“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” –Ramsay Bolton
Focus on the Family, the Heritage Foundation, and other old-style social conservatives lost two rather public battles this week. While each loss has direct political results in the immediate future, both portend long-term changes in American social policy and culture.
First, Delaware joined Rhode Island and nine other states (and the District of Columbia) in extending the freedom to marry to committed gay American couples. Halfway across the country, elected statesmen in Minnesota are angling to win the race with Illinois to be the second Midwestern state to embrace same-sex marriage, and the first to do so by legislation.
As an aside, one interesting thing about the Rhode Island vote—besides unanimous Republican support for gay marriage in the Ocean State senate—is that it finally consolidates New England and New York in unified recognition of marital rights for gay unions, which have been approved by every accessible metric: judicial rulings (Massachusetts and Connecticut), overridden veto (Vermont), rebuffed attempt at legislative repeal (New Hampshire), referendum (Maine), and governor-signed legislation with bipartisan support (New York and Rhode Island). With Delaware joining the marriage fold, Pennsylvania is now the only state in the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic that offers no recognition to gay unions whatsoever.
Secondly, the first district of South Carolina is sending Mark Sanford back to Congress as a conservative Republican.
While John Hayward over at RedState might imagine that liberals and Democrats are shying from the discussion on “family values”, it is abundantly clear that they—along with more libertarian Republicans and Independents—are quite willing, able, and successful in wielding traditionalist hypocrisy as a weapon for a more inclusive understanding of marriage and family. Within the next week or so, Rep.-elect Sanford will join the likes of Senator David Vitter (R-La.) in mocking the undead credibility of the “moral” opposition to gay rights.
To be sure, one cannot fault the average Sanford general-election voter for pinching their noses and thwarting Elizabeth Colbert Busch’s attempt to bolster the coalition of Nancy Pelosi. It was certainly as pragmatic a political choice, if also a repulsive instance of “dirty hands,” as the partisans of Bill Clinton holding the fort against his Republican opposition. And for what it’s worth, Lowcountry voters did, as Nate Silver notes, withhold a substantial degree of support from the disgraced ex-governor.
Yet the “lesser of two evils” analysis does not excuse the fact that Sanford won a GOP primary where more credible (if less glamorous) and family-friendly options were readily available. If abusing public funds to commit adultery on another continent does not disqualify someone from winning the Republican primary in a region more conservative than 119 Republican districts, why should anybody heed a movement that agitates for the civilizational imperative of “traditional marriage” only insofar as it makes life harder for gay people (e.g. opposition to anti-discrimination laws)?
Jennifer Rubin, a token conservative of The Washington Post, makes the point quite eloquently:
“But social conservatives should take this result seriously as an indication that even in a low-turnout race in a Republican district appeals to personal morality and approbation for sexual misconduct carry little weight. Yes, one can bemoan the voters’ values (or lack thereof), but it is a warning that the public’s willingness to accept all sorts of behavior out of some sense of “fairness” (he apologized didn’t he?) is nearly limitless. That has implications for the sorts of appeals they make on everything from “traditional marriage” to sex education. In short, Americans, including Republicans, aren’t very susceptible to appeals based purely on morality.
Whether we are becoming a more libertarian or a libertine society is a matter of debate. But the real take-away is that Republicans talk a good game on “family values” but don’t take it all that seriously.”
None of this is to say that some understanding of family-oriented traditionalism is no longer relevant or valued in modern America. To the contrary, many people support gay marriage precisely because of the prospect of shoring up conservative values—the proper ends of liberty—against libertine atomism. But if conservative stalwarts will not demand a cogent application of those values in the ruby-red land of palmettos, how can there be a national discussion about why such values must entail ongoing discrimination against the families of gay Americans?
But however the GOP determines to deal with insurmountable public support for gay people and their families, we can all take some small solace in knowing that having Ashley Madison as your running mate trumps an endorsement from Nancy Pelosi. Even Focus on the Family and friends have standards.