Friday, November 07, 2008

California and Proposition Hate

Tankwoman raised a question that is on a lot of people's minds. How is it that in a state like California that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama that a nasty piece of legislation like the anti-gay-marriage Proposition Hate (8) could pass with a big enough margin to become a part of the state's constitution?

I don't pretend to fully understand it, either. But I have some thoughts on the subject.

First of all, California is weird. Always has been, probably always will be, until the Really Big One drops the whole state into the Pacific Ocean. One part of the weirdness is that on a statewide basis, California has often swung from one party to the other. Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon all came from California. Having two Democratic Senators as we do now (Boxer and Feinstein) is also unusual historically. California has often had one Republican Senator and one Democratic Senator at the same time. The state legislature has often been dominated by Democrats while the Governor was Republican, as it is right now.

Our initiative system also has its peculiarities. I don't like it myself. One of the big causes promoted by the Progressive movement a century ago was establishing "initiative and referendum", both being popular votes with initiative being put on the ballot by collecting signatures and referenda put on by the legislature. Campaigns for propositions are often so scurrilous that they make Presidential campaigns look like sober political science conferences. The Progressive idea was that propositions would be a popular balance to the power of what we now call lobbyists. But in practice, the general public acting as our own legislature can be just as foolish as "the politicians" in some of our decisions.

And that was the case on this one.

I'm not inclined to be generous to the majority who voted for Prop Hate. I would say the two main factors for the thing were hatred and fear. Or, to put it in more neutral terms, conservative "culture war" attitudes against gays and lesbians, and unfamiliarity with what the issue involves.

For the adherents of the "culture war" position, I tend to think that their attitudes will only be changed by some combination of time, expose to a wider range of ideas and people, and traumatic personal experiences.

But those in the fear/unfamiliarity category are more accessible to change. For one thing, the issue is genuinely new to a lot of people. I like to think of myself as pretty progressive-minded (in today's sense, not the century-ago capital-P sense). But until San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom started conducting marriages for gay and lesbian couples four and a half years ago, I had never particularly thought about the issue. It's not that I was for or against gay marriage. It was not something that I had ever really thought much about.

That sound pretty thick-headed now. But even living and working around San Francisco, I don't recall seeing publicity about the issue. I hadn't heard any of my gay and lesbian friends and acquaintances talking about it. You have to give Newsom credit. He really put himself in the center of an issue that was not a popular one at the time. And obviously still isn't totally popular. Those marriages made a particularly favorable impression on me, because my wife and I were married in the San Francisco City Hall where those weddings took place. So I was able to identify with the happiness those couples felt right away.

But for many voters, it's still a new and unfamiliar issue. Among Obama voters, I haven't poured over the election statistics, but I understand a significant percentage of African-American and Latino voters who supported Obama also voted for Proposition Hate. Some of that has to do with the more prominent role that extended-kinship family networks play in those communities relative to the Anglo community. Even though gay marriage is no inherent threat to those networks, and would probably even strengthen them, some blacks and Latinos are open to scare tactics about how gay marriage would threaten the institution of marriage generally.

Both sides ran ads about the proposition on the local Telemundo channel. The "No" ads stressed the need to not let communities and families be divided by the devious promoters of Prop 8. One depicted the state constitution as a woman with the Yes-on-8 crowd represented by a smarmy guy making a pass at her. The Spanish-language "Yes" ads I saw talked about the need to save marriage. Neither side, as I recall, said that gay marriage was what the proposition was about.

Part of that fear is promoted by conservative churches, of course. I don't know exactly what it will take to defuse it. But I see it politically as a problem of otherwise Democratic- and liberal-leaning voters being persuaded that a live-and-let-live attitude on gay marriage is more consistent with their general outlook. Part of that would involve getting across the message more widely that the law regulates *civil* marriage, not what churches are required to recognize. Getting churches to change their attitudes is important. But it's not the same issue as *legal* marriage.

Let's not forget, too, that Obama and Biden both explicitly oppose gay marriage. I'm guessing that there must have been some percentage of Democratic voters who saw that the top of our ticket was against gay marriage and decided to vote against it because of that. I know on propositions with which I'm not so familiar, I look first to see who is supporting it and who is opposing it.

The Saturday Night Live skit on the Vice Presidential debate picked up on something that seemed to pass right by our pod-people pundits but which struck me watching the debate. It was that Biden made an impassioned defense of the civil rights of gays under the Constitution and then said emphatically that he was against gay marriage. And White Princess Palin was against it, of course. Moderater Gwen Ifill then said that was at least something they could agree on, and all three of them had a good chuckle about it.

When Democratic Party leaders - and maybe even Big Pundits - no longer consider gay marriage an issue to shrug off with a chuckle, that will make a difference among Democratic voters who supported Proposition Hate this year.

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