As the Democrat’s see it, the Santorum affair will do substantial damage to the Republican party for some time. That’s because, on social issues generally, and on homosexuality in particular, the public is divided into roughly three camps — social conservatives, social liberals, and social moderates. Social conservatives, who see homosexuality as immoral, form a large part of the Republican party’s base (just as social liberals control the base of the Democratic party). Social moderates, therefore, hold the balance of political power in the country at large. These moderates may not favor every liberal social reform, but they do not see homosexuality as sinful. Social moderates do not want to return to the Fifties, and they certainly don’t want the government to ban private homosexual conduct.
So, from the Democratic point of view, the Santorum flap is bound to do lasting political damage to the Republicans. Social conservatives make up far too powerful a part of the Republican base to allow the party to repudiate Santorum. With Santorum remaining in place, social moderates will come to think of the Republican party as mean-spirited and culturally antiquated. As the Democrats see it, in the Santorum affair, they are finally getting what they could not achieve with Trent Lott. The Democrats would actually have preferred that Trent Lott stay on as leader. That would have enabled the Democrats to portray the Republicans as bigots. But now, the Democrats think, Santorum’s staying put will serve as an easy and ongoing symbol of the supposed bigotry of Republicans.
There’s a little problem with the Democrats’ rosy scenario, however. In just a few months, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is likely to legalize gay marriage, thus setting off a titanic national struggle. (See my piece, “The Coming Battle.”) Yet neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have any inkling of what is about to hit them.
Once Massachusetts legalizes gay marriage, it will be a domestic culture-war story like no other. Gay couples will flood into Massachusetts from around the country to get married. Returning to their homes, these gay couples will initiate a series of lawsuits attempting to force recognition of their marriages onto their respective states. The suits will rest on constitutional grounds of equal protection, full faith and credit — and any other grounds the plaintiffs can think of. There will also be legal challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The airwaves will be filled with sympathetic stories about married gay couples who can’t get their unions recognized in their own homes.
All this, in turn, will ignite a movement to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment, which defines marriage as the union of a single women and man. Social conservatives will be in an uproar over the possibility that, without any legislative decision whatever, gay marriage could be imposed on the entire country. Although nearly three quarters of the states have passed laws or constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, a single Supreme Court decision (with Sandra Day O’Connor as the tie-breaking vote) will suffice to institute gay marriage throughout the land.
For months — perhaps years — every public official in the country will be forced to take a stand on gay marriage. Democrats and Republicans alike will have to pronounce on this ultimate hot-button issue, at the almost certain cost of alienating large numbers of their constituents. And public officials who have absolutely no interest in, or facility for, discussions about sexuality will be making gaffs right and left. If you thought Sen. Santorum’s remarks were clumsy or confusing, just wait. And remember, this is probably all going to start only three or four months from now. The Santorum flap is only part of a precursor to the to the mother of all cultural battles.
Now let’s return to those socially moderate voters. They sure don’t want to see states passing sodomy laws. But social moderates don’t feel very comfortable with the idea of gay marriage either. If the Santorum controversy tends to make swing voters see the Republicans as a party of antiquated scolds, judicially imposed gay marriage will make these voters see the Democrats as a bunch of elite social radicals beholden to special interest groups and contemptuous of public opinion. That will not be helpful to the Democrats.
True, the Santorum flap will make it tougher, at first, for opponents of gay marriage to put their case. When the slippery slope to polygamy and polyamory is pointed out, for example, conservatives may be accused of “equating” homosexuality with polygamy. The press will surely deploy its usual tactics of distortion and suppression. But in a battle this epic, it’s going to be tough to make that strategy stick.
Once gay marriage becomes a huge and inescapable national issue, the press is going to have to make more room than it generally does for the presentation of both sides of the argument. In light of the ensuing discussion, Santorum’s concerns about slippery slopes are as likely to seem prescient as prejudiced. In fact, almost in spite of itself, as a result of the Santorum affair, the media has started to wake up to slippery slope issues. Over at Slate, William Saletan, although not in agreement with Santorum, is scratching his head about why the judicial abolition of sodomy laws would not invalidate laws prohibiting incest. And although he is a (qualified) supporter of gay marriage, Eugene Volokh is acknowledging that there may indeed be a slippery slope leading from gay marriage to polygamy/polyamory. Even PBS’s News Hour introduced its viewers to the problem of the slippery slope. And George Will debated the issue at length on ABC’s This Week. (Of course, the issue still hasn’t broken through at the New York Times.) And all this is only after a molehill of a controversy — compared to the mountain of debate we are all about to climb.
So the Santorum flap has created a short-term problem for the Republicans. And the Santorum controversy will make it easier for the mainstream media to caricature opponents of gay marriage when the issue breaks into the open. But the Santorum flap has had other effects as well. It shows how high-stakes national debates on homosexuality force talk about the real issues onto a reluctant media. The current Santorum controversy also sets up a retrospective connection in the public’s mind. Just a few months from now, when the issue is not sodomy laws, but gay marriage, the Republicans are going to start looking a whole lot safer to social moderates than the Democrats.
The truth is, sodomy laws are on the way out. The Santorum “affair” is a manufactured crisis — a trumped-up attempt by the media and the Democrats to make the Republicans look bad. Republicans aren’t about to impose sodomy laws on the country. Many or most Republicans probably oppose them in the first place. But the movement for gay marriage is an honest-to-goodness cultural revolution in the making. And the Democrats will be its chief — and enthusiastic — supporters. The public will soon see this clearly. No, the public will soon feel this, in its gut.
I was in Vermont after the passage of civil-unions legislation, and the state was in a tizzy — deeply polarized, and completely focused on the issue of gay unions and judicial activism. Vermont voted for Gore by a large margin, and still gave a tremendous portion of its votes to Nader. Yet, in this extremely liberal state, an angry coalition of Republicans and working class “Reagan Democrats” gave the Republicans the state House of Representatives for the first time in years, and almost gave them the Senate, too. (I wrote about this in, “Florida? Try Vermont.”) The gay-marriage battle may soon prompt a similar rightward shift in the country at large.
So the Santorum flap is about to be engulfed, and retrospectively transformed, by an epic cultural battle over gay marriage. My best guess is that this battle will tell in favor of the Republicans. But the truth is, the outcome is hard to predict. Certainly, in the wake of attempts to use the courts to impose gay marriage on the nation, a huge national backlash against social liberalism and the Democrats is possible. But gay-rights activists may also be correct that, when push comes to shove, the country’s growing libertarian ethos will win out — or at least emerge more clearly than ever before. I don’t think we’re going to know how it’s all going to turn out until the battle hits.
But one thing’s for sure. If Massachusetts really does legalize gay marriage just a few months from now, the Santorum controversy is going to seem minor in comparison. At that point, we will likely move beyond cheap political manipulation, and into the uncharted territory of epic cultural struggle. In just a few months, the games are going to be over. Although there are no guarantees, the mainstream press’s cover-up of the real issues at stake in the gay-marriage controversy will probably at least partially collapse — and a real national debate will begin.