There’s something inexorable about cultural momentum; it doesn’t gather easily, but when it does, it’s difficult to stop. The decision today to legalize same-sex marriage did not happen suddenly or by accident; it’s the result of a decades-long battle. But it signals what most of us have long known: the country has changed.
Politics reflects culture, not the other way around. Once public opinion began to shift on LGBT rights, it was a matter of time before the courts and the law followed suit – such is the nature of democracy. The GOP, however, has yet to accept this new reality; they’ve yet to notice that the culture war is over – and they lost.
As soon as the Supreme Court announced their decision, Republicans resisted. Mike Huckabee said: “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.” The always-deplorable Bobby Jindal also took an immediate and tone-deaf stand against equality: "Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that." Republican Attorney General of Texas, Ken Paxton, similarly vowed to fight the ruling, denouncing it as an attack on freedom and “religious liberty.” In the coming days, other prominent Republicans will likely speak out as well. They’ll tell us how corrosive today’s decision was. They’ll tell us how decadent the country’s become, how unmoored from traditional values it is. And, in every instance, they’ll be wrong.
The GOP’s opposition to marriage equality is telling for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates how out of step with popular culture the party really is. History has sprinted right by them and they’re too invested in the past to catch up. And that’s because they’ve cornered themselves. Republicans decided years ago, as a matter of strategy, to embrace their right-wing base. As a consequence, the culture war has become central to their platform; they can’t escape it no matter how costly it becomes.
To be a Republican today is to inherit a political burden: It’s simply not possible to be a viable GOP candidate without selling out to the religious right. From abortion to drug law reform to contraception to same-sex marriage, Republicans are unable to cede to majority opinion; their base won’t let them. The hysterical reactions we’ve seen today – and will doubtless see more of in the presidential election – make that painfully clear.
In many ways, this is the result of a deeply cynical Republican strategy to win the presidential election in 2004. To secure Bush’s reelection, the GOP made gay marriage a defining issue. They organized ballot initiatives in 11 states (two of which, Ohio and Michigan, were vital swing states) banning same-sex marriage. The chief goal, however, was not to actually ban gay marriage; it was to boost Republican turnout for the presidential election by galvanizing social conservatives. Karl Rove’s gambit worked: Bush won. But the victory came at a high cost. The Republicans have since been the anti-gay party. This puts them at odds with most of the country, particularly young Americans. It now puts them on the wrong side of the law as well.
Republicans are unlikely to correct course on this issue. They’ll do what they always do when the law or the people reject their agenda: They’ll double down on the original mistake. Rather than face reality and tell their base the truth it doesn’t want to hear (that they’re fighting a lost struggle), Republicans will continue to toss meat at the culture warriors hijacking their party. And that’s a damn shame.
This ought to be a celebration. The right to love and to marry is elemental – it belongs to everyone. No institution is as fundamental to love and family and commitment as marriage. If it’s true – as Republicans insist – that marriage is good for the family and for society more generally, then how is growing the institution a bad thing? There’s nothing positive about marriage that can’t be preserved or enhanced by allowing more human beings to participate in it.
Perhaps the great irony of this debate is that Republicans fail to see how strong a conservative case there is to be made in defense of same-sex marriage. Allowing gay people to marry does not impede the rights of straight people to do the same; nor does it diminish the sacredness of the institution. In fact, according to the logic of social conservatism, expanding marriage can only lead to more stability, more structure, more love, more virtue, and more moderation. If conservative weren’t blinded by bigotry, they’d recognize this, and they’d applaud today’s decision.
The good news, though, is that the country doesn’t need their approval. Today happened. Marriage equality is the law of the land. And that’s a good thing – for everyone.