Why a “gay Roe vs Wade” is unlikely

Andrew Sullivan wrote last night that part of him is hoping the U.S. Supreme Court issues a narrow ruling in the gay marriage cases. He said:

To my mind, that smaller decision would be a relief. Why? Because I do not want a gay Roe vs Wade, a decision that appears to foist a premature answer on a still-not-entirely-convinced public.

Sullivan talks himself out of this desire by focusing on the “moral clarity of our cause,” which he thinks demands the court strike down all bans on same-sex marriage. But there’s a historical reason why he could breathe easier about the risk of a backlash.

The conservative movement has already won as much as it can on the gay marriage issue. While a broad Supreme Court ruling will generate a lot of rending of right-wing garments, I don’t see how it will have a substantial impact on any future elections, especially since polling shows that voters aren’t scared of gay marriage like they used to be. The people who hate gay marriage—and the Supreme Court—are already voting Republican.

(My perspective comes from having written a dissertation on popular culture and the conservative movement before I fled the academy for journalism. For a thumbnail version, see this post I wrote about country music for The American Prospect in 2007.)

Roe v. Wade came at a very different moment. Richard Nixon had just been reelected, the conservative movement was ascendent, and the Republicans were looking for ways to hang onto the Southern votes Nixon had pried out of solid Democratic control. Evangelicals, who became increasingly political in the 1960s, were already hostile to the Supreme Court thanks to a 1963 ruling against school prayer. And much of the anger toward Roe came from the same quarters that were mad about court-ordered desegregation measures.

Roe didn’t start a backlash—it catalyzed a number of factors on the right into a sustainable force in electoral politics, one that was remained useful after politicians could no longer safely invoke hostility against desegregation. (A little more on the relationship between the white backlash and feminist backlash here). Its power was fed by Ronald Reagan and Richard Viguerie—a direct-mail genius who gets a lot of credit for making evangelicals a Republican mainstay—in the 1980s.

The 2004 election was the high water mark of an electoral strategy built on opposition to same-sex marriage. George W. Bush already consolidated gains on this issue in a way that Reagan did on abortion. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see any more votes there for the right.

More importantly, the current electoral trends show it is an issue that mobilizes an increasingly important Democratic demographic. A broad Supreme Court ruling could actually be a boon for the left.

This isn’t to say a broad ruling is likely—that’s an entirely different question. But if it were to come, it won’t be another Roe.


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