The fate of our nation now hinges on a single state’s election, the meaning and outcome of which remain contested and unclear. Rarely has a vote given so piquant a mixture of pain and encouragement to two competing camps. Clearly, the key to our political future lies in the recent election in…Vermont. Florida may decide the next president, but the battle now prefigured in Vermont will dominate the country’s cultural politics for the next four years.
Vermont’s gubernatorial and legislative campaigns — a kind of collective referendum on gay civil unions — closely resembled the race for the presidency…only more so. As with the presidential race, the results were mixed, giving each side reason to claim victory. And the election in Vermont exposed a chasm between “two Vermonts,” one largely rural, one predominantly urban; one socially conservative, the other the product of cultural currents let loose during the sixties. This split — exactly — was evident in the presidential results, but with a difference.
Nationally, despite the emotions kicked up by the Florida vote-count, our divisions were relatively shallow. Many voters could have gone either way, and notwithstanding Gore’s feint to the left, both candidates avoided hot-button social issues and played to the mushy middle. Deeper cultural contrasts may underlie our national political divisions, but with social issues off the table, the election turned into a battle over money. But in Vermont, with gay civil unions in play, nearly every other issue was swept aside, and the underlying cultural division between the “two Vermonts” was honed to a knife-point.
Sometime during the next four years, gay marriage and other issues related to homosexuality are going to burst onto the national scene, sharpening our political and cultural differences. It’s already happened in a small way with the brush-war over the Boy Scouts, but pretty soon things are going to get serious — and politicians are going to find it tough to keep their distance.
To a large extent, gay marriage and “civil unions” are legislative issues. Even Vermont’s egregiously invasive Supreme Court was forced to refer the matter to the legislature for final disposition — with politically explosive results. And there are any number of ways in which the federal government can be drawn into the controversy over gay marriage. For decades, politicians have been able to sidestep the incendiary issues of abortion and affirmative action by passing them off to the courts. This will be far more difficult to do with civil unions and gay marriage.
So what exactly happened in Vermont? Although the results were apparently inconclusive, it would be more accurate to say that each side won an impressive victory. If the goal of gay activists was to preserve civil unions by blocking legislative repeal, then clearly they were successful. Thanks to a relentless campaign of vilification by Vermont’s leftist press, Ruth Dwyer, the conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate who pledged to repeal civil unions, was handily defeated by incumbent Democratic Gov. Howard Dean. The liberal governor can now veto any attempt to change or abolish civil unions. And although opponents of civil unions did pick up a single seat in the closely divided Vermont state Senate, the Democrats continue to hold a narrow edge. Only the House slipped into Republican hands. So civil unions are safe. And given the mixed results, a constitutional amendment that could countermand both the law and the original order by Vermont’s Supreme Court seems unlikely.
But if a key goal of the “take back Vermont” movement was to graphically illustrate the dangers of a vote for civil unions, then they succeeded brilliantly. The battle for the House turned into just the legislative landslide the take-back-Vermonters had hoped for. Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 14 years, and by a commanding majority. And all sides agree that civil unions were responsible for the turnover. Had it been introduced into the Vermont state legislature about to take power, a civil unions bill could never have passed.
And Vermont Republicans came within a hair’s breadth of capturing the state Senate. With opposition to civil unions often tracking the rural/urban divide, the vote for the House was a clear reflection of the countryside’s disaffection. In larger Senate districts, however, urban and rural votes were more likely to cancel each other out.
That gave a razor-thin margin to Democrats in some hotly contested Senate districts, but the vote could clearly have gone either way. What’s striking is that Republicans were able to take over the House and come close in the Senate in a state that not only voted heavily for Gore, but gave Ralph Nader a whopping 9 percent. They did it by adding the votes of socially conservative Catholic Democrats to the votes of rural Republicans.
So in the end, each side won.
Gay activists and their liberal allies can take heart from Vermont’s election. Although they know they’ll have a fight on their hands, victory is clearly possible. Activists have every right to expect that in a significant number of states, civil union legislation, once passed, will hold. At the same time, social conservatives can feel confident that the results in Vermont will sharply reduce legislative support for gay marriage initiatives in other jurisdictions. Any Democratic governor or state legislator casting an eye to the fate of civil unions in Vermont is bound to get queasy. Civil unions — not to mention gay marriage — clearly have the power to take over the politics of a state, poisoning relations among the parties and threatening the ouster of any official who supports them.
With any ordinary issue, these political dangers would easily be enough to scare off other states. But the issue of civil unions is not ordinary. However mistakenly, proponents of gay marriage believe that they are engaged in an heroic struggle for civil rights. Invocations of Selma, Alabama, are a staple of pro-gay marriage rhetoric. Advocates will not be deterred by pragmatic considerations. Expect proposals for civil unions and outright gay marriage to be introduced into a wide range of state legislatures over the next four years. The fight will be bitter, with the ultimate outcome as yet unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the implications of the coming war over gay marriage are national. By driving socially conservative blue-collar voters into the arms of the Republicans, gay marriage has the potential to reassemble the Reagan coalition. Al Gore’s populist rhetoric during the election was a bid for these very same voters. As it is, Gore was only partially successful. But once Gore (who has already endorsed gay “civic unions”) or a new Democratic leader becomes directly associated in the public mind with a nationwide campaign for gay marriage, the Reagan Democrats will come back to the Republicans. At least that is one plausible scenario.
The final outcome of our coming national war over gay marriage cannot be known. The battle pits a majority of the American people against a political and cultural elite firmly in control of the media and, to a lesser extent, the courts. In the short term, the bitter and complex stand-off in Vermont will probably play out nationally. And as Vermont’s civil war over civil unions has shown, once the battle is joined, nothing will be the same.
— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.