Gay Rights and Our New Libertarian Normal

Last night signaled a monumental victory for gay rights. Same-sex marriage laws were passed by ballot referenda in Washington, Maryland and Maine –with Minnesota voting to block a potential gay marriage ban. Few predicted this result; E.J. Graff thought “one, maybe two” of the four would tilt they way they did.

There are several factors that help explain last night. First, most obviously, a generational shift has tipped public support for same-sex marriage over fifty percent in the past few months. Second, the country growing increasingly secular. What’s more, religious, non-evangelical voters aren’t necessarily likely to express their faith in conservative terms. Despite his supposed thwarting of their religious liberties, Obama won over Catholics 50-48, signaling that the ultra-conservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who determine much church policy, and the Wall Street Journal columnists who back them, are out of touch with average Catholic voters. Finally, the Christian right’s influence in grassroots organizing, already diminished in the 2000s, was fully eclipsed in the past four years by groups like The Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, which aim almost entirely to reduce taxes, spending, and regulation.

But this last point hints at a broader, possibly more significant reason for the gay marriage boomlet: Americans are more libertarian than ever. For two decades, CNN has asked voters about the role government should play, on both social and economic issues. In June, 2011, the poll registered more libertarian sentiment than ever before. From Nate Silver’s summary:

Some 63 percent of respondents said government was doing too much — up from 61 percent in 2010 and 52 percent in 2008 — while 50 percent said government should not favor any particular set of values, up from 44 percent in 2010 and 41 percent in 2008. (It was the first time that answer won a plurality in CNN’s poll.)

Yesterday’s other ballot initiatives largely bear this out. Marijuana possession and use was legalized for the first time, in Washington and Colorado. Massachusetts and Montana also legalized medical marijuana dispensaries, and Arkansas* nearly did too (51-49).

On the right side of the libertarian spectrum, Oklahoma banned affirmative action of any kind. Michigan, so reliant upon its auto workers, voted down a constitutional amendment that would have enshrined the right to collective bargaining, along with one to adopt new energy standards. Florida struck down three new potential taxes, and New Hampshire voted to codify an income tax ban into its state constitution, though its 57% margin wasn’t enough to do it. Three states passed anti-Obamacare referenda, while another, Missouri, voted to refuse to implement the healthcare exchanges that the law provides. Other measures to increase taxes and public pensions failed, in Arkansas and Illinois, respectively. The list goes on.

To be sure, all 174 of yesterday’s ballot referenda didn’t yield libertarian outcomes. California, for instance, voted for tax hikes to pay for higher education, and failed to repeal the death penalty. But broadly, this year’s referenda are of a part with the libertarian trend. And when examines the grassroots political movements on either side of the political spectrum, it makes sense that the voters are increasingly mistrustful of government. The Tea Party, despite its fair share of Richard Mourdocks, is a party predicated upon diminishing the size of government, not restoring evangelical values. Occupy Wall Street, for all its antipathy towards rapacious capitalism, didn’t have many ideas about how government was meant to solve its problems. For the most part, it railed against the “one percent’, and the bank bailout, even drawing its fair share of Ron Paulians to rallies. And anti-war sentiment has been strong on both poles.

What does this mean for liberalism? Short of habitual union-led efforts against deregulation and the curtailing of collective bargaining, the general public, and even mainstream Democrats, are not heavily invested in traditional protectionist, big-government policies. (Obama education policy for instance, relies on free market principles, rather than guarantees, to disburse its government grants.) For better and for worse, then, we should go ahead and get used to being left on our own.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.