Warren’s Marriage Equality Joke Was Brilliant. The Handwringing Over It Is Not.

The irony of Tom Nichols having written a book decrying “The Death of Expertise” is that he maintains a large platform to wrongly opine on matters about which he has no relevant expertise. But it’s not just Nichols: there is an entire network of commentators who continue to hold vaunted positions on editorial pages while advocating for debunked and discarded conventional wisdoms about politics in the 21st century.

The latest and more prominent example is the handwringing over Elizabeth Warren’s joke at a recent LGBTQ+ forum in Southern California:

During the CNN forum on LGBT issues on Thursday, Morgan Cox, the chair of the Human Rights Campaign board of directors, asked Warren how she would react to a supporter who said: “I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

Warren replied: “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that…Assuming you can find one.”

The moment went viral almost instantly. Warren’s comedic timing was worthy of a stage professional, the zinger landing in a way that a transcript cannot do justice to. Like any good joke of its type, it went to a deeper truth that most “serious” people decline to discuss openly in polite society: that increasingly old-fashioned culturally conservative politics is speaking to the sort of man who rants angrily about women from basement webcams and selfie rants in SUVs, not to the well-adjusted man with healthy relationships. It was also deeply satisfying and validating not just for LGBTQ people across the country, but to all those who spent decades being maligned and marginalized in America as perverts and freaks outside the American mainstream. Marriage equality is the mainstream today, and those who continue to deny the fundamental rights of gay and gender-non-conforming people are not only out of step with the nation’s politics and culture, but increasingly at risk of damaging their own personal relationships with decent people.

But almost as soon as the plaudits began, so too did the handwringing. A Washington Post piece called the celebrants of the moment “glitterati” while grousing that it could validate conservative concerns about her being “condescending and dismissive.”

Longtime Republican Tom Nichols then weighed in at USA Today, preposterously asking the rhetorical question “Do we still agree on beating Trump? After your LGBTQ forum, I’m not sure.” He adds: “Republican culture warriors are lying in wait. Why let them divide us where we already agree?” and insists that Democrats are trying to lose the election for even holding an LGBTQ forum in the first place.

Not to be outdone, centrist columnist Michael Cohen tweeted that “Warren’s SSM quip made me chuckle but it came with a political downside.” Really?

To put it bluntly, there is no actual evidence for this nervous caterwauling that any person of real political expertise should listen to.

Marriage equality is now incredibly popular. One of the most recent polls on the subject showed 67% approval and only 28% disapproval. There are very few issues on which the public takes the conservative position over the liberal one by such lopsided margins, and in those rare cases there would not be even one public commentator stating with a straight face that a Republican political candidate should avoid marginalizing the few who disagree.

Second, is there anyone who believes that the sort of cultural conservative who actively holds a microminority 28% public opinion on a culture war matter isn’t already maximally engaged on behalf of Trump and Republicans in general? Evangelical Christians are Trump’s hardcore base, the ones who come to his rallies and stick with him no matter what. They come out to vote in fair weather and foul, a big reason why they continue to exercise outsize political power despite their shrinking numbers. They are already as motivated as they possibly can be or ever will be. Donald Trump is their Flight 93 president, their final savior from the politically correct heathens on the road to what they hilariously see as the perdition of Western Judeo-Christian civilization. A jab from Elizabeth Warren is a tiny lava drop in the fiery ocean of their collective hatreds and resentments.

The last thing Democrats should be concerned about is the snowflake-like fragility of straight-white-male-evangelical egos. Rather, it is essential to marginalize their version of toxic Christianity from mainline faith groups, and work to normalize a healthier, less hateful form of masculinity to which disaffected young men can aspire. This can take the form of high-minded lofty speeches about hope and tolerance, but a good pointed joke at the expense of bigots can also work wonders as both to affirm those who have long faced discrimination, as well as to de-center those who would continue to oppress them given the chance.

But it’s not just the bigots who need marginalization. The handwringers who continue to obsess over not riling them up, as if they still made up the contours of a conservative Silent Majority that simply no longer exists, should also be ignored and set aside in favor of those who understand the dynamics of America in the year 2020.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.