Public opinion on same-sex marriage
posted by Sonja Starr
Thanks again to Danielle and Dan for inviting me to blog here this month. I didn’t expect, when I started this guest-blogging stint, that same-sex marriage would be a primary focus of my posts–it’s something I care about as a citizen, but not one of my academic research fields. But my posts have been largely driven by events, and it seems clear that April 2009 will be looked back upon as a turning point in this civil rights movement. The month started with major developments in Iowa, Vermont, and DC, and today it ends with what strikes me as even bigger news: the Washington Post and ABC News released what I think is the first nationwide poll showing that more respondents support same-sex marriage than oppose it. The split (49% to 46%) is within the poll’s margin of error, but even so, it represents a pretty dramatic shift–less than three years ago, the same poll split 58% opposed and 36% in favor.
The Post article treats this as being largely a story about demographics, and of course that is part of the explanation: young people are much more likely to support marriage equality than older people. But the composition of the population hasn’t changed fast enough to explain shifts of this magnitude in a few years–it’s also got to be that a lot of people, young and old, have changed their minds. As I suggested in an earlier post, court decisions might have contributed to that change–by direct persuasion, by starting a statewide or nationwide conversation that gets people to question traditions, or simply by allowing gay and lesbian couples to begin to marry (which could shape public opinion as people realize that fears about the effects on marriage as a social institution have not panned out).
In any event, whatever the role of courts in bringing about this cultural shift, now that it’s happening, it suggests that the courts will probably play a less central role in pushing the movement toward marriage equality forward in the future. This is increasingly becoming a battle that marriage equality advocates can win in legislatures and at the ballot box. As the poll numbers shift, we’re likely to see increased support for same-sex marriage from politicians who might have been reluctant to take that stand previously. (I suspect this will eventually include President Obama.) That support may be led by Democrats, but it will cross party lines. Of course, this cultural shift is far from being complete, as California voters demonstrated a few months ago. There are still a substantial number of energetic opponents (like the National Organization for Marriage, which I’ve noticed seems to have dropped its priceless “2M4M” slogan). But the road ahead may not be that long. Check out statistician Nate Silver’s state-by-state projections–a few weeks ago, he predicted that every state will have majority support for marriage equality by 2024. Silver also projected that marriage equality would achieve majority support nationwide by “sometime in the 2010s”–so if the Post/ABC News poll is correct, Silver’s projections may have been on the conservative side.
Increasing public support matters, and not just because it is likely to affect the ultimate state of the law–I suspect that given a choice between achieving marriage equality through the courts and achieving it through the democratic process in the same timeframe, just about every equality advocate would prefer the latter (even if the court decisions couldn’t be overturned by referendum). That’s because the battle over same-sex marriage is ultimately one about social meaning–it’s about the expressive power of the law. Sure, it’s about the various legal benefits attached to marriage too, but if that were all it was about, then both sides of the struggle would treat civil unions as being interchangeable with marriage, and they don’t. The recognition of committed same-sex unions as marriages is a social statement that such unions, and the men and women in them, are worthy of respect rather than stigma. So if the ultimate goal is to foster inclusive social norms, then changing public opinion isn’t just a sign that the movement may achieve its goals–in an important sense, changing public opinion is the central goal. Court decisions, in contrast, can only ever be a step along the way.