Culture, Politics, and Majoritarianism

Adam Nagourney has a smart piece in the NYT taking a wider-lens look at the issue of gay rights groups’ disappointment with what’s been achieved politically thus far. Nagourney notes that over the past ten years the broader American culture has become wildly more tolerant of gays and lesbians, but even with a new progressive administration in place the policy arena remains fairly unfriendly:

Yet if the culture is moving on, national politics is not, or at least not as rapidly. Mr. Obama has yet to fulfill a campaign promise to repeal the policy barring openly gay people from serving in the military. The prospects that Congress will ever send him a bill overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, appear dim. An effort to extend hate-crime legislation to include gay victims has produced a bitter backlash in some quarters: Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, sent a letter to clerics in his state arguing that it would be destructive to “faith, families and freedom.”

“America is changing more quickly than the government,” said Linda Ketner, a gay Democrat from South Carolina who came within four percentage points of winning a Congressional seat in November. “They are lagging behind the crowd. But if I remember my poli sci from college, isn’t that the way it always works?”

The underlying dynamic here illustrates why it’s always been a mistake to try to draw a contrast between gay rights groups’ efforts to secure equality through the courts and to secure equality through the political process. The fact of the matter is that the political process simply isn’t very friendly to minority rights claims even when the claims themselves are reasonably popular. Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has become a majoritarian position, but the Obama administration would still prefer to avoid the headaches involved in working to repeal it. At the same time, if a court case were to order the administration to end this policy, it’s abundantly clear that there would be no critical mass of political support for trying to put it back in place.

Either way, the basic fact of the matter is that the political system is biased toward doing nothing. The mere fact that a majority is prepared to support claims of equality doesn’t mean that political leaders want to expend time and energy making our clunky legislative mechanics produce laws reflecting that fact. Under the circumstances, people with just claims to make on their own behalf are wise to pursue those claims through all available avenues including the judiciary.