Recently, Gabriel Rossman and I were discussing the misuse of the term “meme,” first coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to “an idea that actively causes its adherents to promote it,” the most obvious example being a religion that strongly encourages believers to proselytize. Back in 2009, Gabriel wrote about same-sex marriage in this context:
I would suggest that a very large part of the issue is not an information cascade but a network externality among policy makers. These points are subtly different. In an information cascade we don’t know the value of things and so we figure that the consensus about it is informative. With network externalities the consensus itself implies value so the important thing is to be with the consensus.
A simple recent example of network externality dynamics is the format war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Aside from Sony no movie studio really cared about the differences between the formats (and to the extent they did care, they preferred HD-DVD which was cheaper to manufacture) but they cared a lot about making sure they didn’t commit to the wrong format because nobody wants to own a bunch of equipment and a big disc inventory for a format that consumers have rejected. The studios dithered about making a big commitment to either format until Sony basically sent its Playstation brand on a suicide mission to build a critical mass of Blu-Ray players at which point the remaining studios abandoned HD-DVD almost immediately.
Likewise at a certain point gay marriage began to seem inevitable (a prediction shared even by many people who see this as unfortunate). Now many ordinary people would say popular or not is irrelevant, I’d support [marriage equality / traditional marriage] even if everyone disagreed with me. However there is another way to think about it as “being on the right side of history,” a concern made more salient by the frequent analogies drawn to Jim Crow and especially to miscegenation laws. The [Ryan] Sager piece alludes to some pro-segregation pieces published by National Review in the 1950s and this is interesting. At the time these were not considered crackpot ideas (they were probably more mainstream than NR‘s pro drug legalization pieces in the 1990s) but in retrospect they are repulsive. I think this is a big part of what’s going on here, policy makers are not just judging themselves via public opinion today but against what they project public opinion to be in the future. Since they (probably accurately) perceive that gay marriage will become more popular over time they are calibrating their actions to this future metric rather than current opinion, which is basically divided (at present the median voters opposes gay marriage per se but favors the Solomonic “civil unions” compromise). In contrast, some voters care about “being on the right side of history” but many do not, in part because unlike legislators their votes are not recorded and thus if they change their minds in the future (or if they remain the same but their opinions become less popular than they are currently) they will suffer little problem from the inter-temporal contradiction. [Emphasis added]
It is helpful to understand Rick Santorum’s political prospects in this context. Many conservatives like and admire Santorum precisely because he doesn’t seem to be overly interested in currying favor with liberals and prestigious media outlets. His outspoken social conservatism is a particularly important signaling device. Because socially conservative views are so unpopular in elite circles, particularly as they relate to lesbians and gays, Santorum’s decision to emphasize these issues as a central part of his presidential campaign demonstrates that he can be trusted, and that his views will not “evolve” over time.
But the notion that opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in bigotry is now so firmly entrenched that Santorum will have an extremely difficult time overcoming it. If we assume that some nontrivial share of persuadable voters are social moderates or liberals who are sensitive to charges of bigotry, we can assume that they won’t even consider voting for Santorum. That is, Santorum’s universe of potential supporters is limited to those who (a) share his views on same-sex marriage or (b) are indifferent to his views on same-sex marriage and (c) indifferent to whether high-status individuals associate them with bigotry.
Conservatives, particularly conservatives of a contrarian bent, aren’t inclined to care very much about high-status individuals who believe that opposition to same-sex marriage amounts to bigotry. Unfortunately for Santorum, he can’t win a general election on the strength of conservative supporters alone. This doesn’t mean that he has to win over many voters who believe that opponents of same-sex marriage are bigots, though this constituency is expanding rapidly. It does, however, mean that he has to win over some nontrivial number of voters who don’t like the idea of being associated with bigotry. It is easy to see why conservatives might dismiss these voters as part of an unthinking herd, etc. But status-consciousness of this kind is not uncommon.
Back in 2000, many argued that George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism was politically important not so much because it helped him with the votes of less-affluent or minority voters, though it might have helped at the margins. Rather, it was important because it increased his appeal to suburban voters who think of themselves as the kind of people who care about the poor and vulnerable, and who were thus reluctant to vote solely on pocketbook issues.
As Gabriel suggests, public officials are more likely to care about “being on the right side of history” than voters, but perceptions of bigotry matter. Opponents of same-sex marriage have not done a very good job (to date) of pushing back the bigotry charge. In 2005, Peter Berkowitz helped explain the dilemmas facing same-sex marriage critics:
No controversies that arise under the Fourteenth Amendment create greater opportunities for introducing moral judgments about freedom and equality into constitutional law than abortion, affirmative action, and soon, perhaps, same-sex marriage. Nor do any other constitutional controversies provide larger lessons concerning the culture of freedom established by the Constitution. Four lessons stand out. First, equality in freedom is the coin of the constitutional realm. The central debates over the constitutionality of abortion and affirmative action are hard cases because they do not for the most part pit liberal principles and goods on one side against some other kinds of principles and goods on the other, but rather involve a confrontation between conservative and progressive interpretations of the practical demands of constitutionally protected freedoms. Because it is more difficult to translate arguments against same-sex marriage into the language of freedom, there is a good chance that should the issue come before the Supreme Court, some majority of justices will hold that the Constitution requires it. Second, the Constitution is not neutral between conservative and progressive interpretations of freedom but favors the progressive interpretation, according to which government is responsible for enlarging the sphere of individual freedom and promoting an expansive view of equality. Third, the freedom secured by the Constitution is inherently unstable because there is no fixed stopping point to the demand for it: Progress in enlarging freedom’s realm provides new desires and reasons for further enlargement. Fourth, progress in enlarging freedom’s realm creates new threats — including the temptation to adopt illiberal and antidemocratic measures — to the preservation of the order that the peaceful enjoyment and wise exercise of freedom requires. These lessons and the cases that bring them into focus show that understanding freedom’s progress is critical to freedom’s preservation. [Emphasis added]
He reiterates the point towards the end of the essay:
But should the issue find its way to the Supreme Court, the ability of proponents of same-sex marriage to make their case straightforwardly in the language of freedom and the inability of opponents to frame their legitimate concerns in that language will likely result in same-sex marriage’s being enshrined in the supreme law of the land.
Santorum has said that his campaign is about freedom. Yet he hasn’t been able to explain that his opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted in a concern for equal freedom in a manner that non-conservatives find sufficiently compelling.
One might object that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich also oppose same-sex marriage, and Ron Paul has said that he personally opposes it. I doubt that opposition to same-sex marriage will ever be seen as central to the political identity of Romney, Gingrich, or Paul, but the same can’t be said for Santorum, for whom it has long been a signature issue.
P.S. Ross Douthat has an excellent column on Santorum, and how Romney might run against him.