Last night, North Carolinian voters joined thirty other states in prohibiting gay marriage by amending their state constitution through popular referendum. As much as it would have been nice to be surprised by the voters of the Tarheel State, I, undoubtedly like many Americans, had expected such a result.
Gay marriage is one of those policy issues that has high levels of public awareness, and is also not so complicated that it is above the average voter’s comprehension. Almost everyone is aware of the issue and the underlying arguments, and many people have very strong opinions on it one way or the other. In a way, gay marriage is the perfect political issue for politicians seeking to stir up their base, or to bring an initiative to ballot in order to increase voter turnout for an important election. Unfortunately, it has one fatal flaw, one that will be sure to come back to haunt my fellow center-rightists who seek to use the issue to “turn out the base” for electoral reasons: Most people don’t see gay marriage as a “critical” issue facing the nation, and this poses a significant long-term problem for Republicans, and conservatives in general.
While gay marriage serves short-term goals for the party very well, in the long run, it is likely to do more harm than good for people who also believe in limited government and free markets (ideals the Republican Party also seeks to uphold). Indeed, the demographics behind same-sex marriage support, and support for other political issues, show that Republicans stand to lose a lot by using cultural and social wedges to drive support for their candidates.
Among young voters, only 22% define same-sex marriage as a “critical issue”; that is the lowest percentage among nine issues laid out by the Public Religion Research Center in their 2012 Millennial Values survey. While young voters view same-sex marriage as among the least-critical of the major issues, support by young voters for same-sex marriage far outstrips the support from older generations.
This threatens to cast a shadow over policy issues where Republicans and other center-rightists have the advantage. Last year, a Reason-Rupe survey found that while a slim majority of Americans opposed the Social Security reform that reduced taxes and gave Americans more control over their retirement funds, people between the ages of 18 and 29 favored such reforms by a 21-point margin.
What does this mean for the American center-right going forward, and how can we avoid political excommunication from younger generations of Americans (including myself)? The ideal solution would be to follow the example of our British counterparts, the Tories, who have embraced support for same-sex marriage. But while support for the Tories among gays and lesbians has increased since the announcement of their support, some question the viability of the party’s position with regards to its base. This suggests such a move may not be viable for center-rightists here in the marginally more socially conservative U.S.
There is an alternative, and that is to heed the advice of Indiana’s Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, and declare a “truce” on the issue. Center-rightists must recognize this if we are to move forward in the twenty-first century as supporters of limited government and free markets. We cannot retain viability and relevance on the national political stage if we continue to marginalize a group of Americans who are increasingly seen as deserving of equal rights.