For many years now, the Republican
right has engaged in a politics of cultural bullying that is
the direct descendent of the southern segregationists. It is
based on anathematizing a minority in order to solidify its own
political base around false assumptions of purity and superiority.
It is an illusion that deceives much of its own constituency
into thinking that ultimately minor cultural differences are
more important than such issues as economics, healthcare or public
education. Thus it is not only mean, it is masochistic. One minority
ends up being hurt by another that is being conned and hurt in
The illusion works best in a politics
in which a large portion of the public is politically inert.
That way you don't have to convince a majority, you need only
mobilize your own minority. It is a vile sort of politics that
deliberately fosters hate and anger and is as alien from the
American ideal as one can find. It is, in fact, far closer to
the theocratic tyranny of the Taliban than to anything in our
own best traditions.
One of the reasons the Republican
right has gotten away with it so successfully, however, is that
both the media and liberals have been willing to fight the battle
precisely on the grounds that the right wishes: namely the presumption
that one must choose sides in whatever cultural jihad it launches.
Thus we find pundit and Democratic
pol alike groaning over the likely prospect of gay marriages
becoming a major campaign issue. If matters follow their normal
course, they will and the GOP will be delighted. But such a course
has been disastrous to Democrats in the past so they might, for
a change, think of doing something different.
Like changing the ground of the
argument. Instead of letting the GOP define the issue as between
morality and sin, the Democrats could reframe it as a debate
between extremist bullies on one hand and moderate, fair minded
Americans on the other.
Imagine, for example, a Democratic
candidate who was asked in a debate, "What do you think
about gay marriages" and who in reply said something like
"I'm a heterosexual and I'm
married so I don't think about it much at all. What does bother
me is when one group in this country tries to foist their personal
values on another, and even tries to enforce it with a constitutional
amendment. That's about as un-American as you can get. If you
don't like gay marriages, then don't become a gay and don't get
"I'm not asking you to approve
of gay marriages anymore than I would ask you to believe in the
Virgin birth or the apocalypse. But what if someone told you
that it should be illegal to practice rites presaging the second
coming of Christ? Should we have a constitutional amendment to
ban that, too?
"What I am asking you to do
is to be good, decent and fair-minded Americans and practice
the sort of reciprocal liberty in which citizens say to each
other, I will respect your liberty because I expect you to respect
mine. We do not have to agree, we do not have to approve of each
other, we do not even have to like either other, but we do have
to share this land and our community fairly. That is what being
an American is about.
"In my campaign I am trying
to gain support of as wide a cross-section of America as I can.
To do this, I may sometimes compromise, I sometimes equivocate,
but I will not - as conservative politicians so often do - expel,
isolate, and eliminate constituencies simply because they do
not look or think like me. I will not sneakily encourage others
to hate and bully. To do so is to take us back to shameful times,
such as to that time less than 40 years ago when you could be
arrested and jailed for being married to the wrong person - not
then because of the person's sex but because of their skin color.
"We live in a society in which,
over the past few decades, the division over another cultural
issue - abortion - has been the subject of a bitter, costly and
ultimately pointless debate with few minds changed along the
way. What if we had understood at the start that our proper goal
was not to force everyone to agree with us, but to make sure
that each side could practice its beliefs without interference
by the other? That would have been the truly American solution
to the problem."
"Being American means living
in close proximity with people whose values, intrinsic nature
or behavior may not just be different, but which you may not
like at all. Does that mean we just sit on our front porches
and glare at our neighbors? Or worse? It doesn't have to be that
"It is not a conservative or
liberal matter and it is not an issue of morality; it is an issue
of whether we will treat other Americans with fairness and respect
or as playground bullies and cultural tyrants."