Look Left

By

With President Bush's embrace yesterday of a marriage amendment, the
compassionate conservative of 2000 has shown he is willing, if
necessary, to rekindle the culture wars in 2004," began a
front-page story in The Washington Post last week. The sentence
betrays an assumption that has characterized most of the coverage
of the gay marriage debate: that the culture wars are being
"rekindled" not by those who are revolutionizing the way society
thinks about gay rights and marriage but by those who stand in
their way. For many in the media, that is, efforts to expand gay
rights simply constitute progress; efforts to arrest that expansion
constitute culture war. (You see a similar dynamic in the way the
press uses the phrase "class warfare"--i.e., not to describe those
who want to redistribute wealth upward but, rather, to their
critics.) In both cases, the coverage is a function of the kind of
people-- affluent, educated, and secular--who tend to work in the
national media. Indeed, press coverage of the gay marriage debate
offers a perfect case study of the degree to which journalists'
socioeconomic assumptions influence their reporting.The operating premise of most of the recent news coverage has been
that Bush's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay
marriage is an extreme move that may satisfy his conservative base
but risks alienating voters in the middle. "It's a cardinal rule of
politics," The New York Times declared in a front-page story last
week. "Pay attention to the party's base. In recent weeks, on a
variety of fronts, President Bush has done just that. ... His
impassioned endorsement on Tuesday of a constitutional amendment
banning same- sex marriage, after weeks of intensive lobbying by
social conservatives, was the culmination of this rapprochement.
But will he pay a price with the centrist voters who so often
decide presidential elections, as the Democrats hope?" USA Today
chimed in, "Bush's support of a proposed amendment had long been
sought by conservative Christians, who are among the Republican
Party's most loyal supporters." And the Post story quoted above
asserted, "So when gay marriages advanced in Massachusetts and San
Francisco, Bush felt a need to respond to the cries of social
conservatives--even if it meant losing some swing voters he needs
in November."

But what if Bush's support for the amendment banning gay marriage is
not just a sop to his base but a way of appealing to swing voters?
I should say here that, for my part, I believe gays should have the
right to marry, and I find the amendment morally abhorrent. But I'm
far less confident than others in the press that most Americans
share my view.

When you look at the polling data, you discover that Americans are
divided even on the legality of gay relationships--not marriages,
mind you, just relationships. When asked by a CNN/USA Today/Gallup
poll last July if "homosexual relations between consenting adults
should or should not be legal," "should" edged out "should not" by
just 48 to 46. An identically worded question, posed by a CBS/New
York Times poll in December, resulted in just 41 percent replying
yes and 49 percent no.

Unsurprisingly, the public rejects gay marriage by a far wider
margin. Last month, the Annenberg Center conducted a poll asking,
"Would you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow
gays and lesbians to marry a partner of the same sex?" Thirty
percent said they favored it; 64 percent opposed it. This finding
is pretty typical: In most polls, about one-third of respondents
favor gay marriage, and two-thirds oppose it.

Support for amending the Constitution--which people are generally
more reluctant to do to--is naturally lower. But, here too, the
results are at best ambiguous. Only one poll has shown a plurality
opposed to the amendment. That was the Annenberg poll, which found
opposition by a 48-to-41 margin. But this was an anomalous result,
probably deriving from the wording of the question, which described
the amendment as "saying that NO [emphasis original] state can
allow two men to marry each other or two women to marry each other."
A few other polls have found public sentiment evenly split: A
February Time/CNN poll resulted in 47 percent supporting the
amendment versus 46 percent opposing. An ABC News/Washington Post
poll found 46 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed.

Moreover, polls that measure support for the amendment without
mentioning the alternative of letting every state decide for itself
produce consistent support. A February Gallup poll asked, "Would
you favor or oppose a constitutional amendment that would define
marriage as being between a man and a woman, thus barring marriages
between gay and lesbian couples?" Among respondents, 53 percent
supported it, and 44 percent opposed it. CBS's February poll had a
similar (51 to 42 percent) result. And, when CBS changed the
wording to describe the amendment as "allow[ing] marriage ONLY
[emphasis original] between a man and a woman"--without explicitly
saying it would ban gay marriages--support grew to 59 to 35
percent. So there's no majority opposed to the amendment, and there
may well be a majority who support it, perhaps even a substantial
one, depending upon how the issue is framed.

Needless to say, this is not the picture one gets from media
accounts of the controversy, which have tended to focus on the
possibility that Bush's support for the amendment will cost him
among swing voters. As this week's Time magazine contends, "Many
swing voters are also the suburbanites who abandoned the GOP in the
past when it got too wild-eyed about culture wars." This may be
true as far as it goes. But the voters that Time is referring
to--i.e., upperincome, socially moderate, economically conservative
folks--don't make up the entire swing vote or even the largest
portion of it. A larger bloc of swing voters has essentially the
opposite sensibility--culturally traditional and economically
populist. "The greatest bloc of contested voters watching politics
from a distinct perspective is noncollege and blue-collar America,"
writes Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in his new book The
Two Americas. "These are the voters for whom church and faith are
important and who think values and family are under pressure too."

These downscale swing voters are substantially more likely to
support an amendment banning gay marriage than the more libertarian
suburbanites Time focuses on. And, while most of the recent polls
on gay marriage are not broken down into useful demographics, such
information as there is supports this assumption. The Annenberg
poll--which, again, was an outlier in showing overall opposition to
the amendment--shows voters with advanced degrees overwhelmingly
opposed to the amendment and all others essentially split.

It's not hard to understand why the national media fails to grasp
the continued strength of cultural traditionalism: In Washington
and New York, where many journalists dwell, gay marriage is an
increasingly mainstream proposition. Unfortunately, in most of the
country, it's not. And, even if the media doesn't realize this,
it's a good bet Karl Rove does.

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