out to him as gay and in turn brought him in touch with the issues that face the gay community. He would’ve no chance of knowing that had his son not been gay. So as a public, how are we supposed to deal with such influencing factors? Should we hope that children of politicians who make policy that affect millions are gay? or unemployed? or poor? or disabled? For them to support those issues. There are no external factors that aid us in changing the minds of such politicians. Dick Cheney famously was in favor of gay marriage way back in 2004 coincidentally also because his daughter was gay. But apart from saying so, he didn’t do anything about it. Given our experience with the Iraq war, we know that his voice wasn’t one of the less influential ones in the White House and the policy makers of that time.
While it is appreciable that both Biden-Obama and Portman chose to support gay marriage, it is also important to understand the motivations and subsequently, the opportunities in the future, for influencing such motivations.