Democrats Spent Years Fleeing LGBTQ Rights; Elizabeth Warren’s Promise is to Finally Deliver Us From Fear
Elizabeth Warren delighted fans at CNN’s LGBTQ candidate forum earlier this month when explaining how she’d respond to someone who believes marriage is between one man and one woman: “Then just marry one woman…,” she said she’d tell him, “assuming you can find one.” But after her appearance, Warren faced pushback not only from conservatives and Republicans, who activated a predictable outrage machine, but also from some Democrats who dragged out their own familiar but increasingly tired trope: that calling out those who trample our values by opposing equal treatment will drive away those elusive moderates who might otherwise deliver us elections.
In addition to reproach by loyal Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio, Republican defector Tom Nichols warned in the USA Today that we Democrats will create “another super-majority win on the coasts while losing the Electoral College” if they keep insisting on “handing issues to the Republican culture warriors.” Conservative Trump critic John Podhoretz blasted Warren for risking the votes of moderates by mocking “every person who believes in traditional marriage by caricaturing them as incels” (an “involuntary celibate”).
But it’s the alarm bells being rung by Democrats that are most disappointing — and dangerous. Former Bill Clinton advisor Hank Sheinkopf told the Washington Post that “telling people who don’t agree with you that they are backward” is a “battle cry for men to turn out against” her. Another Democratic strategist worried how the remarks would fare with older African-Americans, saying, “I’m especially not sure what discussions might carry over to the barbershops.” There is now a risk that more Democrats, either instinctively or when they hear the protests of moderates and “Never Trumpers,” may, as happens far too often, be frightened into surrendering principles and positions they don’t actually need to concede.
What fretting Democrats should recognize is that the party has a long, ignoble history of cowing to fear of LGBTQ equality (and other issues affecting minorities) and outright threats from conservatives, and it’s long past time to stop taking the bait. Until very recently, Democrats ran away from LGBTQ rights nearly any time they could. Not only was this morally wrong, but it never got them very far politically, often causing more harm than good. The appeal of Elizabeth Warren is her promise to finally deliver us from this sordid history of consistently operating from fear.
In 1993, terrified of military and cultural blowback against Bill Clinton’s promise to lift the ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual troops, a Democratic-led House and Senate instead passed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” banning openly gay service. The next year, the Democrats were routed anyway, losing control of the Senate, and of the House for the first time in forty years.
A decade later, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court became the first state court to legalize same-sex marriage, the state’s junior senator, John Kerry, about to become the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, used the occasion to remind voters that he opposed marriage equality. Though he had admirably been one of only fourteen senators to oppose the ignominious Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 (signed by Democrat Bill Clinton in the middle of the night), Kerry then announced support for a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Bill Clinton reportedly advised Kerry to go even further and back a federal constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality (Clinton denies the claim, made by the strategist Bob Shrum). Kerry, increasingly seen as a flip-flopper, lost his White House bid to President Bush, who built a reputation for standing on principle by telling voters, “You may not agree with me but at least you know where I stand.”
Several Democrats then blamed Kerry’s loss on a party too committed to gay rights (Senator Dianne Feinstein warned that marriage equality was being pushed “too much, too fast, too soon” and that Mayor Gavin Newsom’s rogue officiating of same-sex weddings in San Francisco was dangerous because it energized conservative voters) even though scholarly research by political scientists quickly proved the claim bunk: Bush’s margin over his 2000 results increased more in states without marriage equality ballot initiatives than in states with them, and the share of conservative Christians who voted in the key state of Ohio actually declined from the 2000 election, falsifying the claim that ballot initiatives over same-sex marriage drew out conservative voters.
Still, the narrative that embracing LGBTQ equality was politically costly persisted. Barack Obama was famous for his cool, but was nearly driven mad by the flak he took from his own base for seeming to slow-roll LGBTQ progress. Even with a highly cautious approach — that nearly torpedoed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — his party lost control of the House in 2010, victims of the dreaded “enthusiasm gap” that his campaign knew was the likely result of being insufficiently bold. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton had to spend copious energy tying themselves in knots to explain away their professed anti-LGBTQ positions that they wouldn’t have had to try to reconcile if they had been operating out of conviction instead of fear. When Obama came out in support of marriage equality in 2012, he handily won re-election, while bringing poll numbers along with him: support for marriage equality, particularly among African-Americans, shot up when the president took this bold and genuinely risky step, the mark — lest we’ve forgotten what it looks like — of true leadership.
There’s room for progressives to disagree about the best tactics for beating Trump. It’s not unreasonable to argue that driving away potential votes by gratuitously insulting moderate voters isn’t great politics. But that’s just not what Warren was doing. Only a few years ago, given how far support for marriage equality has come in a blip of historical time, it was — by necessity — perfectly reasonable to include marriage equality opponents in the Democratic tent (in 1996, just over a quarter of Americans supported it. By the time Obama backed it in 2012, support had doubled to a slight majority). Today, that figure is above 60 percent. Given that societies evolve, there comes a time when it’s no longer morally tenable to tolerate certain forms of intolerance. Four years after the Supreme Court made marriage equality settled law, and with record high public support for it both by Democrats and Americans generally, that time has arrived, at least for the Democratic party. And that means that its standard-bearers are absolutely right to draw a sharp line against bigotry, including gentle mockery of equality opponents, which, it must be said, is far less harmful to them than the concrete injury their position would inflict on the hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples whose marriages they wish to obliterate.
In an age when the Trumpist movement has raised bigotry to dangerous new levels, it is all the more imperative for those of us who support equality to make forceful moral proclamations of its importance, and not to be cowed by fears of going too far. This moral clarity is exactly what Warren was voicing with her quip, something she made more explicit in subsequent remarks that got far less coverage than her zinger about homophobes: “It is about the worth of every human being,” she explained a moment later. “The hatefulness frankly always really shocked me, especially for people of faith, because I think the whole foundation is the worth of every single human being.”
It’s this refusal to be constrained by fear in the quest for justice that explains Warren’s allure for many Democrats — and her rise in the polls. Thankfully, more and more of us are increasingly aware that we have lived under the yolk of political terror for too long, and that operating from fear hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Let us remember that in three of the last five presidential elections, Democrats nominated the staid establishment candidate (Gore, Kerry, Hillary Clinton) who we thought would keep delicate moderates from deserting us — and lost. Let us also remember that Hillary Clinton did not lose the election because her social views alienated moderates, but because her candidacy — particularly its cautiousness, tepid proposals, and coziness with establishment forces — generated an enthusiasm gap that depressed turnout among left-leaning voters: In an election lost by some 77,000 votes in three states, more than four million Obama voters stayed home in 2016, disproportionately young, minority, and low-income Americans — that is, those most likely to care about inequality.
Elizabeth Warren understands that Democrats must not internalize conservative thinking about how we pursue our principles and goals. One thing we can borrow from conservatives, however, is a famous dictum which I’ll liberally paraphrase: Audacity in the pursuit of justice is no vice, and moderation in defense of equality is no virtue.