On Saturday Eric Holder announced he will apply the recent Supreme Court Windsor ruling as widely as possible. “In every courthouse, in every proceeding and in every place where a member of the Department of Justice stands on behalf of the United States, they will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law.”
This means that same-sex spouses cannot be compelled to testify against their partners in federal courts, have the same rights as heterosexuals when visiting spouses in prison, and have the right to file for bankruptcy as a couple. In addition, they’ll qualify for benefits currently under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department: the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund and survivor benefits for spouses of public safety officers killed in the line of duty.
None of this surprises me. The Obama administration has run with Windsor. Moreover, it’s not happenstance that Holder made the announcement while in New York speaking to the Human Rights Campaign, a very well funded organization advocating for gay rights on many fronts, including marriage. Its donors fill the campaign coffers of Democratic politicians. Political parties reward their supporters. That’s one of the first laws of politics.
However, there’s a deeper reason. Gay rights and sexual liberation more broadly are relatively cost-free commitments for today’s Democratic Party.
Consider the vigor of Holder’s remarks. Comparing the campaign for same-sex marriage to the Civil Rights movement, he said, “The stakes involved in this generation’s struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher.” Evoking the Selma Analogy, he spoke of gay rights as part of a larger movement “for Birmingham to Stonewall.”
He could just as well have denounced those who oppose the Human Rights Campaign as Bull Connor bigots, which was what Andrew Cuomo did last month in unfiltered remarks. No rhetoric is too extreme, because it’s not in the slightest degree politically dangerous. The sorts of people who don’t want gay marriage are already on the other side. The Selma Analogy is an easy applause line in the current Democratic Party coalition.
It’s also very useful. There are politically dangerous topics such as free trade, immigration, environmental regulation, and taxation that divide Democrats and are dangerous to talk about too openly. Silicon Valley, a very important source of Democratic Party funding, wants guest workers—the AFL-CIO doesn’t. Hollywood, another pillar of the Party, is all-in on globalization—again, workers aren’t. Al Gore may be a darling of environmentalists, but there are plenty of Democratic Party donors and voters who want cheap energy.
For the Left progressive sexual politics plays the role anti-communism used to do for the Right. Back in the day rousing people to defend freedom against the threat of socialism was an applause line that kept the social conservatives from Main Street and the laissez-faire proponents from Wall Street focused on what they had in common. It was a unifying commitment that helped hide deep differences.
Gay rights and the politics of sex (“war on women”) works pretty much the same way for Democrats. Prosecuting a culture war that powerful business interests either agree with or think irrelevant provides a point of unity and feel-good commitment that helps party leaders avoid divisive issues. That’s why same-sex marriage and all it represents has become so important in domestic politics today, or at least a significant part of the reason why.
The obvious political usefulness of gay rights is one among many reasons why the Selma Analogy is a false one. In his remarks Holder implicitly holds himself up as Bobby Kennedy’s true successor, drawing on the legend that he as Attorney General was a great champion of civil rights. In point of fact, the Kennedys were hard-nosed politicians, not dreamy idealists. They knew that vigorous public support for Civil Rights would destroy the Democratic Party coalition and undermine their power base. Which was why John F. Kennedy temporized.
Lyndon Johnson didn’t, and as he foresaw, pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be very, very costly for the Democratic Party. Aside from the surd of Jimmy Carter, Republicans would control the White House for two-and-a-half decades, becoming a national party both more conservative and more capable of winning elections.
There are reasons to favor gay rights. I think they’re misguided and that movement pressing them forward is waging a war on the weak by dismantling the moral wisdom of the ages. But I can understand and even empathize with the reasons why some of my friends support same-sex marriage. It’s a nice dream that envisions everyone able to live and love as their hearts desire. Moreover, I’m forgiving of their insensitivity to the destructive consequences. Misguided, blinding moral certitude is part of the human condition, sadly.
But what I can’t endure is the Selma Analogy. Gay rights is the single easiest and most convenient commitment for today’s Left. There is no George Wallace, no Klux Klux Klan, no seething resentment ready to punish Democrats who posture as courageous crusaders. In today’s political environment, gay rights carry no liabilities, involve no dangers, and require no sacrifices.