Republicans driving LGBT progress?! The Atlantic loses its mind

A new article somehow credits Republicans for advancements in gay rights. Scientific research confirms the opposite

Published March 28, 2014 5:46PM (EDT)

Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee                                                 (AP/Lm Otero/Stacy Bengs/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee (AP/Lm Otero/Stacy Bengs/J. Scott Applewhite)

In a recent piece in the Atlantic, reporter Molly Ball largely credits Republicans for the progress in the fight for marriage equality. She points to recent events involving Republicans that prove that the GOP is actually a hospitable place for the LGBT community and the progress it seeks.

I will not be the first, but let me be the latest, to reply: no, it is not.

Because of actions by judges appointed by Republican presidents, Ball assumes this signals a shift in party thinking. Judges, appointed for life and intended to be independent of the partisan factions in elected office, often evolve in their own thinking over time. In these cases, these judges were ruling in light of the recent Supreme Court rulings of Perry and Windsor. In other words, they were following orders from a higher court, not asserting their own, partisan judgment. Ball further suggests that by “declining to oppose” same-sex marriage, it follows that Republican governors like Brian Sandoval, R-Nev., Susana Martinez, R-N.M., and Chris Christie, R-N.J., are the cause of positive changes to the way LGBT people in this country are treated under the law and indicative of the impact of Republican support for marriage equality.

Republicans are playing a role in the changing landscape of same-sex marriage. While it is certainly true that some within the party and within the conservative movement are, in fact, changing their minds, Republicans are not by any stretch of the imagination driving the improving legal and social positions for the LGBT community in the United States. Not by a long shot. And scientific, empirical political science research confirms it. I’ve just finished writing a book on the topic (co-authored with Dr. Melissa Michelson) that examines support for LGBT rights and same-sex marriage among different identity groups.

A few glaring facts are treated as ephemeral aberrations in Ball’s piece: only three Republican U.S. senators support marriage equality. That’s right, three. Out of 45 current Republican U.S. senators. There are currently 184 current members of the U.S. House of Representatives on record in support of marriage equality. Of them, 182 are Democrats. That’s 98.9 percent. There are 17 current governors who have announced their support for marriage equality. All 17 are Democrats. And those Republican elected officials who recently declined to oppose marriage equality cited in Ball’s piece? Let’s review some background from these so-called Republican “drivers of momentum.”

For example, Gov. Chris Christie remains staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage. He vetoed a bill approved by the New Jersey Legislature in 2012 to legalize the practice. When a trial-level judge ruled in October 2013 that the state must allow same-sex couples to wed, Christie appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court. He finally decided to abandon his appeals because the state “would have little chance of overturning them,” not because his issue preferences changed. In response to this decision, Bob McAlister, a prominent South Carolina-based Republican strategist said, "Abandoning foundational principles that go beyond politics is not the way to get positive attention in South Carolina," suggesting further that Christie's decision "is absolutely going to hurt him" with national party leadership.

Gov. Brian Sandoval came to a similar conclusion when Nevada’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was struck down, responding, “Based upon the advice of the attorney general's office and their interpretation of relevant case law, it has become clear that this case is no longer defensible in court.” Not exactly a glowing endorsement of the freedom to marry. Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico has been a longtime, vocal supporter of a statewide referendum to ban same-sex marriage. She has not come out in favor of marriage equality, instead suggesting, “I think what I said before [in opposition] was that yes, the people should have decided on it, but the Supreme Court has decided and it’s now the law of the land.”

Martinez made headlines in 2012 when, after being refused service from her openly gay hairstylist because of her stance on LGBT rights, responded that she would not reconsider her attitudes and that she found the stylist irritating because he talked too much. And she is seen as the driver of LGBT momentum?

Finally, in a letter to the Republican Party, social conservative leaders like Tony Perkins, James Dobson and Phyllis Schlafly suggested that Republicans should hold steadfast in their opposition to marriage equality, instead focusing on how to better articulate those positions of opposition to avoid high-profile Republican gaffes. Just four days later, and just prior to the Supreme Court’s rulings in Perry and Windsor, the Republican National Committee passed resolutions affirming the party’s opposition to marriage equality, writing, “The Republican National Committee implores the U. S. Supreme Court to uphold the sanctity of marriage in its rulings on California’s Proposition 8 and the Federal Defense of Marriage Act.”

The 2012 Republican Party Platform frankly states, “We reaffirm our support for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We applaud the citizens of the majority of States which have enshrined in their constitutions the traditional concept of marriage, and we support the campaigns underway in several other States to do so.”

And what about the Republican public? Perhaps it’s just party leaders who are staunch opponents. For our book, we conducted two randomized experiments to test the effect of partisan identity on support for marriage equality.

One study, leading up to the gubernatorial election in Virginia in 2013, randomly assigned citizens to a paragraph either reminding them of the Democratic candidate’s support of marriage equality or reminding them of the Republican candidate’s opposition to marriage equality, reflective of the respective candidate’s actual position. Democrats who were reminded of Democratic elites’ support for marriage equality increased almost 12 percent compared to being reminded of Republicans’ opposition, moving from roughly 57 percent support to almost 69 percent support.

On the other hand, Republicans were staunchly opposed to marriage equality regardless of what they read, with only 17 percent support (Democratic support paragraph) and 19 percent support (Republican support paragraph). In New Jersey, running a similar study, we found that Republicans overwhelmingly disapproved of marriage equality (roughly 27 percent support) but after Gov. Christie’s resignation that marriage equality was inevitable, that support did jump to around 55 percent. In this case, a Republican opinion leader was able to change opinion for the better.

A Washington Post-ABC Poll conducted in 2014 found a substantial increase in overall support for same-sex marriage over time but also noted the significant divisions that remain. While significant majorities of Democrats (70 percent) and Independents (61 percent) now support marriage equality, Republican attitudes are changing more slowly, with only 40 percent of Republicans supporting marriage equality and 54 percent in opposition. While Democrats are fairly united on the issue, there are significant splits on the issue along ideological, religious, and age cohort subgroups within the GOP.

One prominent fragmentation within today’s Republican Party is ideological — between those who support the conservative Tea Party movement and those who do not. Benenson & Van Lohuizen (2013) found that 47 percent of Republicans who oppose the Tea Party supported marriage equality, compared to 34 percent of Republicans neutral to the Tea Party and 13 percent of Republicans who support the Tea Party. Support for same-sex marriage is lowest (less than one-third) among self-described social conservatives and evangelical Protestants.

The poll also finds that among the roughly 50 percent of Republicans who believe that people are born gay, 64 percent support same-sex marriage, 61 percent say the Constitution provides the right to such unions and 70 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian individuals to adopt (Craighill & Clement 2014). In other words, while Republicans and conservatives are generally slower to change their opinion, there seems to be a non-trivial number of Republicans who are either supportive of marriage equality or are at least open to considering the issue.

To claim they are “driving the momentum” is another argument entirely. One that isn’t valid.

The connection between same-sex marriage and partisanship is also apparent in the public’s mind. In 2014, the Public Religion Research Institute released a study of attitudes toward same-sex marriage and LGBT rights more generally. They find that by a significant margin (almost 2-to-1), the Democratic Party is perceived as being friendlier toward LGBT people compared to the Republican Party. Seventy percent of Americans say that the Democratic Party is friendly toward LGBT people compared to 14 percent who report it is unfriendly. (The remaining 16 percent did not have an opinion or refused to answer).

On the other hand, only 28 percent of Americans report that the Republican Party is friendly toward the LGBT community, with 54 percent believing it is unfriendly. (The remaining 18 percent offer no opinion or refused to answer). By a ratio of more than 2-to-1, the Democratic Party is perceived as being friendlier toward LGBT people than the Republican Party. Seven-in-10 (70 percent) Americans say the Democratic Party is friendly toward LGBT people, compared to 14 percent who say it is unfriendly. Sixteen percent say they don’t know or refused to provide an opinion.

By contrast, fewer than 3-in-10 (28 percent) Americans say the Republican Party is friendly toward LGBT people, while a majority (54 percent) believe the Republican Party is unfriendly toward LGBT people; roughly 1-in-5 (18 percent) offer no opinion. LGBT Americans are as likely as Americans overall (70 percent) to say that the Democratic Party is friendly toward LGBT people, compared to 20 percent who say the party is unfriendly. Only 15 percent of LGBT individuals think the Republican Party is friendly toward their community as opposed to 72 percent who suggest the GOP is unfriendly toward LGBT people (PRRI 2014).

I was a political appointee to the Department of Homeland Security under the George W. Bush administration. There are many things about the Republican Party that I like and many Republican leaders whom I respect. I fully acknowledge there has been some meaningful progress within certain segments of Republican identifiers on LGBT rights and I welcome any Republican to join our cause. I invite conservative Republicans to join the side of history that chooses to see LGBT people as worthy of equal treatment under the law and will gladly have a reasoned, calm conversation with anyone who might oppose the rights that we seek.

I will not, however, gloss over the fact that officials within the Republican Party and many of those who identify with it are overwhelming opposed to the progress the LGBT community seeks. I will not forget that the vast amount of evolution of LGBT rights in this country was fought tooth-and-nail by liberals and progressives in the face of often insurmountable Republican and/or conservative opposition. While the future will hopefully see more Republicans and conservatives evolve on the issue of same-sex marriage (as it evolved with President Obama and many other Democrats), we can’t allow the past to be revised through rosy GOP glasses.

By Brian F. Harrison

Brian F. Harrison, Ph.D.(@brianfharrison) is Lecturer at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and author of "A Change is Gonna Come: How to Have Effective Political Conversations in a Divided America" (Oxford University Press, April 1, 2020).

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Gay Rights Gop Lgbt Marriage Equality Media Criticism The Atlantic The Right