Over the past several months, several prominent Republicans and conservatives have signaled something of a retreat in one of our ongoing cultural wars- gay rights. Ann Coulter spoke to GOProud, a gay conservative group. Rush Limbaugh had flaming queen Elton John sing at his wedding. Glenn Beck told Bill O’Reilly that the federal court decision on Proposition 8 was not the end of civilization. And the list goes on.
There are at least two factors driving this change on the Right. (I should note here that by Right I mean the elites/opinion leaders on the Right.) First, most of the conservative elite is, in some respects, similar to the liberal elite. They went to some of the same schools, share some of the same cultural affinities and have encountered many gays and lesbians in their private and professional lives.
Conservative and Republican elites have probably never shared the prejudices of their base, especially with respect to gays and lesbians. There are any number of studies showing support for gay rights (this can include equal marriage rights, ENDA, etc.) tracks positively with educational attainment, exposure to homosexuals and other personal traits often held by elites. So it’s really no surprise that prominent conservatives employ and befriend gays and lesbians.
What those same people realized a long time ago, though, was that there were votes to be had by antagonizing homosexuals. It’s no different from the Southern Strategy and the dog whistle politics employed today. It’s not so much giving the base what it wants as it is exploiting their prejudices to electoral advantage.
But the country’s demographics are making that advantage smaller and smaller each year. Younger voters, and voters with post-secondary education, tend to be highly supportive of equal rights. Over the past twenty years, they have started to displace the older, more traditional anti-gay voters. The voters whose fears were being exploited are, quite simply, dying off.
I would not argue that we are yet at a place of parity between gay rights supporters and opponents, but we are narrowing that gap each year. Conservatives and their GOP allies realize that not only does their anti-gay rhetoric turn off a large bloc of voters now, but could come back to haunt them in the future are people’s perception of the Right/GOP as the anti-gay party harden.
One other variable is at play here, too. Its magnitude right now is unclear and will only surface over time. I would argue that the Right/GOP have always exploited some out group, whether it was blacks, gays and lesbians, the poor or some other group outside of the white, male, Christian majority who comprise the Right/GOP base. Most recently those attacks have focused on two other groups- Muslims and illegal immigrants. We are close enough to the midterm election to see the shape of the Right/GOP plan of attack, and the target out groups are clearly Muslims (see, for example, Lower Manhattan mosque, but also other mosques) and illegal immigrants (see, for example, Arizona’s SB1070).
Due to the focus on Muslims and Mexicans, the Right/GOP has been fairly muted in their anti-gay propaganda. But only time will tell if their jihad against gays and lesbians is over. Or if it is just a temporary ceasefire while they are busy persecuting others (see, for example, invading Iraq while Afghanistan was still a mess).