Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


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The Silence of the Elephants

“Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” – Job 38:11

Is it still a majority if most folks disagree?

“I value your votes and vote your values. What more is there to say?”

Sometime last month, I was at a party full of energetic young conservatives from various parts of the country. The topic of the recent government shutdown arose. Everybody agreed that Obamacare is a nightmare and that the general public would soon come to see that liberal pipe-dream-big-government reforms are dark and full of terrors. But as the government was, at the moment, shut down, we all felt obliged to comment on that particular tactic.

In order to avoid a tedious dispute over the merits (or lack thereof) of either side—and to resist the enduring conflation of anecdotes with data—I will elide the conclusions we reached in favor of a simpler observation. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke for nigh a full day to make his grand stand against the Democrats’ not-so-affordable-or-caring reform. In the process, he was joined or supported by many Republicans eager to signal their willingness to die on the hill of opposition to a bad law before God and man.

I point this out not because I mean to argue whether Cruz and his supporters accomplished anything substantial in all those 21 hours. I point it out only to compare it to Ted Cruz’s words on the Senate floor on Monday defending his opposition to a bill that would outlaw discrimination against LGBT Americans.

He said nothing.

It is remarkable to think that not even a decade ago, a bipartisan coalition opposed gay rights loudly and often in an era where prohibitions on gay unions were passed from Oregon to Virginia. Today, however, Ken Cuccinelli seems poised to lose a winnable election in a swing state with a marriage ban primarily because of his extremist reputation on “social issues” (including an inconveniently relevant attempt to eliminate LGBT employment protections at Virginia universities). And yesterday, not one of 30 Republicans who voted against cloture used floor time to speak against the Employee Non-Discrimination Act in the U.S. Senate.

Ted Cruz said nothing. Mike Lee said nothing. Marco Rubio said nothing. Jeff Sessions said nothing.

This isn’t to say that no Republicans spoke on the matter. To the contrary, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois gave his first floor speech in the two years since his stroke to urge support for the bill. He was joined in his affirmation by other Republicans including moderate Susan Collins, staunch red-state conservative Orrin Hatch, and Tea Party favorites Kelly Ayotte and Pat Toomey (former president of the notoriously primary-challenging Club for Growth)—none of whom, for what it’s worth, have expressed support for gay marriage.

Contrast this to the House, where Speaker Boehner joined his peculiarly silent Senate colleagues by announcing his opposition to ENDA through a spokesman. While the Ohioan did not step in front of a camera to explain why the law doesn’t deserve a vote, he did take pains to lie about whether current federal law already protects an American worker from being fired for being gay, as many people think it does. (It does not.)

If one weren’t careful, one might think there was no argument to be made as to why LGBT Americans should be subject to unjust discrimination.

Of course, there are plenty of actors willing to say a great deal about why ENDA is supposedly bad law. Some are sensible. Others, less so. And I suspect at least a few Senate opponents will find their tongues, if only for a moment, before the final votes are cast. The duo from Kentucky is even offering an amendment to attach right-to-work protections to the bill. Imagine that: with the passage of a single law, American workers could be free from unjust discrimination for being who they are or for refusing union coercion. (While I do dare to dream, I won’t hold my breath on that one.) But whether or not Boehner eventually yields to a position favored by a majority of voters in every state, it is time to take stock of how the tides have broadly shifted on social politics.

If any prominent elected official is willing to make a fiery denunciation of anti-discrimination protections for our neighbors and loved ones, let them do so openly and proudly. If there are sound objections to be heard, let us hear them in both chambers, and allow the American people to reach their conclusions. Opponents of gay rights will certainly find some wizened applause in certain quarters. Those understandably leery of anti-discrimination laws more broadly will have to weigh the options and effects. But whatever happens, allies of gay Americans may at least take some solace in watching how the remnant of anti-gay politics whimpers into a resentful and weakening crouch as a new generation of conservatives moves on to modern challenges worthy of our energy and effort.

The era of anti-gay political dominance—or even parity—in the national scene is over. The silence on the floor of the ENDA opposition merely shows that, finally, everybody knows it.

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Sexual Politics in the Grand Old Dominion

“The only question is, whose vision of moral rectitude does it reflect?” –Bishop E.W. Jackson

How could this guy not appeal to Democrats and swing voters?

There are several different narratives percolating on the intersection between religious faith and homosexuality in America.

We have 61 percent of the Boy Scouts voting to drop both a ban on gay scouts and an institutional condemnation of homosexuality. This is particularly interesting in that the largest sponsor of the Boy Scouts—ahead of the United Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Southern Baptist congregations—is the Mormon Church. Not only did the Latter-Day Saints support the change, but their church has been pointedly moving away from the gay front of the culture wars toward a more libertarian consensus on the role of government and institutions in private life.

From Ralph Hallow in The Washington Times:

“The behind-the-scenes effectiveness of the Mormon Church, which sponsors more than a third of all Scout troops in America, is becoming more visible and appears to be nudging the GOP a bit toward a more libertarian stand on some social and cultural issues. Up to a point, Mormons and evangelicals think that the more libertarian the nation’s political center of gravity, the lower the risk of government meddling in religious matters.

But overall, it’s Mormonism that may be on the ascendancy. The nation’s best-known Mormon politician — Mitt Romney — unequivocally endorsed gay equality in Scouting in 1994, long before his 2012 presidential race.”

Representing a different set of priorities, we have legacy scout alum and RedState editor Erick Erickson announcing his acceptance of the Boy Scouts’ decision and rejection of further involvement from his family with the institution. As Erickson puts it, it’s fine to welcome gay people—and he has gay friends!—but it must be maintained that gay behavior, which presumably includes those committed, monogamous relationships that some call love, is sinful. Eve Tushnet, a gay Catholic and a friend-of-friends from Yale, would agree. This position on gay love is, blessedly, a minority and declining view in America, but we have little reason to believe it will die quietly.

And then there are people like Bishop E.W. Jackson Sr., the Republican Party of Virginia’s convention-chosen candidate for lieutenant governor. Jackson’s contribution to the discussion: LGBT people make him “feel ikky all over.” That is among his least objectionable statements. (We are supposed to be comforted by the fact that “he wouldn’t support any sort of ban on gay sex”—not that Lawrence v. Texas is constitutional precedent or anything.) Of course, he also spends his free time promoting discrimination against Muslim Americans (because obviously most of them are, like, terrorists and stuff) and warning people about the dangers of Satanic possession inherent in yoga.

As a conservative with libertarian leanings, I’m an independent at heart. I’m willing to entertain diverging views even on such sacred cows as gun control (use both hands and stand your ground) and the freedom to marry (Yes). I do have friends and family who oppose me on either and other positions, and I have and will support and vote for candidates who disagree with me on major issues if I am persuaded that their overall vision is superior to that of their opponent.

So I would vote for Chris Christie were I a New Jersey voter, despite lip-curling disdain for his positions on gun rights, pork-free relief bills, and gay marriage (which is as benign—if still annoying—as opposition can get), and against a Democrat whose policies would be great for gay rights (i.e., extending the invaluable word, “marriage”) but otherwise abhorrent. Likewise, I would support Mark Kirk in Illinois, despite his unsettling antipathy to gun rights, for essentially the same reasons unabashedly gun-grabbing progressives would support Brian Schweitzer over a Republican in Montana. That said, I would probably support neither (as first, second, or even third choices) in a Republican presidential primary, which would presumably be full of better (overall) options.

But however certain I may be that the progressive vision of America should be regarded as a call to arms against the equalizing asphyxiation of a prosperous civilization, there are bridges too far in that fight. With Jackson, even in areas where we agree, he manages to make me uncomfortable. For instance, I would find it difficult to support at-will abortion (i.e., pregnancies terminated for reasons other than rape, incest, or health considerations). However, I must draw a line well before comparing Planned Parenthood—which, in many cases is the only viable non-abortion health option for poor women—to the KKK. I also agree that liberal policies are disastrous for minorities (and most people), but I don’t see how expressing unmitigated contempt for minority voters wins any converts.

So to put it bluntly: I am not terribly inclined to support E.W. Jackson. (Yes, I suppose there may be worse options, but I am a zealous opponent of invoking Godwin’s Law.) That is not to say I will vote for the Democrat rather than just skip that race altogether, but barring a sudden and convincing change of heart from Jackson, the Virginia lieutenant governorship is all but certainly the Left’s race to lose. These things do happen when party bosses opt for conventions over primaries so as to limit the input of voters—the same voters who will decide the general election.

Fortunately, my political and moral revulsion toward Jackson has not yet translated into opposition to GOP gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. To be sure, I have qualms with Cuccinelli—not the least of which his opposition to Gov. McDonnell’s bipartisan transportation bill and less-than-enthusiastic regard for workforce protections for LGBT employees—but I will allow his campaign to convince me that his governance will hold the pragmatic conservative line set by his predecessor. Besides, the prospect of a Democratic Party hack like Terry McAuliffe as Governor of the Commonwealth is downright unconscionable.

We all have to compromise somewhere.

For some closing thoughts, allow me to make a general point on sexual politics that pertains to Erickson and Tushnet as much as to Jackson and other Virginia Republicans like Robert G. Marshall. The sexual revolution is over. In fact, it was so long ago settled that before I was ever dreamt of, my parents grew up in a world where birth control, casual sex, and divorce were already culturally ingrained, and gay relatives and friends were already finding the precursors of modern acceptance. It is all well and good for the holdouts of the erstwhile “Moral Majority” to solemnly distinguish their values from the philosophical incoherence of the Boy Scouts on the one hand and the rabid bigotry of E.W. Jackson on the other. However, that is a conversation that no longer has any more resonance in 2013—when 72 percent of Americans believe gay marriage will happen eventually—than a debate over the validity of absentee voting.

Accordingly, the conversation ahead of 2016 is whether and how potential Republican presidential nominees will downplay any opposition to gay marriage. I fully expect influential contingents of the conservative base to demand full-throated opposition to gay rights, and I suspect they will get some bone or other (e.g. nominal but express opposition to the freedom to marry). I also expect a growing mainstream contingent of pro-gay Republican and Independent voters will be unusually eager to kick that bone away in the face of popular Democratic grandstanding for gay rights.

This tension is not sustainable. Conservatives, as a movement, will have to learn to articulate a set of values that is inclusive to gay Americans—and the voters who support them. Otherwise, the Republican Party, along with the values of strong families and free enterprise it espouses, will buckle under the weight of escalating political liabilities like an aging welfare state over an overtaxed population.

Whatever happens in Virginia this November, the need to relate timeless values to evolving cultural trends will continue.


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The Faith Americana

“But ye [are] a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” –1 Peter 2:9

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…” –Matthew 22:21

What better signs can you think of for violent extremism and political knavery?

I took a trip down to Charlottesville a few weeks ago to spend time with friends on the picturesque grounds of the University of Virginia. Though a Yale man, I tend to find myself easily at home in a world historically referred to as the “Harvard of the South.” (We will ignore any wisecracks from Duke, Vanderbilt, or Chapel Hill affiliates in the audience.) In an academic sense, Wahoos are not terribly dissimilar from Yalies or peers at other top schools in places like the People’s Republic of Unhappy Hours, Michael Bloomberg’s Animal Urban Farm, or that turnpike Chris Christie governs (I’m told there’s a Garden State around there somewhere). Politically, there are plenty of liberals, progressives, and Democrats, as can be found in abundance at most schools, even in places like South Carolina.

Culturally, though, something is a bit different in Charlottesville. It’s often hard to put a finger on exactly, but you know you’re not in New Haven, Cambridge, or the Big Apple of Billionaire Paternalism for reasons distinct from questions of size or walkability. Yes, you’re more likely to hear country music, but the town is surrounded by the rural South. Yes, the campus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but much of that dignity proves elusive amid the ebb and flow of inebriated masses. Yes, people drive everywhere, but so do most Americans living outside a few select megacities in the Frost Belt or D.C. So what, you might wonder, are we talking about?

It comes down to little things, really.

I remember going to weekly meetings, years ago, for an avowedly conservative organization at Yale. Among other things, this organization made a point of prominently featuring the American and British flags, while waxing passionate about the virtues of Western civilization and its literary canon. Yet for all that admirable passion, I could not help but notice that they placed the American flag on the viewer’s right. The group’s leaders did not grasp the problem.

At Virginia, I have seen flags in windows, on walls, atop polls, and every way else imaginable. Never once have I seen a single one anywhere in violation of U.S. code. I’m sure such a sin must exist somewhere down there, but the hypothetical invalid would be drowned out by a student body that displays a near preternatural understanding of proper flag etiquette.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a bar full of people break out into patriotic songs at the end of a Friday night out. I sought after a reason from the Wahoo compatriots of my friend Edward, and they responded, with patronizing grins, “This is America.” It reminded me of that time I was driving through the richly forested hills of Prince William County with my friend Marcus from Connecticut, and the national anthem halted programming on the radio at high noon. Bemused, Marcus had inquired of me the occasion for such an event. Back then, I shrugged off the Nutmegger’s question, as Edward and the Virginians later would mine, with a simple reply. “This is America.” What more reason do we ever need for such things?

It is stories like these that come to mind when I reflect on the disturbing fact that the IRS actively abused its power to target conservative groups with “Patriot” in their names or constitutionalism as their purpose or that simply formed to make “America a better place to live.” However one feels about the Tea Party or conservative activists, there is indeed something culturally sick about the notion that identifying with and promoting the Constitution or embracing the will to patriotism reliably demarcates political opposition. Leaving aside the matter of political ethics, what does it say about us when certain elements reflexively impugn the legitimacy of wide swaths of people simply because they seem to love America too much?

Of course, those who were skeptical of Barack Obama from the beginning might remember his infamous “clinging to their guns and religion” remarks and draw a line through the Department of Homeland Security adumbrating peril in “Rightwing Extremism” to the administration’s early hostility to critical reporting from Fox News and reach a natural conclusion that a tone hostile to conservatism was set in a top-down rejection of Americana and its general unsuitability for the ideas and values of Northeastern coffee shops.

Hardly anybody would struggle to imagine Presidents Reagan or Bush, Congressmen Ryan or Cantor, or a generic movement conservative being visibly moved by the flutter of a flag or the sight of a servicemember in uniform. How naturally, one must ask, does such an image come of President Obama or Nancy Pelosi or any other prominent progressives? Today, it would strike many people as odd or disingenuous were avowed liberals like Terry McAuliffe to swell up at the mere thought of American greatness, but is anyone truly surprised—favorably or pejoratively—that a Virginia Republican would pour out a libation of tears in reflecting on America’s ongoing promise to defend freedom? To be sure, the image is not a wholly partisan one—Democrats Joe Manchin, Zell Miller, or Frances Underwood certainly fit the type—but there seems a widening rift of that nature.

There are many questions of politics, law, and general malfeasance to ponder in wake of all these scandals that may or may not derail what is left of the president’s second-term agenda. But when the media storms settle, cultural divides and questions of discordant perspectives will remain. Why is it that we have become an America where one side—or region or disposition—of politics is known to see zealous love of country as a sacred virtue, and the other is expected to scoff at and distrust what it sees as an incubator of rabid violence?

The IRS scandal merely confirms this narrative of paranoid division. Whatever staying power the story has will derive largely from the fact that the chasm has now been yawning at us for years. And it has finally found a voice.


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A Storm of Polls

“Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” –Robert Orben

Polls are just war by other means. Romney should probably avoid weddings until November.

Thanks to the media, we know that Mitt Romney has fallen on bad times. A tape of him purportedly disparaging half of America in private back in May came to light last week, his 2011 tax returns showed a doctored 14% effective rate (both of which are already fueling attack ads), and people are increasingly wondering whether he can pull this off. Against this backdrop I got an email about fresh Washington Post numbers showing Obama leading in the key swing states of Ohio and my native Florida. A recent poll in Virginia gave similarly good news to Democrats.

Yet perhaps the devil is in the numbers. In each of these new polls, Democratic and/or Independent voters were oversampled compared even to 2008, let alone 2004. In Ohio, Tyrian gem of the Midwest, 39% of 2008 voters were self-proclaimed Democrats, compared to 31% Republicans and 30% Independents. In 2004, the D-R-I split in Ohio was 35-40-25. Compare those numbers to this week’s poll split of 35-26-35. For whatever reason, the poll authors seem to expect an unusually low GOP turnout, despite sweeping Republican successes in 2010, coupled with an unusually high Independent showing and a more or less stable Democrat presence.

The differences between polls and history are even more striking with the Purple States in the South. In 2008, Virginia’s electoral votes went Democrat for the first time since Lyndon Johnson. By 2009, the Commonwealth had two Democratic U.S. senators, a majority-Democrat delegation in Congress and the state senate, and a sitting Democratic governor who would serve as Chairman of the Democratic Party. It is perhaps not a stretch to say this is as Democratic as Virginia has been in a generation or two.

Then three years of subsequent elections happened. In 2012, Virginia has a majority-Republican delegation to the U.S. House (including the House Majority Leader), prominent Republican officials in elected state office, a Republican-controlled General Assembly, and popular Republican governor who doubles as Chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. In light of all this, you would be forgiven for wondering how a 39-33-27 D-R-I split in the 2008 election becomes a 32-24-35 split in a 2012 poll. Or how a 2008 breakdown of 37-34-29 in Florida has likewise “evolved” into 35-25-32 in this week’s polling.

Of course, there could be a good apology for this particular devil. Maybe Democrats and Independents are substantially more energized than Republicans in this cycle or in 2008. Maybe the wording of the questions in the polls skews actual beliefs. Maybe people are just bad at remembering their Party affiliations. Who knows? The presidential race will certainly be hard-fought and hard-won by whoever emerges victorious. But for now, if I were a Very Important Person in this year’s Republican campaigns, I wouldn’t buy the hype.

I’m excited for the debates.