In 2004, the year President George W. Bush proposed a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, only three sitting United States senators publicly supported marriage equality.
As Bob Dylan once crooned: The times, they are a’ changin’.
With endorsements last week from Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Tom Carper (D-DE), marriage equality now counts 54 supporters among sitting senators. Same-sex marriage supporters now include liberals like Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), middle-of-the road types like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and even conservative Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, whose gay son prompted Portman to switch positions on the issue. No longer is same-sex marriage a quixotic cause relegated to the most progressive corners of the Democratic Party. With a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll indicating that 58 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, there’s no denying that marriage equality has gone decidedly mainstream.
The vast majority of congressional Democrats back full equality for gay and lesbian couples, a stark turnaround from a decade ago. In the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, single-digit candidates Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) stood alone among the party’s contenders in supporting same-sex marriage. Now, it’s inconceivable that the Democrats will nominate an anti–marriage equality candidate in 2016.
Republicans, meanwhile, remain mostly opposed to gay and lesbian nuptials. Portman and Kirk are the only two sitting GOP senators to support the freedom to marry. Based on their public statements and their history of backing gay rights, there’s reason to believe that moderate Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Susan Collins (R-ME) could soon join Portman and Kirk. While they’d be among few current GOP officeholders to support marriage equality, they’d also be part of an increasing number of establishment Republicans urging the party to alter its stance on gay issues. While the authors of the party’s official autopsy of the 2012 campaign stated that the GOP should stick to its opposition to same-sex marriage, they also advocated respect for different points of view and an end to strident anti-gay rhetoric. That report came after over one hundred nationally prominent Republicans signed a brief urging the Supreme Court to affirm marriage rights for same-sex couples.
Among the Republican rank-and-file, pro-marriage equality sentiment is mounting. A recent CBS News poll found that 37 percent of Republicans nationally support same-sex marriage, a marked increase on last year’s 13 percent. What’s more, the poll found that among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents between the ages of 18 and 49, supporters of the freedom to marry outnumber opponents, 49 percent to 46 percent.
Given that older, socially conservative voters still constitute a hefty portion of the GOP base, the GOP is not going to nominate a pro–marriage equality presidential candidate in 2016. But it’s possible that sometime in the 2020s, at which point marriage equality will almost certainly be either federally guaranteed or legal in states harboring a majority of the population, there will be a pro–same-sex marriage GOP presidential nominee. Many progressive Democrats may fret at this prospect. Once the GOP is no longer dominated by troglodytes and gay-baiters, won’t affluent gays start voting their pocketbooks, since their livelihoods will no longer be on the ballot? And won’t many young voters turned off by the GOP’s fire-breathing rhetoric in 2012 warm to a more socially moderate Republican Party, thereby erasing the Democratic advantage among Millennials?
Rather than worry that a more enlightened GOP will eat away at their support, progressives should embrace Republicans’ slow-but-sure acceptance of the political reality surrounding marriage equality. Having more Republicans come around on gay rights won’t mean the end of the culture wars—abortion will likely never fade as a hot-button topic—but the emerging consensus on marriage equality will offer the opportunity to move beyond one of the most divisive social debates of the twenty-first century. Much of that energy spent defending the fundamental rights of gays and lesbians can be channeled toward long-ignored progressive causes—grievous income inequality, reinvigorating the American labor movement, combating the abuses of corporate America, curbing the influence of big money in politics, and confronting civilizational challenges like climate change.
Surveys show that Millennials express high levels of support for progressive economic policies, so there’s more keeping them in the liberal fold than just a concern for gay rights. In November’s exit polls, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 endorsed Democratic health care policy over that of the GOP by 54 to 35 percent. A 2011 Pew survey found considerable support among Millennials for the Occupy Wall Street movement, with 47 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds indicating an unfavorable view of capitalism as currently practiced versus 46 percent who viewed capitalism favorably. Having come to political consciousness amid a recession wrought by private sector greed, the current generation of young Americans is unlikely to vote for the party of plutocrats simply because it’s no longer as anti-gay as it used to be.
A more socially liberal GOP could also help Democrats shore up support among constituencies that long ago abandoned the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once the two parties reach a general truce on same-sex marriage, many socially conservative, working class white voters may well reevaluate their support for the GOP, which has done nothing to improve their lot in life. A renewed emphasis on economic inequality and social justice could very possibly convince church-going whites in middle America that their true interests lie with progressive Democrats. Instead of hoping for an unreconstructed GOP, progressives should acknowledge that it behooves them to engage in a political debate that is less focused on wedge issues.
Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.