The Beginning Of The End Of Social Conservatism?
The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a sign that the political ground is shifting. Will the GOP take notice?
The one surprise yes vote on the bill to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was North Carolina’s Richard Burr, a conservative Republican who has been considered a social conservative and gave no indication up until the vote that he was thinking of voting in favor of repeal. Burr’s statement explaining his vote is interesting:
“Given the generational transition that has taken place in our nation, I feel that this policy is outdated and repeal is inevitable. However, I remain convinced that the timing of this change is wrong, and making such a shift in policy at a time when we have troops deployed in active combat areas does not take into consideration the seriousness of the situation on the ground.
“But, the vote this morning to invoke cloture on this bill indicated that the broader Senate was prepared to move forward with a change, and despite my concerns over timing, my conclusion is that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is the right thing to do.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the repeal of DADT is the extent to which it truly does, as Burr says, serve as evidence of a generational change in the country and in the military regarding homosexuals. Seventeen years ago, President Clinton faced a massive political firestorm for trying to do what the Senate accomplished today and ended up agreeing to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy as a compromise with the intend of actually making the lives of gay and lesbian service members easier than it had been in the past. As it turned out, implementation of the policy ended up treating them unfairly anyway, but at the time it was still considered a step forward and about the best that could be accomplished given the political climate at the time.
Look where we are seventeen years later. Not only has the compromise been repealed, but the long-standing ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military will soon be tossed into the dustbin of history, and it happened with the support of three-quarters of the American people. It reflects a change in attitude on a subject that, for many people, is very touchy, that’s really quite remarkable, and you see it in other ways as well. Same-sex marriage is now legal in five states and the District of Columbia, and three other states recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Civil unions for homosexuals are now the law of the land in ten states. And, there’s a lawsuit making it’s way through the Federal Court system that could end up striking down bans on same-sex marriage nationwide.
All of this was inconceivable seventeen years ago, and it raises the question of what this means for the future of social conservatism, or at least for the importance of so-called “social issues” in American politics. Social issues played almost no role in the 2010 midterms, for example, and their role in the 2008 elections was minimal at best. This is a dramatic shift from the early 80s when abortion played a huge role in election campaigns around the country, especially when the Supreme Court issued one of its many rulings from that era testing the limits of the holding in Roe v. Wade. In the 2004 election, referendums to ban same-sex marriage helped bring socially conservative voters to the polls in 2004 and arguably helped George W. Bush defeat John Kerry in states like Ohio. Today, except in limited Congressional districts, it’s hard to conceive that a similar campaign strategy would work. Voters are focused on the economy, and on the size and scope of government, appeals to divisive social issues just aren’t working the same way they used to.
Burr hits the nail on the head in his statement when he refers to generational change. Poll after poll shows a clear generational divide when it comes to issues like same-sex marriage and gay rights. As the younger generation of voters become more politically active, the debate is shifting on those issues to the point where, in twenty years or less, people will likely be amazed that we wasted so much time and money fighting over an issue like who a person should be allowed to enter a committed relationship with.
There’s a lesson in Burr’s vote for the GOP as a whole. Opposition to issues like same-sex marriage and concentration on issues that appeal only to a tiny part of the base may pay political dividends right now, but in the not-too-distant future, it’s likely to turn off an entire generation of voters.