Democrats on right side of history with Supreme Court worker ruling
It turns out that being on the right side of a cynical partisan strategy can put you on the wrong side of history. Just ask Karl Rove. Before the 2004 election, as senior political adviser to President Bush, he had a problem. Republican voter turnout was looking soft, and the polls were mediocre. His answer was to fire up conservatives by muscling propositions to ban same sex marriages on the ballots in nearly a dozen states.
The Los Angeles Times back then reported that Republican strategists hoped and Democratic strategists feared that “the presence of antigay marriage initiatives on the ballots of swing states such as Michigan and Oregon” would increase conservative turnout and improve the chances for George Bush of winning crucial Electoral College votes.
It was a divisive strategy that may have been victorious as well. Only days after Bush won, Rove told the New York Times, “I do think that it was part and parcel of a broader fabric where this year moral values ranked higher than they traditionally do.” This week, that broader fabric took the form of a Supreme Court decision that spans the political spectrum. The decision found gay and transgender workers are protected against discrimination by the Civil Rights Act. So in less than two decades, gay rights have gone from a Republican weapon to a Supreme Court consensus.
For the past half century, from the Stonewall Uprising in New York to this Supreme Court ruling, Democrats have at most times occupied the right side of history on gay and transgender protections. I am not arguing that every Democrat has favored this issue while every Republican has at the same time opposed it. However, support for these protections is widely shared by Democrats and widely spurned by Republicans.
Albert Einstein once said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Let us take a look at how our thinking has changed on gay rights over the years. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. Later in 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman, letting states reject same sex marriages recognized by other states.
In 2004, Rove used discrimination as a voter turnout strategy. Then things started to change. The Supreme Court effectively invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act with decisions in 2013 and 2015. This week, the Supreme Court has affirmed that the Civil Rights Act protects gay and transgender workers. Does policy catch up with the public? Or does the public catch up with policy? The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University found that for the last half century, public opinion on gay and transgender issues has indeed undergone a radical change.
In 1965, a survey asked Americans if “homosexuals” were more helpful or more harmful to the country, and 70 percent said they were more harmful. Then by 2016, however, almost 60 percent of Americans supported same sex marriage. Despite the progress, differences remain in both parties. But the policy that was once viewed as radical by a majority of Americans was affirmed this week by a clear majority of the Supreme Court.
Every great civil rights movement shifts. They often start out lonely, such as when a black woman refuses to give up her seat on a bus or a gay man resists police harassment while out in Greenwich Village. The network for activists grows, public support expands, and our sense of morality moves forth for the better. There is great power in association that spreads from kitchen tables to business to the media. Then it hits a tipping point where a proposition once sharply unpopular turns widely consensual.
This brings us back to Rove. Democrats in the past might have paid a high political price for being on the right side of history. But history looks back, and I would rather be in the party with its eyes on the future.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.