A day after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Senate advanced the Gang of Eight’s “comprehensive immigration reform” bill. The work of the Court’s narrow majority looks more likely to endure than the Senate’s lopsided one, but momentum is cutting against conservatives in both cases.
These two seemingly unrelated issues remind us that the most difficult word in politics is “no.” When a large group of Americans wants something, even views the attainment of that thing as important to their identity, they will get it eventually. Their political opponents will come to find denying them exhausting.
This is not always a bad thing. Justice has often been done only after victimized groups have worked long and hard to pursue it. Neither the demolition of Jim Crow nor women’s suffrage would have come about absent such efforts. “We shall overcome.”
Nevertheless, this tendency does become problematic when it makes it difficult to defend the interests of society as a whole against the interests of particular individuals or groups, evoking James Madison’s concerns about factions. Just as for neoconservatives every tin pot dictator is always Hitler in 1938, for liberals every social issue is always Selma.
If you oppose whatever war the neoconservatives wish to fight, you are enabling a new Hitler. If you disagree with whatever social cause the liberal champions, you are the new Hitler, or at least the new Bull Connor.
But everywhere isn’t always Munich and it isn’t always Selma. Immigration policy isn’t simply a referendum about how the country feels about Hispanics; marriage isn’t merely a referendum about how the country feels about gay people. When all politics is identity politics, it becomes difficult to discuss or debate any other aspects of these issues.
And debate them we should. On immigration, it is not at all clear that the Gang of Eight approach is good for low-wage workers, who are themselves disproportionately black and Hispanic. Or recent immigrants. Or income inequality.
Gay marriage is more complicated. It is entirely consistent with the private reasons many, perhaps most, people get married, even if it is inconsistent with most of the public goals the government seeks to advance through its involvement in marriage.
The social costs of decline of marriage in many communities are real, yet family breakdown mostly predates the emergence of gay marriage as a political issue. In fact, the shift away from the conjugal view of marriage is what made gay marriage thinkable in the first place.
Nevertheless, concerns about making biological parenthood a less significant part of marriage deserved a wider hearing outside of conservative circles. This issue should have gotten at least as much respectful attention as the umpteenth invocation of “Will and Grace,” rather than constantly being dismissed with a sneer.
But the 11 million people who stand to gain legal status if the immigration bill passes, along with their friends and family, are easy to see. So are the couples who aspire to have their unions recognized as marriages. They are mostly decent, hard-working people.
How can we say no? The people who might lose out from the Gang of Eight are harder to identify—though not impossible, which is why the immigration bill could yet be defeated. Many of the people who would lose out if same-sex marriage contributes to the decline of the institution aren’t even born yet.
Like the welfare state, the benefits are concentrated and the costs diffuse.
Even if every negative consequence predicted by the opponents of both innovations comes to pass, they can always be blamed on dozens of other factors. The people who vote yes will be seen as the winners of history, civil-rights heroes, no matter what.
For Republicans, often criticized for being the “party of no,” the political difficulties are obvious. They are often in the position of saying no, until eventually they are worn down, almost beaten into submission.
On both immigration and gay marriage, the party’s base is largely on one side and the new voters Republicans need to appeal to are on the other. The arguments that they will benefit politically from passing the immigration bill are weak. The case that they will be harmed by defeating it is somewhat stronger.
As recently as 2006, when the Senate was voting down the federal marriage amendment, Democratic leaders stood up and insisted they really opposed gay marriage. In 2008, every Democratic presidential candidate with a chance of winning pretended to oppose gay marriage. Barack Obama kept up the charade until last May.
Now Republicans are caught flat-footed by the sudden change in the political environment on gay marriage. They are being lobbied to change by GOP consultants working with the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization conservative groups have felled many trees denouncing.
With apologies to Elton John and Bernie Taupin, no seems to be the hardest word.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?